A shocking picture of physical abuse and mistreatment of children in countries in every corner of the world, ranging from corporal punishment in schools to forced prostitution, rape and mutilation, was revealed in a survey by the United Nations last night.
The report, requested by secretary general Kofi Annan four years ago, says international conventions on human rights for children have flatly failed to guarantee protections for the most vulnerable members of society. While abuse may be at its worst in the developing world, no country is guiltless, it says.
Violence can be perpetrated by governments, by criminals but also by the family, the report notes. It recalls the words of a girl interviewed in an unnamed east Asian country. "With these two hands my mother holds me, cares for me, this I love... With these two hands, my mother hits me, this I hate."
"The core message," concludes Paolo Sergio Pinheiro, the study's author, "is that no violence against children is justifiable; all violence against children is preventable. There should be no more excuses". He recommends urgent action to hold governments accountable for ensuring children are treated as "full citizens, not as mini-human beings or property of their families".
While Mr Pinheiro was helped by many international organisations as well as by testimony from children in several countries, he says many of the offences are hidden in the shadows.
He nonetheless offers a range of grim statistics, including a finding that 53,000 children were victims of murder in 2002. His report stops short of naming countries with the worst records on protecting children's rights.
Louise Arbour, the UN's High Commissioner on Human Rights, said the survey takes the lid off a global scandal. "A veil of silence covers violence against children, yet abuses are so pervasive that no country can ignore them, and no society can claim to be immune from them," she said.
The British-based charity Save the Children, which, with its chapters worldwide, collaborated closely with the compiling of the report, also noted yesterday that more than one million children are imprisoned worldwide, of which 90 per cent were found guilty of only minor offences.
Violence in prisons and other, often state-run, institutions, including hospitals and orphanages, many holding children in squalid conditions, is highlighted in the survey. As one child, who had suffered imprisonment, told researchers: "Sometimes one day in prison felt like a year. But after 10 days you get used to it and you don't cry as much."
Some of the violence is perpetrated in the guise of medical treatment, the report says, noting that "in some cases children as young as nine are subjected to electro-convulsive treatment" without any anaesthesia or relaxants".
Also explored is violence, sometimes sexual, within families and at schools as well as the plight of children caught in trafficking, bonded labour and the child-sex industry. Every year sees another million children driven into the pornography and prostitution industries, the report says, adding, "many are coerced, kidnapped, sold and deceived into these activities, or are victims of trafficking".
Citing figures from the World Health Organisation, it asserts that 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18, "experienced forced sexual intercourse and other forms of sexual violence involving physical contact", in 2002.
The murder rate among minors was twice as high in low-income countries than in the developed world, the report found. But sexual abuse in the home is a blight shared by all nations. In 21 countries, most of them industrialised, as many as 36 per cent of women and 29 per cent of men said they had been the victims of sexual abuse during childhood. "Most of the abuse occurred within the family circle," the report said.
As many as 77 countries sanction violent punishment of children found guilty of crimes great or small, ranging from execution to corporal retribution including caning, flogging, stoning or even, in some countries, amputation.
How children are exploited
* According to the World Health Organisation, up to 53,000 children are murdered worldwide each year.
* Between 80 and 93 per cent of children suffer some form of physical punishment in their homes; a third are punished using implements.
* In 2002, the WHO estimated that 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 experienced some form of forced sexual intercourse or violence.
* 218 million children worldwide are labourers, 126 million of whom work in hazardous environments.
* 1.8 million are involved in prostitution or pornography and 1.2 million have been trafficked.
* Up to 275 million witness domestic abuse annually.
* Eight million worldwide are in residential care.
* There are 250,000 child soldiers in the world.
* According to Amnesty International, 40 per cent of soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo are children. 11,000 have still yet to be disarmed.
* One billion children live in countries where it is legal to beat pupils.
* Save the Children says a million children worldwide have been imprisoned.
SOURCES: WHO, UN, AI and Save The Children