Sexual violence against children

Home & Family

Every year, millions of girls and boys around the world face sexual abuse and exploitation. Sexual violence occurs everywhere – in every country and across all segments of society. A child may be subjected to sexual abuse or exploitation at home, at school or in their community. The widespread use of digital technologies can also put children at risk.

Most often, abuse occurs at the hands of someone a child knows and trusts.

At least 120 million girls under the age of 20 – about 1 in 10 – have been forced to engage in sex or perform other sexual acts, although the actual figure is likely much higher. Roughly 90 per cent of adolescent girls who report forced sex say that their first perpetrator was someone they knew, usually a boyfriend or a husband.

But many victims of sexual violence, including millions of boys, never tell anyone.

About 1 in 10 girls under the age of 20 have been forced to engage in sex or perform other sexual acts.

Although sexual violence occurs everywhere, risks surge in emergency contexts. During armed conflict, natural disasters and other humanitarian emergencies, women and children are especially vulnerable to sexual violence – including conflict-related sexual violence, intimate partner violence and trafficking for sexual exploitation – as well as other forms of gender-based violence.

Sexual violence results in severe physical, psychological and social harm. Victims experience an increased risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, pain, illness, unwanted pregnancy, social isolation and psychological trauma. Some victims may resort to risky behaviours like substance abuse to cope with trauma. And as child victims reach adulthood, sexual violence can reduce their ability to care for themselves and others.

While sexual violence is fundamentally a crime of power, it is increasingly driven by economic motives. The internet has opened a rapidly growing global market for the production, distribution and consumption of child sexual abuse materials, such as photographs and videos. When online, children may be susceptible to sexual coercion and in-contact sexual abuse by offenders who attempt to extort them for content and financial gain.

The harmful norms that perpetuate sexual violence take a heavy toll on families and communities too. Most children who face sexual abuse experience other kinds of violence. And as abuse and exploitation become entrenched, progress towards development and peace can stall – with consequences for entire societies. 

UNICEF’s response

An adolescent girl practices karate in India, in 2017.

UNICEF plays a key role in preventing and responding to sexual violence worldwide – both in emergency and non-emergency contexts – through programmes, partnerships and advocacy.

Globally, we build advocacy tools and develop technical guidance for violence prevention and response, helping to ensure services are appropriate and sensitive to the needs of survivors. We work closely with partners on a variety of global initiatives, including the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children, Together for Girls and the WePROTECT Global Alliance to End Child Sexual Exploitation Online.

At the national level, we work with governments to develop and strengthen laws and policies, and to increase access to justice, health, education and social services that help child and adolescent survivors recover. We also invest in national prevention programmes to change social norms that condone sexual violence and perpetuate a culture of silence.

Throughout all we do, we focus on supporting children and parents. We work directly with children to build their knowledge on how and where to seek help and protection; and with parents, teachers and adults to identity signs of abuse and make sure children receive ongoing care.

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