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Experts Say Exposure to Violence in Childhood Increases Risk of Violence in Adulthood

New studies show that being a victim of violence or witnessing violence against mothers increases the risk of experiencing or committing violent acts later in life

Washington, D.C., December 10, 2012 (PAHO/WHO) – A group of experts today presented the results of new research from different regions of the world--including Latin America and the Caribbean--showing that exposure to violence during childhood, whether as a direct victim of physical or sexual abuse or as a witness to violence against one’s own mother, increases the risk of experiencing or committing violent acts later in life.

 


“Violence against women and children are linked in many ways. However, with few exceptions, programs, policies, and research in these areas have taken separate, parallel paths,” explained Dr Mirta Roses, Director of the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), at the opening of the panel discussion “Breaking the cycle: understanding the links between violence against women and children,” held at PAHO/WHO Headquarters.

Too often, Dr. Roses said, programs designed for child victims of violence fail to consider the possibility that their mothers are also experiencing violence at home, and vice versa. “It is time to look at these issues as part of a whole and design strategies to prevent and respond to these different forms of violence in a comprehensive fashion,” she said.

Global estimates based on various surveys suggest that about 25 to 50% of men and women reported being physically abused as children and 20% of women and between 5 and 10% of men claim to have been sexually abused in childhood. 

Violence in childhood has far-reaching effects, including a broad range of health impacts such as injuries, developmental delays, behavioral disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, and other risk behaviors.

New research confirms that the relationship between violence in childhood and against women begins very early in life for some children. For example, intimate-partner violence against women during pregnancy is associated with a series of negative health outcomes for women and children alike. The research shows that in some countries up to 32% of pregnant women suffer physical violence, although in most countries 4 to 9% of women who have had pregnancies report being the victims of domestic violence during pregnancy.

Evolution, economics, culture and gender are linked and cannot be separated, commented Dr Neil Booth, U.S. Government Special Adviser and Senior Coordinator on Children in Adversity for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). It is critical to invest in gender and in children’s development from an early age, he said.

Boothby referred to the US Government Action Plan for Children in Adversity that seeks to reach the 30% of children who have a cognitive impairment before age 5, and also their families, to prevent separation due to poverty or war and also to prevent violence and exploitation in childhood.

Jacquelyn Campbell from the School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University said that when women suffer from violence their children are often present and the neurochemical impression on the children can be toxic for their development.

According to Campbell, power dynamics, racism, and machismo should be examined along with punishments that play a role in the acceptance of violence. Greater intersectoral synergy and the participation of men and boys are needed to change attitudes towards violence against women, she said.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, data from a new comparative analysis of population surveys in 12 countries undertaken by PAHO/WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the proportion of married or cohabiting women reporting physical or sexual abuse by their partner ranged from 17% in the Dominican Republic to 53% in Bolivia.

PAHO/WHO Regional Adviser on Intra-family Violence, Alessandra Guedes, said that many of the surveys investigated whether women were exposed to different forms of childhood violence. The proportion of respondents who reported having been beaten as girls ranged from 16.8% in Paraguay in 2008 to 69.5% in Jamaica in 2008-2009. Proportionally more women who were physically abused in childhood reported experiencing intimate-partner violence as adults. In three countries--El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Paraguay—they were twice as likely to have experienced this form of violence, Guedes said.

Michele Moloney-Kitts of UNAIDS and the Together for Girls partnership commented that children who survive violence need to feel safe to speak out about their experiences, adding that lessons can be learned from the fight against HIV/AIDS and stigma.

Dealing with this issue would require further evaluation, a multisectoral and coordinated response (mental health interventions, prevention, and survivor support), and also additional investment.

Childhood and intimate-partner violence have common risk factors, explained Lori Heise of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, mentioning poor childrearing and dysfunctional family environments.

Children who experience corporal punishment repeat the pattern. As adults they are at greater risk of employing violence against their own partners and children, Heise said. Recourse to punishments of this type stems from a lack of knowledge about parenting techniques, but there are now parenting programs that seek to prevent severe abuse.

Some people justify abuse of women as “correction” and similar thinking is applied to child abuse, said Heise. So long as there is sufficient “cause” and the punishment of children or women is not considered too “severe,” people often turn a blind eye to abuse, unfortunately.

The health sector can play a vital role in breaking the cycle of violence against children and women by helping to identify abuse early on, providing victims with proper treatment, and referring survivors to appropriate care from well-informed providers. However, the health sector should also work to prevent violence by implementing health strategies throughout the life cycle, from the organization of parenting programs and home visits during early childhood to the promotion of strategies to support women’s economic independence.

PAHO/WHO works to improve the quality of information and access to and use of information in policies and programs; to strengthen the health sector’s capacity to respond to the needs of survivors of violence through regulation; and to improve the primary prevention of violence against children and women.

PAHO, which is celebrating its 110th anniversary this year, is the world’s oldest public health organization. It works with all the countries in the hemisphere to improve the health and quality of life of the peoples of the Americas and serves as the WHO Regional Office for the Americas.

 

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Sebastián Oliel, oliels@paho.org, Tel.: +1 202 974 3459, Cell: +1 202 316 5679
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