Skip to main content

A Familiar Face: Violence in the lives of children and adolescents

All children have the right to be protected from violence inflicted on them by anyone in their lives – whether parents, teachers, friends, romantic partners or strangers. And all forms of violence experienced by children, regardless of the nature or severity of the act, are harmful. Beyond the unnecessary hurt and pain it causes, violence undermines children’s sense of self-worth and hinders their development.

Yet violence against children is often rationalized as necessary or inevitable. It may be tacitly accepted due to the familiarity of perpetrators, or minimized as inconsequential. The memory or reporting of violence may be buried due to shame or fear of reprisal. Impunity of perpetrators and prolonged exposure may leave victims believing violence is normal. In such ways, violence is masked, making it difficult to prevent and end.

A Familiar Face: Violence in the lives of children and adolescents uses the most current data to shed light on four specific forms of violence: violent discipline and exposure to domestic abuse during early childhood; violence at school; violent deaths among adolescents; and sexual violence in childhood and adolescence.

The statistics reveal that children experience violence across all stages of childhood, in diverse settings, and often at the hands of the trusted individuals with whom they interact on a daily basis.

Ensuring that violence in all its forms is documented through solid data is a first step towards its elimination.


One need not look far to find violence in the lives of children.

A child’s first experience of human interaction typically occurs at home, in a positive, nurturing and loving context. However, home is also the place where a child’s first exposure to violence is likely to occur.

Three quarters of children aged 2 to 4 worldwide – close to 300 million – are regularly subjected to violent discipline (physical punishment and/or psychological aggression) by their parents or other caregivers at home, and around 6 in 10 (250 million) are subjected to physical punishment. Many children are also indirectly affected by violence in the home: Worldwide, 1 in 4 children (176 million) under the age of 5 live with a mother who has been a recent victim of intimate partner violence.

Violence also occurs in places where children are meant to learn and socialize. In 2016 alone, close to 500 attacks or threats of attacks on schools were documented or verified in 18 conflict-affected countries or areas. Children attending schools in countries that are not affected by conflict can also be at risk. Between November 1991 and December 2016, 59 school shootings that resulted in at least one reported fatality occurred in 14 countries across the world. Nearly 3 in 4 of these happened in the United States.

Children are at greatest risk of exposure to sexual violence within the context of close relationships. In the 28 countries with available data, 9 in 10 adolescent girls who have reported forced sex say it occurred for the first time at the hands of someone close or known to them, with current or former boyfriends, partners or husbands the most commonly reported perpetrators. Adolescent boys, too, face sexual abuse from those close to them: Friends, classmates and partners were among the most frequently cited perpetrators of the latest incident in 5 countries with comparable data (Cambodia, Haiti, Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria).


Violence often starts early.

According to data from 30 countries, nearly half of children aged 12 to 23 months are subjected to corporal punishment at home and a similar proportion are exposed to verbal abuse.

As children grow, they spend more time outside their homes and in online spaces. They begin to encounter and interact with more people, including peers and romantic partners. This widening of the social world, while beneficial in many respects, also creates situations in which children may be exposed to new forms of violence. Bullying is one example, experienced by close to 130 million students aged 13 to 15 worldwide.

Although girls and boys are at risk of sexual violence at any age, girls become particularly vulnerable after puberty. Worldwide, the most recent surveys indicate that 9 million girls aged 15 to 19 were forced into sexual intercourse or other sexual acts within the past year. In 20 countries with comparable data, nearly 9 in 10 adolescent girls who reported having experienced forced sex say this happened for the first time during adolescence.

Violent deaths also become more common in adolescence. In 2015 alone, there were around 119,000 violent deaths among children and adolescents below the age of 20; 2 in 3 victims were aged 10 to 19. Older adolescents, aged 15 to 19, are particularly vulnerable: They are three times more likely to die violently than younger adolescents aged 10 to 14.


Violence is both common and widespread – and no society is without some level of violence against its youngest members.

Data confirm that some types, such as violent discipline, affect children from rich and poor households alike. However, certain groups of children remain particularly vulnerable to other forms of abuse. Knowing relevant risk factors can help ensure that protective measures reach those who need them most. For some types of violence, exposure and risk have a geographical component. For example, nearly half of all adolescent homicides occur in Latin America and the Caribbean, although the region comprises slightly less than 10 per cent of the global adolescent population. The five countries with the highest homicide rates among adolescents aged 10 to 19, as of 2015, are all located in this region (the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Honduras, Colombia, El Salvador and Brazil).

Conflicts or civil insurrections kill more adolescents in the Middle East and North Africa than in all other regions combined. Only 6 per cent of the world’s adolescents live in this region, yet it accounts for more than 70 per cent of the adolescent deaths from collective violence.

The top five most deadly places for adolescent boys are countries in both regions – the Syrian Arab Republic, Iraq, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Colombia and El Salvador. For girls, the risk is highest in the Syrian Arab Republic, followed by Iraq, Afghanistan, Honduras and South Sudan. The data also point to some groups of adolescents being at greater risk of violent death based on individual characteristics, such as sex and race. The global homicide rate is four times higher among adolescent boys than girls. Perpetrators of homicide also reflect a distinctly gendered pattern: Males are much more likely to be killed by strangers. Almost half (47 per cent) of female homicide victims are killed by family members or intimate partners compared to about 6 per cent of males.

In the United States a non-Hispanic Black adolescent boy is nearly 19 times more likely to be killed by homicide than a non-Hispanic White adolescent boy. If the homicide rate among non-Hispanic Black adolescent boys was applied nationwide, the United States would be one of the top 10 most deadly countries in the world. In 2015, the risk of being killed by homicide for non-Hispanic Black adolescent boys in the United States was higher than the risk of dying due to collective violence for adolescent boys living in a number of conflict-affected countries.

While boys face a substantially higher risk of dying from violence, girls are generally more vulnerable to sexual victimization. However, the limited availability of data on boys related to sexual violence constrains our understanding of the risks they face.


Preventing violence against children requires a major shift in what societies regard as acceptable practices.

Worldwide, around 1.1 billion caregivers, or slightly more than 1 in 4, admit to believing in the necessity of physical punishment as a form of discipline. To date, only 60 countries have adopted legislation that fully prohibits the use of corporal punishment at home, leaving more than 600 million children under age 5 without full legal protection. This lack of legal prohibitions is a clear sign that violent discipline remains a largely unacknowledged form of violence against children.

While schools are entrusted with providing a safe environment for children to learn and thrive, laws prohibiting violence in educational settings remain scarce. Some 732 million school-age children, half the global population aged 6 to 17, live in countries where they are not legally protected from corporal punishment at school.

A key reason why violence against children remains hidden is the reluctance of many victims to disclose their abuse, seek help to cope with the experience or take action to protect themselves from further victimization. Findings from 30 countries confirm this, with only 1 per cent of girls who had experienced forced sex saying they had sought professional help. This reluctance on the part of victims to report incidents to authorities or other professionals poses a challenge to exposing the true extent and nature of violence against children.

Lack of data can hinder efforts to reveal the pervasive nature of violence. This in turn limits the effectiveness of initiatives to prevent it. While the past decade has seen a marked improvement in the availability of data on violence against children, certain types remain under-researched. In a notable example of this gap, just 40 countries have comparable statistics on sexual violence against girls, and only 7 have comparable data on sexual violence against boys.


The data and analysis presented in this report aim to influence the way we think and talk about the all-too-familiar faces of childhood violence. It is hoped that the findings will encourage governments, organizations and individuals everywhere to acknowledge the extent of violence against children and intensify their efforts to end it.

Signs of progress are evident. Whereas the Millennium Development Goals did not address violence directly, three targets in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015 speak to the issue of violence against children. Many additional targets integrated throughout the framework address related risk factors.

At the national level, an increasing number of countries have implemented coordinated national action plans to address violence against children, enforced legislation to protect victims, and promoted programmes aimed at changing societal beliefs and attitudes around violence. Protecting children against violence is a path towards more peaceful and inclusive societies, as called for by SDG 16. It will take individual and collective action to right this global wrong.