Changing the narrative of violence

Whenever I think about the seemingly impossible task of social change, especially around almost intractable issues, I recall champions who have changed the world. There was (the aptly named!) William Wilberforce, an English politician who challenged the entrenched 18th and 19th century institution of slavery. But Wilberforce saw another reality- one where everyone deserved freedom, dignity and other basic human rights. It was a lonely years-long undertaking, but he turned a fringe belief into political reality. Centuries later, institutionalized slavery has been legally abolished almost worldwide.

Now, there are similarly intractable issues, including violence against children in families, schools, communities and institutions. In several countries in our East Asia working region, 7 out of 10 children report experiencing violence at school. According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), almost three out of four children in Laos and Vietnam have reported being disciplined in abusive and violent ways, while that number is near one out of two in Mongolia.

Wilberforce was a passionate advocate who, working with like minded advocates, challenged his era’s narrative on slavery.

Despite government decrees outlawing abuse of children, paltry enforcement budgets, poor accountability and lack of leadership have handicapped legislative power. Social and cultural norms perpetuate violence.

We hit our children because our parents hit us. Kids don’t listen, otherwise. Undisciplined children make for undisciplined adults – and an unruly society. Violence is justified if it keeps the peace. People need and want this order.

Wilberforce was a passionate advocate who, working with like minded advocates, challenged his era’s narrative on slavery. He methodically collected evidence and mobilized people to question, then attack, what had been the norm.

We need to do the same in the 21st century. We need coalitions of champions that believe in the unbelievable, that can collectively rise above political interests, that can articulate a clear, long view of universal rights for the children right in front of us.

Sorn (not real name) sold vegetables in Thailand from 7am-midnight for three years to repay her debt to traffickers who had smuggled her in illegally. No days off, no work permit, and one meal daily. Desperate, she and a cousin broke away after hundreds of similarly grinding days.They sought the help of local police to return to their home country of Laos. Back home, the government referred Sorn to World Vision, which helped enroll her in sewing classes, as well as primary school. At age 21, Sorn completed her fourth year of formal schooling. Once stabilized, she joined a World Vision-run support group for trafficking survivors. She learned, for the first time, that her nightmare was not hers alone. And that her recovery, similarly, would not be undertaken alone.

The recently launched Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children is just one step in a long march to create a more safe world for children like Sorn.

Through the UN General Assembly, Asian governments have agreed to the Sustainable Development Goals, which pledge to end all forms of violence against children. Three governments in Asia, called Pathfinders, have demonstrated a strong commitment to accelerating efforts to boost safety for children. Such political commitment is fundamental; just as crucial is the will to back it up with appropriate investment in social welfare and social protection.

Let us hope the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children can change, definitively, any narrative and all norms that justify violence against children.

Our vision for every child, life in all its fullness. Our prayer for every heart, the will to make it so.

About the author | Abid Gulzar With the World Vision East Asia Regional Office since March 2006, Abid is a campaign professional originally from Pakistan. He provides technical leadership and support in the development of strategic advocacy and implementation plans that are appropriate for the regional context. Under his leadership, World Vision has been recognized as one of the key organizations in the region advocating for the protection of child victims of trafficking.