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Safe Blog

How a decade of data is leading solutions to keep children safe

19th April 2024


  • Daniela Ligiero headshot new
    Daniela Ligiero

    Chief Executive Officer & President, Together for Girls

  • Greta Massetti CDC
    Greta Massetti

    Principal Deputy Director, CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control

The intergenerational transmission of violence is a global public health crisis, but we can solve it. By leveraging available data, we can take action to keep children happy and thriving.

In the past year, 1 billion children, or 1 out of every 3 children worldwide, experienced sexual, emotional, or physical violence. Violence against children is ​​hidden in plain sight, and the consequences of violence have ripple effects that reverberate through a child's life.

The only way to understand how often violence happens, and to whom it happens, is by asking people directly, ethically, and confidentially so that victims feel safe to disclose their experiences.

Ugandan boys at school window

The Violence Against Children and Youth Surveys (VACS) are the single largest global data source on violence against children. Through these nationally led population-based, household surveys, we measure physical, emotional, and sexual forms of violence against children.

These surveys help governments make informed decisions to prevent and respond to violence based on specific trends and dynamics in their country's context.

Through the VACS, we have amassed information on violence against children that we’ve never had before, representing 33% of children in low and middle income countries. This has transformed the way we understand and respond to violence and has motivated leaders to take national action to prevent violence against children.

Daniela Ligiero, Chief Executive Officer & President, Together for Girls

An unprecedented amount of quality data has changed lives

For the first time in the last decade, we have a wealth of information on violence against children that we didn't have before. The VACS has transformed how we understand violence and our efforts to prevent and respond to violence, supporting governments and leaders to identify what matters in their communities. We now address violence against children as a public health issue, not just a human rights issue.

Governments in 20 countries integrated their VACS results into their broader child-related policies, including:

  • Improving child safety laws or regulations in 13 countries
  • Banning corporal punishment in 10 countries
  • Banning child marriage in 9 countries
  • Including VACS indicators in national statistics in 5 countries
  • Launching new initiatives addressing the safety of girls in 5 countries

How does VACS data drive solutions to ending violence against children?

VACS have a huge impact on building national capacity to prevent and address violence against children. Governments are experts in their local context and in finding context-specific solutions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) are experts in the VACS methodology and data and provide governments with technical support. CDC’s role is to help governments better understand their specific needs and priorities. How do we adapt this model to the local context? What are the questions you need to ask? How do you use the data? How do you leverage the data?

Ultimately, it’s about building the resources within so that governments can champion the problems and solutions for their own countries.

Data driven solutions in Kenya

CDC helped conduct Kenya’s VACS and secured the data that led leaders in Kenya and Tanzania to implement programmes like Coaching Boys Into Men (CBIM). Coaching Boys Into Men (CBIM) is a violence prevention programme that trains and motivates high school coaches to teach their young male athletes healthy relationship skills, mental health practices and that violence never equals strength. Over 100,000 boys have gone through the CBIM curriculum, aimed at building their confidence and leadership to improve individual outcomes and position them to contribute meaningfully to their families and communities.

VACS data shows how violence impacts global priorities and sustainable development

Understanding violence against children in conflict settings

Climate and conflict-related issues will continue to increase the number of displaced people, including children, adolescents, and youth. For the first time, we've adapted the VACS to understand the experiences of children, adolescents, and youth in displacement and refugee settings. A pilot of the Humanitarian VACS has just been completed in Uganda and will now be conducted in Ethiopia.

Data on HIV and violence

Sub-Saharan Africa has better data on violence against children than anywhere else in the world. VACS asks specific questions about HIV transmission and treatment and offers voluntary testing and treatment in response to the ongoing epidemic, especially among young girls. The U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) programme has funded all or most of the surveys in that region, to understand how violence against children and gender-based violence drive the disproportionate impact of the HIV epidemic on adolescent girls and young women.

VACS data has implications for a wide array of programming, including and beyond HIV prevention and response. In the future, conducting VACS outside of high-HIV burden contexts can help us explore other important development indicators that intersect with the burden of violence against children

Adapting data collection to match different community contexts

In regional contexts like Southeast Asia and the Northern Triangle, USAID provided funding for surveys with a focus on migration, which has a complex relationship to violence against children, as it can both result from or lead to children experiencing violence.

The disruption of protective social structures caused by emergencies such as conflicts or natural disasters can increase children’s vulnerability to early marriage, child labour, sexual and other forms of violence. Attempts by children, families or communties to escape this violence can put children at further risk due to the instability of travel, lack of a permanent home, and loss of family and community ties.

Data collection is specifically focused on what’s important for those communities. The added value is not just looking at violence, but in understanding how violence relates to other priorities, and how to better position this work to inform global development.

The VACS has been carried out in over 23 countries, and we now have data for 13% of the world's population under 24. As a result, we have a better understanding of the epidemiology of violence. And first of all, an understanding that violence is far too common.

Understanding why young victims of sexual violence aren’t accessing the care services they need

Sadly, we know that very few victims ever disclose their experiences of violence. When young people tell us that they've experienced sexual violence, only about half of them report that they ever told anybody.

For about half of victims, their VACS interview is the very first time they've shared their experience, regardless of whether they experienced violence last week, last year, or ten years ago. We need to create safe spaces to empower young people to share their experiences.

According to VACS data, only about 1 in 5 victims ever seek care and only 1 in 20 ever receive care. There is a big gap between who seeks care and how many ultimately receive it.

VACS data helps us create better care and prevention services for children

In Eswatini, according to VACS data, fewer girls are experiencing sexual violence today than 15 years ago. This is largely because the government took ownership of and addressed the problem using VACS data to inform practical solutions.

In Kenya, between the country’s 2010 and 2019 VACS, there was a reduction in almost every form of violence against young people.

However, there wasn’t a huge improvement in Kenya or Eswatini for how many young victims accessed services. This suggests that reductions in violence were not due to more access to services, but because of greater prevention efforts.

There’s a lot of work to be done to ensure better access to care for survivors.

PEPFAR’s investment in the VACS provides the data to understand the gap in disclosure, service-seeking, and service-receiving, resulting in the ability to strengthen national systems and build local capacity.

VACS data is used to train providers on creating child-friendly environments so that when a survivor of violence does come and seek care, they know how to have a confidential conversation, and how to collect information in a way that maintains privacy and confidentiality.

The two VACS from Kenya and Eswatini don’t just show promising reductions across almost all forms of violence. They prove that change is possible, and violence is preventable. By implementing evidence-based policies and targeted interventions we can end violence against children and stop this global scourge.