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Connecting the dots between social protection and childhood violence: a neglected research agenda

Tia Palermo and Anastasia Neijhoft*

Can social protection programmes reduce childhood violence? If so, what forms of violence can it reduce and through which pathways? What evidence is available to date, and what are the gaps where more research is needed?

These are the questions that 25 experts from around the world gathered to discuss at an expert roundtable organised by UNICEF Office of Research -Innocenti and Know Violence in Childhood in Florence, Italy 12-13 May 2016.

Non-contributory social protection programmes (which is to say, programmes that beneficiaries don’t have to pay into to be eligible to receive benefits, such as unemployment insurance schemes) come in different forms around the world, from the United States ‘Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programme, to conditional cash transfer programmes in Latin America like Mexico’s Prospera and Brazil’s BolsaFamila, to unconditional cash transfer programmes in Africa like Ghana’s Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty and South Africa’s Child Support Grant, public works programmes, vouchers, and many more. It is estimated that globally 1.9 billion people in 136 countries benefit from some type of social safety net. Cash transfer programmes in particular are growing in popularity as a tool to support refugees and displaced persons in emergency and humanitarian settings.

Childhood violence in its many manifestations, including physical, emotional and sexual violence, perpetrated by self, peers or adults, is pervasive globally; as many as one billion children under the age of 18 are estimated to experience some form of violence each year. We know that childhood violence is harmful and leads to anxiety, depression, self-harm, post-traumatic stress disorder, problem behaviours, and (sexual) risk behaviours. We also know that the norms that contribute to both the perpetration and tolerance of violence are learned in early childhood; children who experience or witness violence are more likely to experience or perpetrate intimate partner violence in adulthood, and when having children of their own, they are more likely to adopt harsh parenting styles. However, we know much less about what programmes and policies are effective in preventing childhood violence. A particularly neglected area is understanding the role that social protection policies may play in reducing the risk of childhood violence.

Major international agencies, including the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in the USA, the WHO, UNICEF and other partners, recommend a packageof interventions to reduce childhood violence. One of the recommended strategies is to support household economic strengthening; a key objective of most social protection programmes. There are several pathways through which social protection may reduce the risk of childhood violence in different settings, including:

  • reducing household level stress and tensions;
  • improving economic security, which may reduce risky sexual behavioursand child marriage, in turn,reducing exploitation, intimate partner violence and other forms of abuse;
  • improved caregiver practices;
  • increased time spent in school, which may be protective of many forms of violence;
  • decreased time spent in settings prone to abuse such as work outside the home or institutional care; and
  • improved psychosocial well-being of household members, including children; among others.

Beyond these more immediate pathways the group concluded that different programme design modalities may have their own effect, either positive or negative, on childhood violence; and that this effect is likely considerable, yet under researched.

While evidence to date is limited and mixed, evidence from sub-Saharan Africa does suggest that social protection can reduce specific forms of childhood violence, particularly forms of sexual violence, especially among adolescent girls who may be at increased risk of such violence when they or their families are faced with economic insecurity. There is also some evidence to suggest that social protection can reduce corporal punishment perpetrated by parents, to the extent that this behaviour is driven by stress following economic insecurity. In settings where corporal punishment is widely accepted and practiced, it is believed that the effects of social protection mainly relate to its frequency and severity, and hence impacts may not be observed when solely measuring prevalence. Further, social protection, especially cash transfers, has been shown to reduce intimate partner violence, which has serious consequences for the children exposed to it, something only recently recognised. Despite this promising evidence, a majority of studies the group reviewed which measured impacts on childhood violence in fact found no impacts (positive or negative), though this may be due to methodological limitations, as most studies were not set up to measure violence. Further, it is important to keep in mind that social protection at its core is not designed to reduce violence, but rather to reduce poverty or smooth consumption – however by addressing some of the structural drivers of violence, including stress caused by poverty, it may reduce violence at the margin. Cash plus and integrated social protection and child protection models are a promising way forward if there is political will to do so and specific violence-related targets are included.

The overarching conclusion of the roundtable was that the largest challenge we face is the lack of rigorous violence measures in studies that examine the impacts of social protection programmes. There may be protective impacts that aren’t being measured, or aren’t measured well, and so efforts are needed to include credible violence measures in larger programme evaluations, as well as to conduct more focused evaluations using mixed methods approaches. Experts at this round table encouraged researchers to start filling in the gaps on links between social protection and childhood violence.

*Tia Palermo and AnastasiaNeijhoft are with the Social & Economic Policy Section at UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti, where they conduct research on linkages between social protection, childhood violence and adolescent well-being with the Transfer Project.

The Transfer Project is working to provide rigorous evidence on programme impacts of government cash transfers in an effort to inform future programme design and scale-up. For more information on the Transfer Project’s research, read their research briefs here or follow them on Twitter – @TransferProjct.



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