Administration’s approach to gender-based violence needs to consider children

Child Abuse & Neglect
Child Rights

President Biden recently announced the United States’ commitments to the Generation Equality Forum, a global initiative to achieve equality and opportunity for women and girls around the world. In his announcement, the President stated that preventing and responding to all forms of gender-based violence would be both domestic and global priorities, alongside strengthening women’s economic security and protecting sexual and reproductive rights. Specifically, the White House pledged to create a U.S. National Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence, fund efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence at home and around the world, and sponsor working groups and international resolutions to end violence against children.

These commitments could not be more timely. As the President’s announcement acknowledged, gender-based violence is a “shadow pandemic” that greatly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. As countries issued stay-at-home orders and children were forced to stay home from school, women and girls faced increased physical and sexual violence. Even worse, these cases of violence were underreported. Children have been forced into child labor or child marriage due to the economic downturn during the pandemic, exposing them to further exploitation.

Sexual and gender-based violence against women was a crisis before the pandemic, and its harmful impact on children is staggering. Worldwide, of adolescent girls who are 15-19 and in a relationship, almost one in four has experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner. Millions of girls have been forced to perform sexual acts, but available data shows only 1% of those girls report their abuse or reach out for help. In 2019, one in five women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before the age of 18. In our region of the Americas, gender-based violence is a main driver of children’s forced migration to the United States. And while girls are disproportionately survivors of this violence, boys also experience violence and sometimes with fewer protections. A study of child rape laws in 40 countries found almost half of the laws lack protections for boys who survive sexual violence, and few services for survivors are geared towards boys. In the United States, the numbers are similarly staggering, as one-in-nine girls and one-in-53 boys under 18 experience sexual violence at the hands of an adult.

This violence can have lifelong impacts on children and by extension their families, communities, and countries. Exposure to violence at an early age leads to toxic stress, which can wear and tear on a child’s physical, mental and emotional health. Without comprehensive support, children may have difficulty continuing their education or maintaining employment, which could lead to further marginalization and exploitation into adulthood. But by taking comprehensive steps to prevent and respond to sexual violence against children, our government can preserve the health and safety of millions of children around the world, for both their present and their future.

So while we applaud the President for his comprehensive approach to gender-based violence and the needs of women and girls at home and abroad, we also call on him to take a comprehensive approach to children as well. For years, we have argued that our government’s siloed approach to issues that impact children—which, by the way, is every issue—harms children’s health and well-being. Last year, when we analyzed the foreign assistance budget for the first time, we found that the U.S. government’s response to the needs of children and youth globally is fragmented. But as the statistics on violence against children show, there are links between economic opportunity, social supports, justice systems, and the occurrence of violence. We cannot address violence against children while we remain in our silos.

Alongside a National Plan on Gender-Based Violence and a Gender Policy Council, we should have a White House Office on Children and a National Children’s Agenda. Alongside investments in economic security and women’s rights, we should increase children’s share of our federal budget domestically and globally. Alongside formal legislation and policies that advance women’s rights, we should have a national best interest of the child standard for all policies and formally evaluate every policy’s impact on children. Congress should pass legislation to create an independent Children’s Commissioner, who can take formal complaints from children who experience violence, evaluate both legislative and executive efforts to protect children from violence, and speak to children themselves about what they need to be safe and healthy.

In the past six months, the President has been strong and bold in his policy, domestically investing in children and youth over the long-term with the American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan, and the American Families Plan, and globally with funding for the global fight against COVID-19. We urge President Biden to be just as bold for children, especially children who have survived unspeakable harms in the form of sexual violence. With the right policies and structures in place, we can do right by them.