Pushing ahead with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan's Study on Violence against Children, a preparatory African conference has opened with the spotlight cast on the devastating role played by the AIDS scourge and a strong call for a total ban on corporal punishment in schools and at home.
The three-day consultation for Eastern and Southern Africa, which opened in Johannesburg, South Africa, yesterday, is one of a series of regional events being held worldwide to prepare reports on how children are affected by violence in five settings: the home and family; schools and other institutions; work situations; the community; and on the streets.
Delegates were told that while violence against children occurs all the time and in every society in the world, the stakes in the two sub-regions are higher. Many more children are at risk of violence because they have lost one or both parents to AIDS and the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS means that sexually abused children are more likely to be infected as a result.
Children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS are more likely to find themselves on the street, in the commercial sex trade, or married to older men, UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa Per Engebak said, calling for more information and research to ascertain the extent of the problem.
"What we are seeing in Eastern and Southern Africa is only a tip of the iceberg. The key messages of HIV prevention – Abstain, Be Faithful, Consistently Use a Condom – do nothing to protect children from infection as a result of sexual violence," he added. "A child who needs to sell her body for food does not have the choice to abstain, it is unlikely that a man who rapes her has been faithful and rarely would he think of using a condom."
The Independent Expert for the UN Study, Sergio Pinheiro, called for a universal ban on corporal punishment, saying it was having a devastating effect on children's development.
"Despite progress in civil and political rights, democracy has not made its way into the family and schools," he said, noting that most countries in the region have no legislation against the use of corporal punishment in schools and where it is outlawed, it is still widely practised in homes. "There is nothing reasonable about hitting children."
Some 55 young people attending the meeting urged governments to provide free legal assistance to abused children. They said tougher laws were needed to punish those who abuse children.