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Poverty and violations of children’s right to protection in low- and middle-income countries

A review of the evidence

Why do up to 1.5 billion children suffer physical violence every year? Why do up to 2251 million children suffer sexual violence every year? Why are 14.2 million girls every year married off to start adult lives in adolescence or before?2 Why are considerable numbers of young children left alone for long hours without competent adult supervision?

Historically, in studies of violence against children in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, explanations emphasised the role of individual psychological factors. The pendulum swung in the1960s to highlight structural forces contributing to the abuse and neglect of children, in particular poverty and unemployment. In more recent years, understanding of the factors underlying violations of children’s right to protection has drawn on an ecological model that emphasises factors at several levels: individual, family, household, community and broader society (Frederick and Goddard, 2007). The international child protection community generally sees three broad sets of factors as underlying many child protection violations: sociocultural norms, weak protective structures and poverty or deprivation. However, within this community there are divergences of opinion concerning the extent to which poverty is a significant underlying or risk factor.

Interviews with child protection and poverty specialists and an electronic survey conducted for this research programme revealed a notable split. The majority considered poverty an important and often-neglected factor underpinning many child protection violations, but a significant number of respondents highlighted the fact that abuse, exploitation and neglect of children occurs across all socioeconomic groups, and thus felt economic deprivation played a more minor role. Perspectives varied considerably across different types of violation, with most respondents feeling that economic deprivation was a critical factor in early marriage, inadequate care and sexual exploitation, but relatively fewer convinced it was an important factor underpinning corporal punishment or sexual abuse. The electronic survey, like the majority of the literature examined for this review, focuses on children’s vulnerability to protection violations, not whether poverty increases the risk of perpetrating abuse.