Violence and children’s lives in the UK

A UN study of violence against children looked at the experience of more than 175 children, aged 10-17 around the world. Academic Anna Gupta assesses the findings

“You feel like you are nothing”: UN study on violence against children
Authors: Serena deCordova, Rachel Hodgkin, Louise King and Sharon Rustemier
Institution: Study undertaken by the NSPCC and Children’s Rights Alliance for England (Crae)

This study was undertaken as part of a United Nations project exploring violence against children on a global basis. It defines a child as being anyone under the age of 18 and adopts the definition of violence as outlined in Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes physical, emotional and sexual abuse and exploitation. The study examines violence towards children in different settings and includes the views and direct accounts of children and young people.

Children’s experiences of violence in the home, in substitute care, at school, on the streets and within the criminal justice system are explored. In addition, harmful practices perpetrated in the name of tradition or culture, such as female genital mutilation and forced marriage are considered, as well as the experiences of children who are trafficked to the UK, incarcerated due to their immigration status, or in the armed forces. The study makes more than 60 recommendations for the prevention or reduction of violence against children. Most of the proposals are aimed at government, but also include recommendations for local authority policy and practice.

The authors of this study have reviewed official statistical data, as well as relevant research to explore the prevalence and analyse different forms of violence experienced by children in the UK. The study also considers what children say about their experiences of violence. In addition to drawing upon children’s views in existing research literature, the study also engaged with children for the purposes of this report.

More than 175 children and young people aged 10-17 years from diverse backgrounds participated in a series of workshops aimed at eliciting their views on violence in their lives. In addition a questionnaire devised by the core group of children and young people was distributed and 154 responses received. Other sources of information from children and young people on their experiences and views about violence included video interviews by children of other children, testimonies in writing, and views expressed via an on-line poll through the NSPCC confidential helpline (

The discussions about the different contexts in which children experience violence are divided into three parts:

● What children experience.

● What children say.

● What needs to be done.

Issues in relation to particular children vulnerable because of the age, gender, race and disability or other characteristics are integrated throughout the report.

Findings and Analysis
The study provides a detailed and stark picture of how violence affects the lives of many children in the UK today. The authors estimate that in a city of 100,000 children (bigger than York, but smaller than Birmingham) one child under the age of 15 will be murdered each year, probably by a parent, and 240 children will be subject to a child protection plan as a result of maltreatment.

However, the official data on children does not reflect the reality of children’s lives: at least 38,000 of the 100,000 children would be hit, smacked or beaten by their parents. This figure includes about 3,500 children experiencing “severe” physical chastisement. Up to 11,000 of the city’s children will experience sexual abuse sometime during their childhood. However the majority will not speak of this abuse.

Many children and young people will also have to survive violence outside of their family home. The study suggests that in the course of a year nearly a quarter of the children aged 10-15 years in the city will experience a criminal assault, mostly by other young people. Some of the violence occurs in the streets and other open spaces, but schools can also be unsafe places for children.

Children from minority ethnic backgrounds, disabled children or those perceived to be gay are disproportionately more likely to be bullied at school. Children in substitute care may also be harmed.

The authors estimate that nine or 10 of the children in the city will be incarcerated, an experience that will inevitably result in emotional harm and may also expose them to possible physical assault and painful restraint.

There are also the children who may have been trafficked, exploited as a domestic servant, or forced into prostitution or marriage. Researchers could not estimate the numbers of these marginalised and often “invisible” children.

The authors make a wide ranging series of recommendations across the different contexts considered. In relation to violence in the home, the study recommends the legal prohibition of smacking in the UK, giving children the same legal protection as adults against assault. This proposed change in the law has also been recommended by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The report highlights the views of younger children who describe pain and shock resulting from smacking, and express their disapproval of this form of punishment. The authors stress that the aim of this legal reform is to change attitudes and behaviours not to punish parents and therefore should be accompanied by a sustained, high-profile public education campaign.

Provision of confidential advocacy and counselling services for children is also recommended. It is acknowledged that this type of service could be controversial and therefore needs to be subject to public consultation.

The authors suggest that protecting children from abuse in their home is hampered by the low status and negative public image of social workers. Attention to enhancing the status of social workers, as well as accessible compensation mechanisms for children to increase accountability for professionals is also recommended.

Sadly, children not living with their birth parents may also be subjected to violence and abuse, as one young person explains: “Some are in a children’s home because of abuse and force, and getting restrained is the same.” A number of recommendations are made about strengthening children’s rights to advocacy and the inspection of substitute care placements. These include looked after children and those in private foster homes having a legal right to a named and accessible social worker and all children having “exit” interviews after their placement has ended.

The young people involved in the study had much to say about violence in the streets, mainly from other young people and including very serious incidents. In terms of why children may become violent, the young people suggest a number of reasons, including peer pressure, stereotyping and labelling, as well as marginalisation and lack of respect from wider society.

The report recommends that local strategies pay particular attention to reducing young people’s violence against each other. In order to achieve better outcomes, consultation with young people to explore the nature and extent of the violence and possible solutions is required. Greater resources for youth leisure activities, as well as respecting young people and making them feel more valued by society is also suggested.

The report also proposes strengthening children’s rights and promoting supportive measures and services instead of punitive approaches to children involved in offending, sexual exploitation and those seeking asylum in the UK. The recommendations include all children under the age of 18 being exempt from commercial sexual exploitation offences and only incarcerating children who are a danger to others.

This takes a holistic view of children’s lives and makes an important contribution to our understanding of the extent and nature of the violence children experience in Britain today. The proposals are primarily aimed at government, but also provide child welfare organisations and professionals, with useful ideas and suggestions for reducing violence, improving the lives of children, and promoting the five outcomes of Every Child Matters. A vision of a more humane, respectful and non-violent society is presented and deserves priority attention.

Links and Resources

  • The study is available from the NSPCC

  • The United Nations Study (2006) Rights of the Child: report of the independent expert for the United Nations study on violence against children

    Anna Gupta, is senior lecturer at the department of health and social care, Royal Holloway, University of London

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