SDG Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

More so than any other Sustainable Development Goal, goal 16 is key to real progress across the entire 2030 development agenda. Failure to achieve it could stop progress on every other goal in its tracks.

Conflict devastates societies, impacting particularly on the very areas of progress that are central to the SDGs, including those where we’ve seen significant gains like health, child mortality, education, and poverty.

  • More than 1.5 billion people live in countries affected by conflict (that is roughly 1 in every 4.5 people). People in these countries are three times more likely to be undernourished and gains on reducing infant mortality significantly impacted.
  • In 2014, more 28.8 million had been forced by conflict and oppression to flee their homes; not a day in Europe goes by without a conversation about the fate and future of incoming stream of refugees.
  • In 2011, 28.5 million children were out of school because of conflict in their countries. A UNICEF report notes that 13 million children in the Middle East are not in school due to conflict
  • The average cost of civil war is equivalent to more than 30 years of GDP growth for a medium-sized developing county, crippling economic progress and making poverty a widespread problem.
  • Each year, 526,000 people die in violent circumstances, but 90% of these deaths aren’t related to armed conflict; 35% of the world’s women have suffered from spousal abuse and up to 1.5 billion children experience physical violence.

In every country, boys and girls are vulnerable to many types of violence: neglect, physical and emotional abuse, sexual abuse, rape, trafficking, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, child marriage, honour killings…the list goes on.

The World Health Organization reports that each year 40 million children under the age of 15 are victims of child abuse. UNICEF reports that up to 275 million children witness domestic violence annually, and 6 in 10 children between the ages of 2 and 14 are subjected to regular physical punishment by their caregivers. Around 120 million girls have been victims of sexual violence. Every year, 95,000 children are murder victims.

Violence against children has serious and long-lasting consequences on the physical health, emotional, behavioural and social development of every child, and the societies they live in. Research has recently shown how abuse and maltreatment can lead to life-long physical and mental health problems, lower educational achievement, and even affect a child’s brain development. It has also shown that victims of violence are more likely to become future victims or perpetrators. Left unchecked, the cycle of violence ensures this is one learned behaviour almost guaranteed to spread from one generation to the next.

While ending violence against children is first and foremost an ethical imperative, it is also a smart, cost-saving investment. The most recent study on the global economic burden of violence against children, resulting from physical, psychological and sexual violence, estimates that costs could be as high as $7 trillion per year, or 8% of global GDP. It also showed that prevention pays. The cost of reducing violence is far less than the cost of inaction; it has even been shown to produce real economic returns. A recent EU study found that every euro invested in preventing violence against children produces a social return of €87 ($100).

The good news is that there are proven solutions to stop this destructive and costly cycle. Last year, UNICEF published a report on Six Strategies for Action that provides evidence of effective programmes to prevent and respond to violence against children from around the world.

Among those programmes are a parent education programme in Turkey that led to a reduction of physical punishment by 73% within two years; a parenting intervention in Liberia that led to a decrease in psychological violence by 29% over a 15-month period; a home visit programme in the US that helped reduce child abuse and neglect by 48% over 15 years; and a school-based programme in Croatia that led to a reduction in violence in schools by 50% over eight years.

Preventing violence against boys and girls won’t just make life better for children around the world, it’s critical to building a more peaceful and just society. It’s also a critical key to the success of the rest of the SDGs. We can and must break the cycle of violence for all of us. Imagine a global generation of people who have only heard of but never witnessed or experienced violence – it is possible.

Have you read?
How do we stop violence against children?
What will it take to achieve the SDGs?

Author: Lisa Witter, Executive Director, WithoutViolence; World Economic Forum Young Global Leader 2010

Image: A migrant woman sits with her child in a train at a train station in Magyarboly, Hungary REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo