|Governments have failed to protect children against all kinds of violence, and the poor and the marginalised are the hardest hit, the study says [GALLO/GETTY]
The countries of Latin America are working slowly to overcome barriers in the fight against the often brutal violence suffered by children and adolescents in their homes, schools, workplaces or juvenile detention centres.
Five years after the release of the United Nations secretary-general's Study on Violence against Children in 2006, a new study presented Thursday in Paraguay, focused on South America, reports that progress has been slow.
Abandonment, exploitation and corporal punishment are some of the ills that remain part of the day-to-day reality of too many children and teenagers in the region.
The new report states that six million children in the region suffer serious physical abuse, and 80,000 die every year as a result of abuse at the hands of their parents.
In the English-speaking Caribbean, nearly 43 per cent of girls under 12 who have already had sex admitted that the first time, they were raped.
Governments have failed to protect children against all kinds of violence, and the poor and the marginalised are the hardest hit, says the study carried out by experts at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, based on data provided by countries in the region.
The authors also express concern about increasing bullying among peers, aggravated by the use of the internet and the rise in emotional abuse by parents and teachers, which is largely invisible but causes a great deal of harm by undermining the self-esteem of youngsters, they say.
The Sao Paulo report, which maps the implementation of the recommendations of the landmark 2006 UN Study on Violence against Children in the region, was presented at a two-day international meeting that began Thursday in Asunción.
The gathering was organised by Paraguay's National Secretariat for Childhood and Adolescence and the Global Movement for Children, whose Latin American and Caribbean regional platform is made up of organisations focused on children like UNICEF (the UN children's fund), the YMCA, SOS Children's Villages, and the Inter-American Children's Institute.
The authors of the Sao Paulo report say "the real magnitude of the problem is still hidden", and point to the "high level of social tolerance" towards violence against children.
The first South America meeting to follow up on the recommendations of the UN Study on Violence against Children has drawn government and civil society delegates, independent experts, and some 60 adolescents.
"The idea never was that the study would be a magic wand that would change the situation," said Paulo Pinheiro, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) rapporteur on children.
The Brazilian expert, who was the lead author of the 2006 UN Study on Violence against Children, remarked that it at least helped "increase global awareness about violence".
He said the region is making progress in terms of integration of policies on children, but lamented the "enormously slow pace" in passing laws cracking down on domestic abuse and other forms of violence against children.
"There are no more excuses: Latin America cannot let its children and adolescents down," he said.
He was referring to the recommendations set forth by the UN Study on Violence against Children on the need to pass laws to fight abuse and mistreatment of children and adolescents, which 26 countries in the world – including Costa Rica, Venezuela and Uruguay in Latin America – have done since the report was published.
Chidren under the law
"Governments are reluctant to recognise children as subjects of law," Pinheiro said.
"But countries that suffered dictatorships must now put an end to the 'dictatorship' against children within families," he told the delegates to the meeting.
Brazilian representative Carmen Silveira de Oliveira said that in her country, a draft law banning corporal punishment was first introduced in congress in 2003, but ran up against heavy resistance from legislators belonging to the increasingly powerful Evangelical sects and other right-wing sectors.
Now, a new bill, which enjoys stronger backing, is on its way to being passed. Silveira de Oliveira clarified that the initiative is not focused on bringing criminal action against parents or other culprits but on raising awareness among parents and teachers and providing the necessary support to bring about a cultural change.
Paraguay's Minister for Childhood and Adolescence Liz Torres acknowledged that, although there is a team drafting a law in her country, it is unlikely to be passed by the current legislature.
"In our country, corporal punishment is accepted as a method of teaching and discipline," she said.
Teenagers from grassroots organisations warned that the practice is seen as normal in many parts of the region. Andrea Alfaro from El Salvador said, "there are all kinds of violence against us in the neighbourhoods, in school, in our families, but the problem is not reported, out of fear."
Participants in the meeting also warned about the risk of the adoption of security policies based on hard-line "zero tolerance" laws that tend to lower the age of criminal responsibility, without putting a priority on education and prevention of violence among youngsters.
Marta Santos Pais of Portugal, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative on Violence against Children, said that although South America has made advances in the area and there are best practices and successful initiatives to emulate, "efforts must be intensified".
"There is a wide gap between the commitment expressed by the authorities and concrete actions, and the children are waiting – we cannot delay for many more years," she said.
Santos Pais remarked that, "there is no kind of violence that can be justified, and every kind of violence can be prevented." She urged the government delegates to draw up a road map for moving forward, in the framework of international standards on children's rights.
The UN official had already marked three priority recommendations for the region out of a total of 12 established by the UN Study on Violence against Children.
The three are: strengthen national and local commitment and action, coordinated by an agency with the capacity to involve multiple sectors in a broad-based implementation strategy; strengthen legal frameworks; and strengthen data collection and research.
A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.