One child dies a violent death somewhere in the world every five minutes, and exposure to that violence can cause deep and long-lasting emotional scars in those who survive, according to a new report released Tuesday by UNICEF, the U.N. children’s rights agency. The problem is especially pronounced in Central America, where the fear of violence has recently driven thousands of children to make the dangerous journey toward the U.S. border.
The UNICEF report explores the consequences of violence against children worldwide, in conflict zones in Africa, Syria, Iraq — places where children suffer extreme levels of violence — along with kids in the industrialized world, many of whom endure merciless bullying or sexual abuse and often fall victim to people wielding guns. The poorest are hardest hit, the report found.
“We live in a world where some children are too scared to walk out of their own front doors or play on their streets,” said David Bull, executive director of UNICEF in the United Kingdom.
Nigeria, with 13,000 violent deaths of children each year and Brazil, with 11,000, have it the worst in terms absolute numbers, according to the report.
But UNICEF also highlighted Central America as one of the most dangerous places to be a child, with El Salvador having the highest rates of child murder in the world, followed by neighboring Guatemala.
That violence in that region has driven thousands of Central Americans, many of them children, to try to escape the danger by going to the United States — often traveling alone. A large number of them arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border this summer, and many of the children picked up by immigration services are still in detention centers across the United States. The situation has prompted widespread calls for such children to be accepted as refugees.
The UNICEF report, titled “Children in Danger: Act to End Violence against Children,” also explores the reasons why Central American kids make the treacherous trek north.
“Schoolchildren and teachers live in fear of murder, theft and extortion. School attendance [in El Salvador] is among the lowest in Latin America, and violence is one of the main reasons,” the report said.
“One in three Salvadoran children in Year 6 of primary school report having been robbed in the past month and four in ten report being bullied,” it said.
Much of this violence comes from armed drug-dealing gangs — often comprised of other children — who adopt a “join or die” approach and sometimes kill others if they refuse to follow, said Adriana Beltrán, senior associate for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights organization.
Many of the children come from San Pedro Sula, El Salvador — literally the most violent city in the world, with 187 homicides per 100,000 people, WOLA reports.
In Honduras, murders of women and girls increased by 264 percent from 2005 to 2013,WOLA said.
Beltrán said problems inside the home also contributed to the influx of kids at the border.
“We also have very high levels of domestic violence,” she said. “In some cases, the unaccompanied minors [arriving at the border] could be kids that are running because they’re being abused at home. In some cases they were left behind by families and they’re being abused by the person they were left with. So their only option is to leave.”
With central governments in the region weak, and police unreliable or unreachable, many of the crimes go unpunished, Beltrán said.
Beltrán said reform is possible. Central American countries must stamp out police corruption and reform their criminal justice systems to more effectively prosecute criminals, she said, but added that this cannot be the only path.
“There needs to be much better investment on the government’s part and by donors for violence prevention at the community level,” Beltrán said, adding that most violence-prevention efforts happen through faith groups or nongovernmental organizations.
But she said governments need to step up, too.
“While you do need to do violence prevention at a community level, it does require very strong support at the national level,” she said.