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Violence against children is a complex problem that requires a holistic solution. In this article, Uganda-based Raising Voices explains the different elements that are needed to add up to sustainable change.

Imagine this as your reality: virtually all your friends say that the adults who are supposed to protect them humiliate them, shout at them, and do not prioritise their needs. Imagine that a third of your friends experience a beating at least once a week, and two thirds of your friends at school say that they are beaten frequently. One in five of the girls you know tells you that her first experience of sex was coerced, and three-quarters of the girls tell you that they have experienced some form of sexual violence, ranging from assault and harassment to uninvited touching. What’s more, one in eight of the boys you know says that he too has experienced some form of sexual violence.

Imagine this further: that even though all this is ‘known’, no one talks about it. You are certainly not allowed to challenge the adults, and there is nothing much you can do: there is nowhere you can go to report your complaint and, if you did, nobody would take your grievances seriously. You feel rage and a profound sense of injustice, and you have no outlet for these feelings. If you are in an earlier stage of your childhood, you do not even have the ability to articulate what you are feeling, and you learn that this is just how things are. You accept that when there is nothing you can do, it is better to focus your energy on surviving instead of fighting back. So you begin a lifelong journey of editing your feelings, your sense of outrage, and learn to be compliant. In important ways you learn that you can’t truly express how you feel, and what you think, because that would not be an acceptable way of behaving. Does this sound like an excessively bleak picture? That is how 1400 children we talked with described their childhood (Naker, 2005). Admittedly, it is not the whole picture. Many children do overcome the disadvantages of such a childhood and manifest joy and laughter in their lives. They do learn to cope with this reality and, despite its burdens, thrive and achieve and even succeed. But many don’t cope, and none should have to.

Almost every child we talked with said there was too much violence in their life and they wanted something to be done urgently. With foresight and wisdom way beyond their age, many of them asked, ‘If we spend our childhood in anger, being humiliated, ignored and marginalised, what kind of a future will we create?’ Such clarity creates an imperative to act and, understandably, many agencies develop an emergency response. However, as a result of years of experience, we have learned that good intentions alone are not enough. We need to think hard and interrogate our approaches before pouring resources into them. We have to resist appeasing our conscience in the short term, and think harder about what will work in the longer term.

At Raising Voices, as a result of these conversations with children and a similar number of adults, we engaged in searching for approaches that might work in the longer term. The following is a brief summary of what guided our thinking and ultimately what we emerged with as a framework for a way forward.

Listening to children: what do children think of violence against them? Our first insight came from children who educated us about what violence against children means to them. With examples and emphasis, they described their feelings about violence in interpersonal relationships not as an act, but as the context of a relationship. The violence lived in the tone of the relationship, and thrived in the structure of relationships designed to keep children intimidated and passive in the presence of an adult. ‘It was not about how hard he slapped me, or how loud he shouted, but about feeling a knot in my stomach every time he was in the room, or even when I thought about him,’ one girl declared. The fundamental character of the relationship was a lack of accountability and that the adult could do whatever they liked and there was nothing the child could do about it. Cutting through the morass, children instinctively homed in on what we all look for in interpersonal relationships: respect, justice and perhaps a bit of warmth. Lack of those things, they understood without having the words to name it as such, was the root of all subsequent acts of violence against them.

Secondly, children cautioned against caricaturing their parents or teachers as one-dimensional perpetrators of violence. These same adults were also providers and educators and a source of love and protection, especially for the very young children. They needed these adults in their lives and did not want a wedge to be driven between them. That is why, for example, they were not looking for punitive interventions. They simply asked for a credible agency to broker a dialogue that would shift this most important set of relationships in their lives to something more equitable and rewarding.

Thirdly, they sought a broad-based intervention, not just one centred on the immediate offender. One 17 year old said, ‘Don’t just talk with my father or the teacher but talk to everyone who talks to my father and my teacher. Talk with the school and also the local leaders. Talk to our neighbours and their friends and my friends too. Don’t forget that children are living through this and so they have important things to say about what should happen.’1 Fourthly, they asked us to think beyond the rhetoric. ‘We need places and people we can go to when things go wrong. We need someone who will listen. Someone who will understand and be willing to see my side even if that means speaking out against a grown up,’ said one child. ‘Better still, we need adults who are different and show other adults what it’s like to be differently with children,’ interjected another.

There were many other nuanced things that children told us about what it was like to live in a violent childhood. We have spent the better part of the past 5 years responding to these issues and creating practical and long-term interventions that broker a dialogue, create capacity to engage at a local level, and develop infrastructure for this alternative model of adult–child relationship to take root in Uganda. The following are some reflections that emerged during that process.

What needs to happen to prevent violence against children? It has become clear that violence against children is a complex problem with deep roots in social norms and the power dynamics of interpersonal relations. The problem is compounded by acculturation over generations and therefore requires a holistic response. Achieving social transformation around such an issue calls for calibrated interventions that are rooted in analysis, and action at all levels of the community’s social ecology. This transformation involves working through four interdependent and synergistic drivers of change.

Creating a national dialogue about how we relate with children In view of children’s insistence that interpersonal violence is contextual, and not merely an event or an act, our core focus must be on the nature of the relationships between adults and children. This may sound like a daunting enterprise given the intimate nature of such relationships, but if we recognise that individuals are part of a social ecosystem and that their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours are deeply influenced by their social environment, then we begin to see opportunities for fostering a dialogue without being intrusive. In the Ugandan context, and presumably elsewhere too, given that the social ecosystem is in a state of flux, with values, identities and even ‘culture’ evolving rapidly due to a wide range of forces, these interpersonal relationships are increasingly organic and contextual. Therein lies a profound opportunity to transform the experience of childhood, particularly in relation to younger children, where adults may be more open to exploring their competencies and preconceived notions of what parenthood means.

However, this opportunity is contingent upon creating a dialogue that is incubated with some degree of expertise. As a facilitator of this dialogue, it is important to bear in mind that change is a process. Individuals need to hear an idea from multiple trusted sources. They need time to assimilate its import, to experiment with its implications, and finally they require support to integrate the idea into their behaviour. Thus the dialogue needs a sound theory of change underpinning its execution and guiding the sequencing of innovations. This will ensure that individuals are not being asked to change their behaviour when they are still exploring the validity of the idea, or that investments are focused on creating a supportive infrastructure when individuals are experimenting with new ways of behaving. If executed with humility, responsiveness and fine-tuning of innovations along the way, this strategy will have benefits at multiple levels and potential implications in areas as diverse as child development and survival, as well as educational, health and social outcomes. Generating momentum Once new ideas have started to gain a foothold, it is important to engage in a wide range of activities that generate a larger-scale alignment with the goal of creating violence-free childhoods. This involves developing and strengthening capacity to build the bridge between the rhetoric of the innovation and the behaviour of individuals who are grappling with those new ideas. Investment in processes such as discussions, public forums, community-based committees and protagonists, learning centres and peer learning networks that animate these ideas can serve to fertilise the overall dialogue and promote wider receptivity. There may also be opportunities to influence early childhood experience by working through health systems, and later childhood experiences through schools, both of which are accessed regularly during these years. Generating momentum involves reaching out to key ‘gatekeepers’ within the community to nurture legitimacy. Persuading existing decision makers at various levels of the community that the innovation is mutually beneficial will align their support behind the issue. For example, there may be opportunities to engage healthcare providers by integrating new ideas about violence-free childhood into existing campaigns focusing on child survival during the early years, or on mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Teachers too could be engaged by linking the quality of education with the prevention of violence against children.

Endorsements from influential personalities such as a healthcare provider, a popular musician or a respected local leader can add weight to a strategy. If schools see the benefit to educational outcomes, if religious institutions see the potential for social cohesion, and if local government officials see their areas of governance benefiting from the outcomes, the social capital necessary may be generated to tip the balance in favour of the new ideas, allowing them to flourish.

Practical action Ideas and inspiration create the motivation for change but are not sufficient to bring it about. Enough individuals with influence in their community need to act for the ‘tipping point’ to be reached. It is therefore crucial that inspiration is not allowed to evaporate because of an absence of practical imagination. Practical ideas for how action can be taken must be readily available at this stage of the process. Thus credible, context-specific, creative methodologies for action must be invented, documented and disseminated to frontline actors. For example, what kind of school could nurture a different kind of relationship between students and teachers? How can it be created? What are the steps involved, and who will take the action? Practical imagination is perhaps the most critical part of the overall enterprise. If individuals do not have the support to convert their beliefs and ideas into practical day-today actions, then they will soon fall back into old ways of behaving.

Sustaining change The final element in the enterprise requires investment in ensuring that achievements are consolidated to avoid regression. This involves taking a longer-term view of social change and looking beyond quick pay-offs. What legislative and policy framework is in place and how will it affect resource investment at the national and regional levels? It requires analysis of all childspecific legislation such as social or education policies or annual budgets, ensuring that the broad mandate of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is integrated within their provisions. Currently this is an area that generates much debate. Many organisations invest in ‘advocacy work’ without doing the meticulous preparatory work that could make the policy reform or implementation meaningful. Uganda, for example, is awash with policy provisions that never affect the day-to-day lives of children. Inevitably, such a disjuncture breeds cynicism, mistrust and – most importantly – a loss of belief that the laws and policies of the land can have any significant effect on the lives of its citizens. It is also easy to lose faith in agencies that purport to advocate on behalf of children, but are not perceived to produce any results.

Clearly, such an erosion of faith in the laws and policies of the land is harmful. Even if they are ineffective, laws and policies provide a moral and legal basis for making claims. They create an opportunity to challenge duty-bearers and make demands for action. It is therefore important that those who seek meaningful transformation invest imaginative energy into going beyond policy development, and venture further into how such provisions can be realised in the lives of individuals. Exploratory strategies such as strategic litigation, popularising policy provisions, dramatising implications and insisting on local mechanisms for upholding the policy may mitigate some of the cynicism that is currently undermining the faith individuals have in this approach.

A final word. Sustaining change requires nurturing an accessible ‘change infrastructure’ consisting of institutions, values, capacities and practices that promote justice on an ongoing basis. It means working with local leaders to ensure that community-based response mechanisms are in place and accessible to children who experience violence. It involves working with schools to ensure that they have policies in place to deal with school-based violence against children. It involves working with parents and neighbours to reconceptualise childhood in a positive light. When this work is done well, it changes the operational paradigm irreversibly.

In summary, a complex problem such as violence against children needs a holistic response. It requires the integration of approaches that work at multiple layers of the social ecology. It requires foresight to imagine what is currently not visible, discipline to resist ‘quick fixes’, and resilience to persist way beyond project and funding cycles. This may seem like a daunting prospect for any agency considering how to invest its resources in preventing violence against children. It may even be unrealistic to expect a single agency to ensure that all the pieces are in place. However, if such thinking informs our analysis, it can enable us to position ourselves wisely within the overall enterprise. It can enable us to ask relevant questions and collaborate strategically with others doing different pieces of the work. It may enable us to make an informed judgement about how likely our investment is to yield the meaningful outcomes we all seek. Imagine this as our reality 30 years from now: we have transformed the social norms that perpetuate violence against children. We have built the change infrastructure necessary for the experience of childhood to be accessible to a large number of children worldwide. We are beginning to see the first cohort of children emerging into adulthood with their sense of self not limited by the threat of interpersonal violence, and their vision for the future coloured with possibilities. What kind of world might they end up creating? What might they think of the legacy we have created for them? What value might you put on such an inheritance for succeeding generations?


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* Dipak Naker is Co-Director, Raising Voices, Kampala, Uganda.
* This article was originally published in Bernard van Leer Foundation Early childhood matters, June 2011 Issue 116, Hidden violence: protecting young children at home.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


1. For discussion of how children participated in this research, see ‘From rhetoric to practice: bridging the gap between what we believe and what we do’ (Naker, 2007).


Naker, D. (2005). Violence Against Children: The voices of Ugandan children and adults. Kampala, Raising Voices/Save the Children. Available here.

Naker, D. (2007). From rhetoric to practice: bridging the gap between what we believe and what we do. Children, Youth and Environments 17(3): 146–158. Available here.