There are few places on earth where children and adolescents are not subjected to violence. One of the harshest realities is that these young people are often the victims of those charged with their safety.
“The global scandal of violence against children and youth is a horror story too often untold,” said Jo Becker, the advocacy director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), in their 2001 report Easy Targets: Violence Against Children Worldwide.
The United Nation’s 2006 World Report on violence against children found that children and youth experience violence in five different settings: at home; in the work place; in the community; in schools or educational training; or in institutions such as in children’s homes, prisons and detention centres.
While the environments in which young people are exposed to violence are numerous, the following addresses the disregard of children’s rights by government agents and police during times of both peace and conflict.
Torture in police custody
Children and youth are frequently physically abused at the hands of the police or other law enforcement officers. According to the HRW study, street children are an especially easy target because they are poor, young and often ignorant of their rights, without the support of adults to whom they can turn for help. This means that it is easy for police to pick children up off the street with little or no reason other than to keep young people – who are seen as vagrants and criminals - off the streets.
While in custody, children are often beaten and robbed of their money, and street girls are sometimes raped before they are allowed to leave.
In many developing countries, such as Kenya, Bulgaria, Pakistan, Jamaica, Russia, and India, the results of being apprehended are far more sinister. Children in these countries report that they have been tortured, mutilated and subjected to death threats.
In Kenya, 17-year-old Minga recalled: “I stayed in the cell for three days. The first day I was hit on the head with a piston and kicked and punched. Whichever policeman came into the cell to do the headcount would hit me.”
According to Amnesty International’s 1996 investigation in Bulgaria, the picture is similar. Children have told of how they were beaten by police with electric shock batons, clubs, chains, rubber hosing, and boxing gloves. One boy said he had been stripped, doused with water and beaten on his feet with an electric shock baton.
Pakistani police are alleged to use torture to obtain information. According to HRW, torture can last for several days, with victims being hung upside-down, beaten, whipped with rubber belts or leather slippers, or deprived of sleep.
Accounts from several teenage boys describe how they were held in custody for up to two weeks, beaten on the feet until they could no longer walk, and hung upside-down: “They used to tie me with a rope and turn me upside down, with my head facing the ground.”
In 1997, HRW interviewed approximately 200 Pakistani children in Karachi’s Youth Offenders Industrial School. They found that nearly 60 percent of those children had been subjected to forms of torture including severe beatings, electric shocks, hanging, cheera (stretching apart the victim’s legs, sometimes in combination with kicks to the genitalia), cuts and burns.
In a case in Russia, 15-year-old Oleg was tortured by police after being accused of theft: “They tied me to a chair and put a gas mask over my head. They cut the oxygen supply several times for about a minute. I almost lost consciousness,” he told the HRW officer in the country.
Violence in detention
Children and youth are often detained by police without sufficient reason, and subjected to torture in order to obtain a confession or information. The perpetrators of these crimes usually go unpunished, even when a child dies in custody.
Violence against young people is rife in institutions. In many cases, young people are detained alongside adults, which leaves them at greater risk of abuse, both physical and sexual.
It is not just in developing countries where youth are mistreated; there are cases reported in the United States. It was revealed that in juvenile detention facilities in Georgia, underage offenders were bound to a bed by the wrists and ankles for several hours, hit, slammed into walls, and sprayed with pepper spray.
Young detainees are also abused by fellow inmates.
In Kenya, one boy being held on remand reported, “There were two older boys in the room, and one of them tried to seduce me but I refused. So, I was beaten up and had my clothes taken away from me. They smeared excrement from the toilet all over my body. I tried to complain to the prison guards but they wouldn’t listen.”
A boy being held in a Kenyan correctional facility said: “Everyone who comes on duty canes you when you’re there.” He added, “I was once stripped naked and made to bend over a stand, shackled at the hands and ankles. They put a wet salted cloth on my back and gave me strokes with bamboo canes. And they made other boys watch.”
Forcing children to share a cell with an adult is a violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, (see next section).
In Guatemala, one child told HRW, “Adult prisoners make you take your clothes off or ‘trade’ your clothes. Otherwise they will beat you up … you also have to pay money to get a place to sleep. Otherwise you sleep on the floor, or in the garbage. Boys who are put in with the adults are often raped. This is very common. The guards don’t pay attention.”
Miriam Ndegwa, programme associate of juvenile justice from Youth Alive Kenya told IRIN, “It is very common that the wardens cooperate with the adult offenders. The adult offenders will pay some money to the warden to get a young boy whom they can sexually abuse. The warden is happy to get extra money, and the adult offender is happy to get the young boy. What about the young boy? Nobody helps him.”
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that: “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment, without possibility of release, shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.”
As of June 2004, all 192 member states of the UN had signed and ratified the Convention except Somalia and the USA.
In the US states of Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma, four young people have been executed for crimes committed while they where still minors. A total of 23 states still allow the death penalty.
According to Amnesty International, Iran, Nigeria, Yemen, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, and The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) also support capital punishment for young offenders, despite the fact that this practice violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Iran executed at 17-year-old boy in 1999 for a crime he committed when he was just 15. In 2005, Iran received international condemnation for its decision to execute two boys for practicing homosexuality. The boys were not aware that homosexuality was a capital offence.
Iran executed 159 people in 2004, a figure exceeded only by China. Under Iranian law, the age of criminal culpability is defined as puberty, which most judges put at 15 for boys and nine for girls.
Iran also came under fire for the execution of a 16-year-old girl who was hanged for having sex before marriage. Medical reports, not permitted in court, had suggested that she was mentally ill.
Iran’s clerical judiciary has promised to institute a minimum age of 18 for long prison or death sentences, but so far this has not happened, with 11 youth having been executed since 1990.
Police violence against street children
In most cities, especially in the developing world, there are many running conflicts between the authorities and street children whom they blame for petty crimes.
According to statistics from the 2006 UN World Report on violence against children, there are 20,000 street children in Nairobi; 150,000 in China; and 170,000 in Indonesia. According to this report, most street children are boys. The stigma of not having a family, or the way they are forced to live to survive, leads to discrimination and violence against these children.
Street children and youth encounter more violence from the authorities than other children. Street children are beaten, tortured, sexually assaulted and sometimes killed.
According to HRW’s 2001 report, police corruption and impunity is largely to blame for the punishments meted out on street children.
HRW found that in Bulgaria, police harassed and beat street children, chasing them away from their shelters. They also sprayed the children with gas, and demanded sex from girls.
It is a similar picture in Guatemala where hundreds of thousands of children are subjected to violence. They say they are abused by the National Police daily.
"The police bother us every single day. They hit and steal our money, shoes and jackets … We can’t say anything or they’ll hit us harder,” said one youth who had been living on the streets for nine years.
Street girls are vulnerable to sexual violence. Susan F., 16, reported that she was raped by two police officers while a third kept watch. The officers threatened to put her in prison for having marijuana if she made any noise. “I’m sure this has happened to many other girls. Ugly things happen on the street.”
In September 1996, 16-year-old Ronald Ramos was shot and killed by a drunken police officer. Later that year, another 10 street children in Guatemala were murdered, allegedly under the same circumstances. The perpetrators were neither identified nor prosecuted. In the following year the investigations were dropped.
In India, more than 18 million children live and work on the streets. These children have been routinely abused, tortured and sometimes killed by the police.
Between 1995 and 1996, HRW interviewed 100 street children; all of them said they were afraid of the police, and 60 percent said they had been abused by the police.
According to a Kenyan street girl: “The police are always calling us names, saying we’re whores, trash and beating us. Sexual abuse happens too. Four policemen came and arrested me. Another held me down while the other policemen raped me. After they raped me, they walked me over to Central Police Station and just let me go.”
One 23-year-old who had lived on the streets for four years told IRIN, “Life on the street is very difficult. Police arrested me even though I didn’t do any crime. It was because I was a street child. The police beat me, harassed me, put me in detention for two weeks without proper food, [we had] dirty toilets and no sweaters. They beat me many times on many parts of my body.”
According to the 2006 UN report on Violence Against Children, hundreds of thousands of street children have been murdered in Columbia, Brazil, Guatemala, and the Philippines. The research also shows that 30,000 street children have been targeted by armed vigilantes in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.
Similar reports have come in from Bogota, Colombia, where the national police are allegedly responsible for the murders of 850 children and adolescents between 2000 and 2004, as well as the abduction of 620 children in August 2003.
Many violations and abuses against street children go unreported due to lack of witnesses, or because the victims or their relatives live on the fringes of society. As a result, violations against these children are often difficult to measure and figures are unreliable.
According to the 2001 HRW study, there are several reasons for impunity.
Children and youth, particularly those most vulnerable to abuse, have few mechanisms for reporting violence. They may be reluctant to speak out because they are afraid of punishment. Also, as they are children or youth, their complaints are often ignored or not taken seriously. In some cases, although children or youth do make reports of abuse, perpetrators are rarely investigated or prosecuted. Those who are in position to take action are often reluctant to discipline or prosecute a colleague for fear of retaliation or being fired.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which obliges governments to protect children from all forms of physical or mental cruelty, has been ratified by nearly every country around the world. However, there are still millions of children who suffer violence and abuse.
“These acts of violence are often seen as lamentable yet isolated incidents rather than global phenomena demanding a concerted international response,” said Becker.
The shocking scale of violence against children and youths demonstrates the obvious failure of many governments to fulfil their obligations under the Convention.
Encouragingly, politicians continue to raise their concerns, calling on states to ensure that violence against children is prohibited by law, and that these laws be strictly enforced. The UN study on violence against children also appeals to governments to address impunity by investigating reports of violence and ensuring that perpetrators are appropriately punished.