Written by By Gary Cohen, Executive VP of BD and Founder, Together for Girls, By Jim Mercy, Special Advisor, Division of Violence Prevention, CDC and Prevention, By Michele Moloney-Kitts, Director, Together for Girls and Special Advisor to the Executive Director of UNAIDS, and By Susan Bissell, Chief of Child Protection, Programme Division, UNICEF


Zawadi (not her real name), a young girl from the Hai District of Tanzania, was 12 when her stepfather began sexually abusing her after her mother’s death. Her teacher became suspicious and eventually took Zawadi to the police station’s Gender and Children Desk to report the crime, where she was linked up with a social welfare officer and placed in the care of a foster parent.

“The district social welfare officer was heavily involved and supportive throughout the case,” says Zawadi’s foster mother, who praises the justice system’s response. “I accompanied her to court, and her testimony was supported by the magistrate. The police were also in regular contact about the court date.”

Zawadi’s perpetrator is now serving a 30-year prison sentence.

While this is the outcome one would hope for in a case of child sexual abuse, a few years ago, Zawadi probably would not have been noticed or listened to if she reported the crime. The police would not have known what to do except to send her back home.

Instead, Zawadi benefitted from a new child protection system established by the Tanzanian government. Leaders in her community — including police, social welfare officers, teachers, magistrates, health workers, faith-based leaders and other volunteers — are now trained to work together to respond to violence against children and women.

Tanzania is rolling out child protection teams, in response to the results of the country’s 2011 Violence Against Children Survey. The report found that nearly three out of every 10 girls and more than one in every 10 boys experienced sexual violence prior to age 18 and about three-fourths of all children experienced physical violence.

Sadly, Zawadi’s situation and that of many girls and boys is not unique, and the prevalence of abuse in Tanzania is similar to other countries. Up to one billion children worldwide are exposed to some form of violence every year, and the consequences of this epidemic impact our ability to achieve at least six of the eight Millennium Development Goals.

Children exposed to violence, in any of its forms, are more likely to suffer from a range of mental, physical health and social problems throughout their lives than their un-abused peers. Exposure to violence can actually affect brain development in some children. Girls who experience sexual violence are three times more likely to have an unintended pregnancy, which is especially troubling because pregnant girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth. Girls who experience sexual violence are also at increased risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. In addition, boys who are sexually abused are also at greater risk to be victims or perpetrators as adults, which creates and reinforces a vicious cycle of violence and abuse that has an impact across generations.

Violence can be prevented, however, and the good news is that many countries are now mobilizing to address violence against children. In Tanzania and eight other countries, comprehensive response and prevention efforts are taking shape through a global public-private partnership called Together for Girls. The partnership brings together five United Nations agencies led by UNICEF, the U.S. government, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and the United States Agency for International Development, and the private sector, to support national governments and civil society in ending violence against children, particularly sexual violence against girls.

Through the Together for Girls partnership, countries are conducting national-level Violence Against Children Surveys to measure the nature and magnitude of sexual, physical and emotional violence against children. The government-led process to undertake the survey engages strong multi-sector leadership from the outset. That leadership then utilizes the data from the surveys to drive a national response that includes legal and policy reform, and empowers government agencies and communities to both prevent violence and improve services for children who have experienced it.

To date, Together for Girls is working with the governments of Swaziland, Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malawi, and Nigeria on the Violence Against Children Surveys and is in planning stages with many more. The data provide a rich and detailed picture of not only the prevalence of violence but also the circumstances surrounding it and some of the long-term consequences. They also paint a deeply disturbing picture of the cruelties that children suffer throughout the world, most often at the hands of people they know such as parents, relatives, neighbours, teachers, friends, and dating partners — the very people that should be keeping them safe. Violence occurs in homes, in schools, and in the streets, and the contexts for this violence range from war to dating to parenting. All of these experiences of violence have deep and lasting effects on the health and well-being of girls and boys, often over their entire lifetimes.

Galvanized by the data, Tanzania’s government is leading the way in its response and engaging every sector. While still in the early stages of implementing its action plan in pilot districts, Tanzania has already made great progress by establishing children and gender desks at police stations, creating ethical codes of conduct for teachers, hiring additional social workers, police officers, justices, and health officers, and providing community trainings to local volunteers. In addition, children are also being taught about their rights through school clubs, which is crucial to breaking the silence and creating change.

From the highly-publicized incidences of violence in India and Kenya to Morocco and the U.S., the world is waking up to this brutal reality. Issues such as child marriage and female genital mutilation are constantly in the headlines. Because of this media coverage, violence against children is becoming more visible and more difficult to ignore.

Violence against children is an egregious violation of human rights with significant trauma to the individual. It also has a far-reaching negative impact on society at-large, with a wide range of public health, social, and financial effects that impair long-term development objectives. By working together to better understand the fundamental sources and drivers of this violence, and helping governments and civil society to mobilize to address it, we are protecting and nurturing the well-being of the world’s most precious and vulnerable resource – our children. GHD

Disclaimer: The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF.