Can social protection play a role in reducing childhood violence?


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Photo: Scott Wallace / World Bank

As many as one billion children under the age of 18 experience some form of violence every year. This exposure is not only a violation of child rights; it can also hamper children’s cognitive development, mental health, educational achievement, and long-term labor market prospects.

Meanwhile, an estimated 1.9 billion people in 136 countries benefit from some type of social safety net, such as cash transfers and public works that target the poor and vulnerable—presenting a vast policy instrument with potential to help prevent childhood violence.

While childhood violence results from a complex array of factors at multiple levels and is not isolated to the poor, data indicate that children in poorer households are at somewhat higher risk and economic hardship can intensify the risk. Economic shocks, for example, put households under stress, which could be expressed through harsher corporal punishment and other forms of child maltreatment. Safety nets might help prevent adolescent transactional sex, and related sexual violence risks, brought about by economic hardship.

Yet, for all of the research we have on both topics separately, we have very little global evidence at the intersection of social protection and childhood violence.

To be fair, social safety nets were designed with other objectives in mind, such as helping poor households to smooth consumption through shocks and invest in children’s education and health. Moreover, governments—especially in low-income countries—often have to take care not to jeopardize vital social safety nets by layering on too many implementation complexities.

Nonetheless, a recent round table organized by Innocenti, UNICEF’s Office of Research and Know Violence in Childhood: A Global Learning Initiative identified four opportunity areas for advancing research and policy on the topic:

  1. Minimizing potential for harm. Despite possible positive effects on reducing childhood violence, safety nets might also have unintended adverse effects. Conditional cash transfers (CCTs) might heighten the risk of exposure to bullying, for example, by increasing enrollment of impoverished and special needs children in school (they are at higher risk) and posting beneficiary names in public places, possibly stigmatizing children to their peers. Such concerns have been raised in China, Gaza and the West Bank, and Peru. For some women beneficiaries (e.g., of India’s public works scheme), participation in safety nets has been linked to higher reported intimate partner violence—possibly because men use violence to extract income or reassert control (notably, a cash transfer in Ecuador had the opposite effect). In turn, intimate partner violence is associated with child abuse and bullying.

    Considering both positive and negative possibilities, evaluators of social protection programs can forge research partnerships to study the effects of safety nets on childhood violence—and the pathways. Pathways could be related, for example, to income effects, changes in gender dynamics, or program design features.
  2. Light-touch complementary interventions. Given wide coverage and direct contact at the household level, safety nets could serve as policy platforms for addressing childhood violence or its social risk factors. Safety nets often involve communication strategies and group information or counseling sessions with parents in community settings. These could be entry points to include and test the delivery of messages on child protection and positive parenting.
  3. Intensive complementary interventions. Evidence-based interventions are emerging for reducing child maltreatment, especially with parenting programs. An ongoing evaluation in the Philippines is testing an adapted version of the Sinovuyo Parenting Program from South Africa.  If it works, the Government of the Philippines plans to deliver the intervention through its flagship CCT program in which parents participate in “family development sessions” as a transfer condition. Meanwhile, evaluation of social-economic empowerment programs for adolescent girls, such as BRAC’s ELA program in Uganda, have shown reduced exposure to sexual violence. Governments could consider expanding the scope of cash transfer programs targeting girls, such as those in Africa and South Asia.
  4. Linking or integrating systems. Some countries have taken steps to integrate social protection and child protection systems. This often involves a strong focus on case management and referral practices with a menu of service options to which social protection beneficiaries (and their families) can be connected. The strongest examples have emerged from countries with more evolved and institutionalized social protection programs. For instance, Chile’s Solidario and Colombia’s Red Unidos involve family counseling through social workers and service linkages. The success of these efforts depends on both the quality of intermediation and strength of the child protection systems.
While the roundtable agreed that social protection shouldn’t be seen as the main solution to a problem as pervasive and complex as childhood violence, there are several pathways through which social protection might help reduce aspects of childhood violence. At the national level, reducing the prevalence of childhood violence “even a little bit” could well be worth it.

Follow the World Bank social protection and labor team @wbg_splabor , on gender @wbg_gender


Join the Conversation

Sherry Allen
June 28, 2016

Well said. I am glad you address unintended consequences.I recently heard a story of how wells in Malawian villages (an intended help to bring water closer to homes) had lead to an increase in intimate partner violence when women were empowered by additional time to attend to other ideas to strengthen their family's position. Not that wells are bad but that anticipatory thinking can help avoid those unintended consequences.

Matt Morton
May 23, 2019

Thanks a lot, Sherry. I agree that we need to pay close attention to possible unintended consequences (good and bad) of development interventions so that policy-makers and practitioners are equipped with the information they need to make informed adjustments and decisions when needed.

Daud Salim Faruquie
June 29, 2016

Thanks for this post Matthew. In the light of my own research about the abuse of poor/working children and its impact on their cognitive development, I would say that the most vulnerable children in India represent a uniquely complex ecology. Interventions transported for them need to be assessed for their social, political, economic and geographic fitness. In a recent (primary) study just sent to Elsevier I have tried to explain the workplace culture of child workers which varies with the 'type of work' they are performing and how this workplace culture determines the level of their physical abuse and also their moral development. A multifaceted theoretical model ‘developmental singularity of child labourers’ has also been presented.

Matt Morton
May 23, 2019

Thank you for sharing your reflections, Daud, and thanks for giving us a heads-up on your interesting work.

Furgassa Chalchissa
June 30, 2016

Thanks for posting such useful ideas for the readers and practitioners. Specially, in the developing country child violence frequency is very high and if this inhumanity action continued without putting in place a workable solutions it makes the social capital imbalance in the world. So, it needs to work in collaboration with all stakeholders including the countries government to reduce the risks and create safe environment for the children.

Matt Morton
May 23, 2019

Thank you, Furgassa. These are important points.

Clare Anderson
July 01, 2016

Super excited to see this Mr. Morton!

Matt Morton
May 23, 2019

Thank you!

Amber Peterman
July 05, 2016

Great summary Matt--particularly in solidifying some of the programmatic implications of these potential links. The lack of evidence connecting the dots between childhood violence and safety nets is striking--and an area which I think there is a large opportunity for organizations like the World Bank and UNICEF who are heavily involved in both areas. It would be nice to see some investment in closing some of these research gaps, particularly when violence against children experts are promoting economic strengthening as a component of the "preferred package" of interventions. What would it take to pull together an initiative to produce a set of impact evaluation results similar to what SVRI has recently done for IPV interventions? Obviously there is a lot of diversity by type of intervention and type of violence - however, my feeling is that there are enough impact evaluations ongoing or planned with opportunities, they just need a bit of a nudge. Ideas and thoughts?

Matt Morton
May 23, 2019

Amber, thank you; these are excellent points and your questions give good, actionable food for thought. I would be interested in readers' reflections. For one thing, a low-hanging fruit could be establishing research partnerships between those evaluating social protection and economic empowerment interventions and those with expertise in childhood violence so that we could get more measurement of childhood violence, and related risk factors, into planned and ongoing evaluations. Some of those SVRI impact evaluations might also be good entry points for childhood violence measures along with IPV. I think the roundtable UNICEF and Know Violence organized set a very good starting point for a continued dialogue to move the research and policy agenda in this area. Let's continue the discussion between UNICEF, World Bank, and partners about how to keep the dialogue alive.

Savin Oeun
September 14, 2016

I think Graduation Approach is the great way to fight the poverty now. I am so excited piloting it in Cambodia. Thank