Commentary. - Considering that the world has celebrated last year the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, modern states should recognize that society as a whole is not exempt from violence against children. This is particularly true for the domestic sphere where violence is often perpetrated. As a result, concrete measures and/or a specific legal framework must be implemented in the aim of freeing children from violence.


Among children’s rights, the right to live in a violent-free environment is essential and was discussed at the 28th session of the Human Rights Council, on 11 March 2015. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on violence against children, Ms. Marta Santos Pais, and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict, Ms. Leila Zerrougui, raised the issue of children’s right to protection from violence. Indeed, alarming figures revealed the plight of minors worldwide with 1 billion children being subjected to physical punishment.

The Media and the judiciary system targeted

The Annual Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children expresses specific concerns about the rapid development of information and communication technology (ICT) as it impacts negatively on children's well-being. The Human Rights Council calls for an action “Towards a safe, inclusive and empowering digital agenda for children” in order to protect their rights online. In particular, the Human Rights Council advocates for the adoption of international standards to combat cybercrime. It also supports parents and schools to promote changes in attitudes that tolerate violence and includes the corporate sector in those debates.

The report points out that violence is often inflicted to girls that are deprived of liberty within the criminal justice system. Moreover, it is estimated that 84 million girls are victims of emotional, physical, emotional or sexual violence perpetrated by their husbands or partners. The report thus calls for the "enforcement of a sound legal framework to ban all forms of violence against children" and for the removal (of) "any justification that allows violence, including on the grounds of culture, tradition, honor or religion".  For example, cultural motives account for the traditional practice of early and forced marriage, which denies girls many rights including the right to education, freedom from violence, access to reproductive and sexual health care, and the right to consensual marriage.

Early and Forced marriage, when tradition denies children’s and women’s rights

The Ethiopian award-winning movie “Difret”, produced by Angelina Jolie and recently broadcasted in Geneva, clearly denounces this type of abuse of the judiciary system. It tells the true story of a young teenager girl being jailed and denied a fair trial after being convicted of the murder of a man who subjected her to forced marriage. In her plight, this girl is being supported by Andinet, a lawyer association defending women’s rights in Ethiopia. The main character, a talented female lawyer, confronts the patriarchal and conservationist society which legitimates ancestral girls’ abduction and limits their role in society to that of being spouses and mothers. The girl in “Difret” is not entitled to receive adequate care and a fair trial as the local prosecutor refutes her age owing to the lack of a reliable birth certificate system.  The anthropologist Christine Verschuur of the Graduate Institute in Geneva emphasizes how culture is used as an argument not to change things but rather to maintain male domination.  She stresses that education is always the main driver of change for girls to contest social norms, and that men should be included in these gender debates. Her quote “power is not given, power is taken” embodies perfectly the constant fight aimed at achieving a more balanced distribution of power.

This movie sheds light on a common practice: Human Rights Watch estimates that 14 million underage girls are married worldwide. To be more accurate “one in seven girls in the developing world is married before her 15th birthday”. Furthermore, child marriage clearly threatens girls’ health and survival since complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the main cause of death among adolescent girls in developing countries. Thus, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) are working jointly on the elaboration of a General Recommendation/Comment on harmful practices. Among other things it condemns genital mutilation as well as early and forced marriage.

Children as “normal” war victims

One notable issue highlighted by the Human Rights Council is the disastrous situation of children’s rights in armed conflicts. The Special Representative on children and armed conflict acknowledged the impossible challenge of protecting tens of millions of children growing up in countries affected by conflict. She focused on specific war-torn countries namely the Central African Republic, the State of Palestine, Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan and the Syrian Arab Republic, and revealed how children were exposed to the most outrageous violations. She mentioned the abduction (and/or killing) by Boko Haram of hundreds of girls and boys from their schools in north-eastern Nigeria. She described how the Islamic State (IS)  is engaged in sexual exploitation of Yazidi girls, torture and killing of Christian and Yazidi boys and how it is resorting to brainwashing techniques to turn them into child soldiers. Ironically, counter groups are also using children as combatants to fight IS.

If those violations are well-known at the UN level, Adèle Bréau, a Huffington Post journalist, underlines how citizens divert their attention from certain atrocities. She reports how IS is slaughtering children just for watching a football match in Iraq or how boys from minorities are being crucified, beheaded or even buried alive with the complete indifference of the world.  While bloggers and the media followed diligently the terrorist attacks in Paris in January and millions of people marched in defense of the freedom of speech, the world remained silent during two unprecedented massacres affecting children. Indeed it is alarming to think that the Taliban bombing attack in Peshawar killed more than 100 schoolchildren, that Boko Haram slaughtered more than 2’000 persons during the Bagga attacks and that these events received very little media coverage. Besides, no international response was triggered.

Despite specific international measures protecting children’s rights in conflict situations that have been promoted this week at the Human Rights Council, it is a bit optimistic to think that human and more precisely, child suffering, will end by the next human rights roundtable.

Céline Krebs


Annual Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, Human Rights Council, Twenty-eighth session, Agenda item 3, checked on 12/03/2015,

Annual report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, Human Rights Council, Twenty-eighth session, Agenda item 3, checked on 12/03/2015,

État islamique: 8 atrocités dont tout le monde se fout, checked on 12/03/2015,

Joint CEDAW-CRC General Recommendation/Comment on Harmful Practices, Call for submissions, checked on 12/03/2015,

“Q&A: Child Marriage and Violations of Girls’ Rights”, Human Rights Watch, checked on 12/03/2015,

Why did the world ignore Boko Haram's Baga attacks?, checked on 12/03/2015,


Difret (2014), Ethiopian movie, drama, directed by Zeresenay Mehari, 99 minutes