Peaceful Childhoods – Peace and Violence Overview


Peace can be defined as “A quality of relationship in which no harm is done as a minimum, an equitable, reciprocal and joyful relationship exists as a maximum, and in which conflicts are resolved constructively.”[1] The World Health Organization defines violence as “The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.” [2] Arguably this definition should be expanded to include not just the use of physical force or power but also of sexual acts and threats, and verbal and psychological intimidation.

Violence accounts for 2.5% of global mortality, and occurs against children globally in homes, communities, schools, and judicial systems and is often rooted in cultural, economic or social practices.[3] Based on data from 2012-2014, 23% of adults worldwide reported physical abuse in their childhood, 37% reported emotional abuse, 16% reported physical neglect, and 18% of females and 8% of males reported childhood sexual abuse.[4] Violence arises from a combination of personal, familial, social, economic, and cultural factors, and often is intergenerational in its reach. The rights of children are included in various international human rights covenants such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These declarations include the elimination of corporal punishment (which is physical punishment intended to inflict pain as retribution), and the absence of physical and mental violence in juvenile justice, among other articles prohibiting violence against children. For many young people, their perceptions of violence and willingness to engage in violence are influenced by their own experiences of violence in their childhoods and the opportunities their communities provide to them.[5] Violence can have an intergenerational reach if conflict and experiences of trauma are not dealt with among the first generation affected, as evident in parts of Central America and among some First Nations groups (see the First Nations part in this series).[6] Violence is strongly related to social determinants, including weak governance, gender and economic inequality, and limited educational opportunities, as higher levels of education and social security within a society tend to decrease levels of violence. [7], [8]

Types of violence include physical, sexual, verbal or psychological violence, as well as deprivation or neglect and violence can be self-directed, interpersonal, or collective.[9] Peaceful Childhoods is a collection of resources that focuses mostly on interpersonal violence, with consideration for collective violence which often influences interpersonal violence. Males and females tend to be affected differently by violence; young men tend to exhibit higher levels of violent behaviour, more often be the victims of homicide and community-level violence, while young women tend to be victims of rape and domestic violence at higher rates than young men.[10] Childhood and youth are times of critical development, identity building, and value acquisition that will shape later behavioural patterns; experiences of violence during this time can have implications for later personal, social, and community life.




Children who are exposed to violence may exhibit distress systems, behavioral problems, mental health problems (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, and depression), aggression, obesity, substance abuse, early sexual activity and poor academic performances. As a result of early violence, later health and relational problems such as sexually transmitted diseases, lung and heart disease, suicide and intimate partner violence (IPV) may occur. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study published in 1998 found a correlation between abuse and household dysfunction in childhood with increased risk for multiple health problems in adulthood, demonstrating a connection between childhood violence and later poor health outcomes.[12]

There is also a huge personal and societal cost of violence relating to hospitalization, low productivity, criminal justice involvement and welfare reliance. Differing levels of violence exposure, including the severity and type of violence and the child’s relationship to the perpetrator or victim, influences distress levels of children. Violence among youth has many impacts on societies, including increased fear and distrust, decreased quality of life and investment into the community, increased cost of security, stopping development and increasing violations of citizen’s liberty and human rights in a repressive response to increased crime.[13], [14] Violence strains health, criminal justice, and social and welfare services, in addition to eroding local economies through lost productivity and human capital.[15]



Homes: Children experience violence in the place they are supposed to feel most supported and loved. For more information on domestic violence, see the Peaceful Homes part of this series.

Care, Justice and Educational Institutions: A lack of oversight and proper training on discipline and dealing with disabilities or vulnerable children can lead to violence by staff against institutionalized children. Institutions may also foster abuse and violence amongst the children themselves. Children such as juvenile offenders and unaccompanied asylum seekers are included in this category. For further information regarding institutionalized children, see the Peaceful Homes part of this series. Unfortunately, even in educational institutions such as schools violence reflects the gender stereotypes and social hierarchies of the communities the schools are situated in. Physical violence and sexual harassment are too often considered a ‘normal’ part of school and adolescence.[16] For more information regarding violence in schools, see the Peaceful Schools part of this series.

Workplaces: Although not all areas of labor promote violence against children, certain industries such as the sex industry and domestic labor have high rates of violence against children. Often stigma or the continuance of the economic and social factors which originally forced children into employment prevents family reunification and children from leaving employment situations where they face abuse.[17]

Communities: Community violence can include regional or national conflicts, ranging from civil to interstate war, hostility and threats. It can also include interpersonal, interfamily, and intergroup violence which can have an impact on the community. More collective forms of violence may be socially, politically, or economically motivated. For more information on large-scale violence, see the Children and Armed Conflicts part of this series.



Based on ecological models (see below), violent behaviour arises from the interaction of a variety of individual, relational, community-based, and societal level factors. Individual risk factors include biological disposition and personal development, such as impulsiveness, aggression, learning difficulties and previous experiences of abuse or violence. Relationship level risk factors include weak parental supervision, poor parent-child attachment, inadequate family cohesion, single –parent upbringing, low socioeconomic status, low parental education, and drug use or criminality among friends and peer group. Community level risk factors include issues within the educational system such as frequent school changes, forced suspensions, weak teaching, and broader issues such as drug consumption, formation of youth gangs, weak infrastructure for young people, lack of social capital and employment opportunities, urban crowding, lack of leisure activities, and the availability of weaponry. Societal level risk factors include inequitable incomes, social exclusion of certain groups and gender inequality, armed forces, weak governance, and violent norms and values.[18] Violence poses a major public health challenge, emerging from a complicated array of determinants, and requiring prevention and intervention on multiple levels.[19] Ecological Model of Understanding Violence[20]



There are a variety of reasons why youth turn to violence. Experiences of violence as victims or combatants and cultures of violence encourage adolescence to use violence as a response in disputes and conflicts. Unfortunately, increased youth violence leads to a decreased overall senses of security and serves to stigmatized already socially marginalized young people. Violence among young people is increasingly being viewed not only as a matter for the criminal justice system, but as a public health concern, which can focus on violence prevention involving minimizing the impact of underlying causes of violence.[21] Youth gangs, which provide youth with material benefits and a sense of belonging, arise in part from a lack of meaningful resource and leisure activities for young people. See more on youth gangs in the Children and Armed Conflict part of this series. Half of the unemployed population worldwide is between the ages of 15-24, leading to inadequate social and economic security, low self-esteem and social marginalization, which can push youth towards violence and criminal activity.[22] Government responses are often zero tolerance, using repression and police violence to try to curb youth violence, which earns politicians public favour but does not necessarily help curb violence levels. Long periods of waiting in prisons surrounded by hardened criminals do not help reform youth who have committed violent crimes to be more peaceable. Alternatives such as prevention and social development in the form of youth services, street workers, and employment opportunities are underfunded, leaving zero tolerance as the preferred option. Resocialization programs, community service, and sanctions rather than repression are more appropriate for youth.



Strong community social support, higher levels of parental education, parental mental and emotional well-being, and strong relationships and attachments can help reduce the risk of violence. Societal-scale risk factors can be mitigated through support for democracy, health systems, good social policy, employment promotion, and education. Other protective factors include basic health and counselling services, education, employment promotion and training, and social security, which help give people meaningful roles in society. [23] 

Victims of violence have diverse needs depending on the type of violence they have suffered. They may be in need of physical, medical, or psychosocial support and attention, protection, assistance with emotional regulation, anxiety management, and developing problem solving skills, and legal aid. Parental capacity to care for their children should be supported, rather than increasing the population of institutionalized children. Many police forces are implementing changes to allow police to be more focused on prevention rather than zero tolerance crime fighting alternatives which can result in high youth incarceration rates rather than changes to the culture of violence.[24] Citizens can advocate for these changes within their nation through elections, petitions, and supporting groups who work for these goals. Some communities in South Africa have implemented a program of community peace workers, who help patrol communities, resolve disputes, take care of children whose parents are largely absent, and take down petty crime reports. CPW receive vocational skills and training, and communities have benefitted from decreased rates in crime. The World Health Organization has multiple recommendations regarding the prevention of violence, including enhancing the capacity of organizations such as hospitals, police stations, and community centers to collect data on violence, supporting primary prevention interventions such as good parenting training, firearm reduction, media campaigns and social development programs for youth, providing better support for victims of violence, incorporating violence prevention into educational and social policies, and advocating for adherence to international law and human rights conventions.[25]



Consult the other parts in this Peaceful Childhoods Series for resources on how to deal with violence and promote peace in specific contexts.

For further reading on this subject area, consider the below publications:

Butchart, A. & Mikton, C. (2014). Global Status Report on Violence Prevention 2014. Luxembourg: World Health Organization. Retrieved from

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Injury Prevention &Control: Division of Violence Prevention- Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Retrieved from

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. (2011). Systematic Prevention of Youth Violence: A handbook to design and plan comprehensive violence prevention measures. Eschborn: GIZ. p10. Retrieved from

Donnelly, P. & Ward, C. (2015). Oxford Textbook on Violence Prevention: Epidemiology, Evidence, and Policy. Oxford Textbooks in Public Health series. UK: Oxford University Press.

Jones L. (2014). Improving efforts to prevent children’s exposure to violence: A handbook for defining program theory and planning for evaluation in the evidence-based culture. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization. Retrieved from

Krug, E., Dahlberg, L., Mercy, J., Zwi, A., and Lozano, R., eds. (2002). World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization. Retrieved from



  1. Santa Barbara, J. (24 June 2015). Personal communication.
  2. Krug, E., Dahlberg, L., Mercy, J., Zwi, A., and Lozano, R. (2002).World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization. p.5. Retrieved from
  3. Butchart, A. & Mikton, C. (2014). Global Status Report on Violence Prevention 2014. Luxembourg: World Health Organization. Retrieved from
  4. World Health Organization. (2015). Prevalence of fatal and non-fatal violence. Global Health Observatory (GHO) data. Retrieved from
  5. Worner, B. (2008). Focus on Youth: Youth Violence- A Challenge for Development. Deutsche Gesellschaft fürTechnische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH. p.7.
  6. Worner (2008). p8
  7. Butchart & Mikton. (2014).
  8. Worner (2008) p16.
  9. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. (2011). Systematic Prevention of Youth Violence: A handbook to design and plan comprehensive violence prevention measures. Eschborn: GIZ. p10. Retrieved from
  10. GIZ. (2011). p11
  11. GIZ. (2011). p11
  12. Felitti, V. et al. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Am J Prev Med 14(4):245-258. DOI:10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8
  13. Worner. (2008). p4.
  14. GIZ (2011). p11
  15. Butchart & Mikton. (2014). p2.
  16. Butchart & Mikton (2014).
  17. Butchart & Mikton (2014).
  18. Krug et al., Eds. (2002).
  19. Williams, D.J. & Donnelly, P.D. (2014). Is violence a disease? Situation violence prevention in public health policy and practice. Public Health 128:960-967.
  20. Violence Prevention Alliance. (2015). The ecological framework. WHO. Accessed September 3. Retrieved from
  21. Neville, F., Goodall, C., Gavine, A., Williams, D. & Donnelly, P. (2015). Public Health, Youth Violence, and Perpetrator Well-Being. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 21(3):322-333.
  22. GIZ. (2011). p16
  23. Wörner. (2008). pp24-25
  24. Wörner. (2008). pp18-19
  25. World Health Organization. (2002). Recommendations from the World Report on Violence and Health. Retrieved from