Investing in ending violence against children

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Dr Roberto de Bernardi
Dr Roberto de Bernardi

UNICEF Representative to Albania

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkans Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkans Journey series.

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Show more information on This article is a part of our Balkans Journey series.

Friends of Europe’s Balkans Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkans Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

An estimated one in five children in Europe becomes a victim of some form of sexual violence. In Albania the situation is equally alarming. INSTAT data from 2017 report that 61% of all sexual crimes were committed against children, totalling 70 cases, out of which 26 were cases of rape. This is a rough estimation as there is no solid recording system in place.

Sexual violence against children can take a multitude of forms. It is one of the most gruesome and devastating types of violence that can occur both online and offline and often goes hand in hand with other types of violence, such as domestic or youth violence. A child exposed in an acute or prolonged way to any form of violence is at risk of toxic stress – a condition that alters the structure and functioning of the brain, nervous system and immune functions. Victims of violence are also at higher risk of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal behaviours.

Preventing and addressing violence against children requires a multi-layered and structured response. This is especially the case for human trafficking, a crime embedded in violence. When committed for the purposes of sexual exploitation, human trafficking can be considered as a particularly devastating form of gender-based violence.

The strengthening of the child protection system is yet to be addressed more consistently

In order to address these complex, transnational challenges, UNICEF Albania, in cooperation with the Albanian National Anti-Trafficking Coordinator and with funding from the Government of the United Kingdom, is implementing the “Transforming the National Response to Human Trafficking in and from Albania” programme. Based on a multi-stakeholder approach, the programme is evidence-informed and drives strategic communication approaches to change attitudes around stigma, abuse and exploitation. It addresses national justice and law enforcement organisations on crime prevention and supports people at risk by helping them access services that are critical to their survival.

However, while addressing the immediate needs of survivors of sexual violence, a truly sustainable solution requires more in-depth systemic changes. Prevention and protection from violence need to be fully integrated into the national child protection system as recognised also by the European Union strategy on the rights of the child.

The Albanian government, in the past years, has made remarkable progress towards improving the legal framework with the adoption of the Law on Child Rights and Protection (18/2017) and the Criminal Justice Code for Children (37/2017). However, their full implementation suffers from inadequate budgetary allocations.

While state reforms are strongly focused on achieving EU accession, the strengthening of the child protection system is yet to be addressed more consistently.

If Albania is to be successful in fighting sexual violence against children, three major requirements apply: investment in violence prevention, children’s meaningful involvement and capacity building of the child protection workforce.

Violence can be prevented. Solutions are available

Prevention programmes can only work when adequately budgeted. Despite progress, only 9% of Albania’s GDP is allocated to social protection services, compared to the European average of 28%. The State Agency on the Right of the Child’s (SACRP) 2018 budget of 12,400,000 Albanian lek, or roughly €100,000, is still insufficient to meet increasing needs and responsibilities, including the monitoring of child protection services.

To amplify the voices of children and to promote a culture of speaking up about violence and abuse – especially sexual violence – UNICEF Albania launched the #TëBesoj “I believe you, I trust you” awareness campaign in September 2020, which collects and shares real stories of child sexual abuse in Albania. The campaign reached around one million people in Albania, including many children, and triggered a policy debate with central and local governments on the urgency of ending child sexual abuse.

Lastly, although there are some 236 child protection workers in the entire country, most of them are not yet trained in social work, nor are they hired as full-time staff. The system would require as many as double the current workforce to ensure country-wide coverage. Certified pre- and in-service training for the wider prosecution, police, health care and social care workforce is equally needed to assure early identification, investigation and case-management of child sexual abuse.

The Government of Albania is fully committed to work on the three above mentioned requirements, and support should be provided by all stakeholders.

Violence can be prevented. Solutions are available. Ending violence against children is a smart, life-saving and cost-efficient investment!

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