Meet Dr. Andrés Villaveces:

Helping drive action to end violence against children in Latin America

Andrés Villaveces MD, MPH, Ph.D., is a Lead Scientist for the Violence Against Children and Youth Surveys (VACS) in Latin America with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Throughout his career as a global epidemiologist, Dr. Villaveces has contributed to violence and injury prevention efforts in the World Health Organization as well as the World Bank.

 

Seeing many different people and institutions work to improve the health of children is what inspires me,” he says.

 

Together for Girls sat down with Dr. Villaveces to learn more about his experience in the field and what inspires him to do this critical work.

Q&A

TfG: Can you share a bit of your story and career path?

Dr. Villaveces: Early in my career, I became interested in injuries and violence prevention. My first job was at the World Health Organization. I focused on weapons and health and developed the first WHO violence and injury prevention curriculum. After a few years in academia, I analyzed crime and violence data from Latin America and led the development of a youth violence prevention strategy for the World Bank. I also participated in the development of INSPIRE: Seven Strategies for Preventing Violence Against Children.

 

Currently as Lead Scientist for VACS in Latin America, I manage research, academic, and public health initiatives to prevent violence. Through my career experiences, I have developed a deep understanding of the link between policy and science.  This has helped me to navigate different sectors to maximize effectiveness of public health.

Daniela Ligiero (TfG), Mark Connolly (UNICEF), Salvador Gutiérrez (IOM), Juan Orlando Hernández (President of Honduras), Andrés Villaveces (CDC), Alejandra Hernández (Vice Minister of Security, Honduras) and Reinaldo Sánchez (Minister of Social Development, Honduras) attend the Data to Action Workshop on August 27, 2018 in Honduras

TfG: What is your proudest accomplishment in working in the Division of Violence Prevention at CDC?

Dr. Villaveces: There are many proud moments. Ranging from working with amazing people, to training individuals dedicated to preventing violence, to being able to address leaders of nations about the incredible importance of preventing violence against children. Also, learning from the experiences of locals in country has been a powerful and humbling lesson for me.

TfG: What is a typical day in the life when working in-country on the VACS?

Dr. Villaveces: It varies a lot depending on what phase of VACS we are in. Once arriving in a country, there are a variety of training activities. Some can last a few hours others last up to three weeks. On a typical day, we wake up early, prepare for training, conduct fieldwork or hold meetings with local and international partners. 

The training for the interviewers who administer VACS can be intense because colleagues often share their person stories and lived experiences. This often leads to a stronger emotional connection with colleagues that span a lifetime of friendships. The most rewarding aspect of this work is seeing how governments and social sectors interpret and use VACS data to propose innovative solutions.

El Salvador Team of Supervisors, Interviewers, and Trainers complete a three-week training in preparation for the VACS data collection in El Salvador

TfG: Why are data important in addressing the issue of sexual violence and other global health issues? How does CDC support decision-makers in taking action after a VACS survey?

Dr. Villaveces: Having good quality data is essential to addressing a public health problem. CDC provides the highest quality data and uses that data for effective interventions aimed at preventing or reducing violence against children, adolescents, and youth. To help decision-makers alleviate problems like sexual violence against children, understanding the magnitude of the issue is important. When we understand violence, we can identify strategies to prevent it.

 

Collaboration and partnership is a big part of this process. Throughout the VACS process, CDC builds strong support nationally by facilitating engagement meetings, building partnership with intersectoral groups, and collaborating with country leaders in search of prevention strategies.

Child Protective services personnel from the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF) work on the Data to Action workshop in Bogotá, Colombia

TfG: What are the specific patterns regarding violence against children in the Latin America/Caribbean region?

Dr. Villaveces: The magnitude of sexual violence in Latin America and in other regions is unacceptably high. Of note, there are some important patterns for violence victimization and perpetration in these areas to be aware of. All forms of violence against children in these areas tend to be more common among females than males. Also location of violence seems to vary with gender. For females, sexual and physical violence occurs more in the home and is perpetrated by parents, caregivers, or domestic partners. For males, violence occurs outside of the home and is perpetrated by peers.

 

Binge drinking among young adults and adolescents is also high in Latin America. Because binge drinking is associated with violence and other health problems, this is also a concerning pattern to be aware of. The mental health impact of experiencing violence is also one area that makes our work to prevent it so important.

TfG: What are the unique aspects of your experiences working on the VACS in Latin America?

Dr. Villaveces: I am originally from Latin America, and this has allowed me to adapt and better understand culture and social norms that impact VACS. For instance in Latin America, it is now easier to speak about gender norms, LGBTI issues, and violence than it was a few years ago. However, it is still difficult to talk about sexual violence victimization, especially for males. A consequence of this taboo is the silence about sexual violence victimization. In the region, traditional norms about punishment and physical violence are very common and create conditions where violence is viewed as normal. Fortunately, these norms can be changed and we are aware of effective interventions to help. Due to the regional differences across Latin America, I have also learned a lot from my VACS experiences in each country.

Interviewers at a plenary session evaluate a possible scenario of data collection during the VACS training of interviewers in Comayagua, Honduras

Issues related to safety while administering surveys have also been a unique challenge in Latin America. We had to develop strategies to protect our local VACS teams from community violence and also negotiate our entry to certain communities. My previous experiences in Latin America and work on safety issues allowed me to negotiate difficult situations and engage with senior level decision-makers to ensure safety during VACS implementation. 

TfG: What do you see as opportunities ahead in ending violence against children in the Latin America/Caribbean region?

Dr. Villaveces: Collaboration is key. Working closely with local governments to form strong connections to prevent violence before is starts is an essential and important step. Developing plans with defined timelines, activities, goals and objectives across sectors is important to preventing violence. Beyond government institutions, the work to prevent violence also includes civil society, local and international agencies. Our partnership with Together for Girls to support these efforts in close coordination is a unique opportunity towards achieving common goals and milestones.

The VACS is a powerful tool to help countries take evidence-based actions that help prevent and respond to violence against children. To learn more about VACS in Latin America, visit the country pages on the Together for Girls website: Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras.