Violence against children in humanitarian settings – moving from theory to understanding

Ilan Cerna-Turoff is a PhD candidate at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine researching how humanitarian crises affects familial and community violence against children, particularly in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

If I said to you that children are a product of their environment, you might argue with me about nature versus nurture or generally agree and internally ask “why is this guy stating the obvious.” Popular opinion nowadays generally concludes that we are most likely some combination of both. As a social scientist, I focus on the latter and for years have wondered, what is the mechanism by which external factors become internalized in individuals?

A guiding theory in psychology and public health is Bronfenbrenner’s socio-ecological model of human development. Bronfenbrenner proposed that individuals are embedded within various social systems, from families to social norms. In other words, you are a product of both your individual choices and your environment. Nearly since its conception, the socio-ecological model was applied to child development, and in 2002, it was adopted as a global framework for understanding violence against children.

One of the newest extensions of this socio-ecological model is to violence against children in humanitarian settings. This small stepwise progression at least provides some basis for understanding that we live within and are products of various systems (and, any researcher worth his mettle will tell you that a theory is the first step). Something about it rings true. Humanitarian crises cause disruptions in the social fabric of society. The separation or destruction of families, the impossibility of continued employment, schooling or political functioning, and the erosion of social norms are all commonplace. Violence against children may result from the breakdown of protection systems and individual survival strategies. It is also very feasible that the kind of social meltdown may lead to high levels of stress and poor mental health outcomes, which can manifest in increases in child abuse.

The next step is empirical evidence. I began to explore what kind of evidence exists to establish this connection and how the violence occurs. Almost no evidence exists. It is understandable in some ways, because conducting research in humanitarian contexts is extremely challenging. The population is in flux, and it is often impossible from a logistic and safety perspective. Our priority and our credo in the Sphere guidelines is to “do no harm.” I think that we can all surely agree that saving a child’s life in the present always takes precedence over conducting complicated research studies for future gains. But, I couldn’t help feeling that another challenge comes from a bit of a mismatch in skills and interest. Humanitarians often do not have a background in designing and analyzing research, and academics do not understand the humanitarian field (or, simply think that they can translate their work in development settings. I am going to go out on a limb here and advocate that it is not the case).  

I hope that my research can begin to change that. I am using my Ph.D. degree at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to understand how societal violence translates into violence against children on the community and family level. I am looking at two emblematic countries—Haiti to explore the effect of internal displacement and natural disasters and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to understand armed conflict. One part is theoretical. Quantitative approaches are neglected in social science, even if they better suit the question at hand. It is usually a matter of researchers lacking training in needed areas and hard-to-research phenomena. I see an important need in using more advanced statistical techniques to measure causation and correlation in a way that qualitative methods cannot do without bias and to scale. I also want to show the world some possibilities of what we can do with the data that we already have.

My other reasoning is ideological. We desperately need more research on these kinds of topics. As displacement has reached the highest amount in global history, and wars and climate change seem to only be accelerating dire situations, we need to understand how complex ecological exposures affect populations. If we can establish a clear connection, then we can perhaps begin to think of possible solutions. After all, we can only prevent and respond to things that we understand. My contribution will hopefully help the global community to better align its interventions with the needs of children. 

Image credit: Lynne Jones, Migrant Child Storytelling

Central America and the Caribbean
Humanitarian and conflict health
Primary care
Human rights
All disorders
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