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Research that Drives Change: Conceptualizing and Conducting Nationally Led Violence Prevention Research

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Globally, studies have demonstrated that children in every society are affected by physical, sexual and emotional violence. The drive to both quantify and qualify violence through data and research has been powerful: discourse among policy makers is shifting from “this does not happen here” to “what is driving this?” and “how can we address it?” To help answer these questions, the MultiCountry Study on the Drivers of Violence Affecting Children – conducted in Italy, Viet Nam, Peru and Zimbabwe – sought to disentangle the complex and often interrelated underlying causes of violence affecting children (VAC) in these four countries.

Led by the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti with its academic partner, the University of Edinburgh, the Study was conducted by national research teams comprised of government, practitioners and academic researchers in each of the four countries. Drawing on human-centred principles, the Study used an iterative approach which put national ownership and co-creation at its core. Government partners were actively engaged as co-researchers and all data analysis was conducted in-country by government statisticians. Facilitating and prioritizing national meaningmaking through dialogue and joint analysis and synthesis of findings was also a key part of the Study design.

Each national team used a common process involving three separate components, all of which build on existing data and research: a systematic literature review of academic and ‘grey’ literature (such as research reports) including both quality quantitative and qualitative research, secondary analyses of nationally representative data sets and an initial mapping of the interventions landscape. Analysed together, these sources of information helped build initial hypotheses around what drives violence in each country.

Two key frameworks were applied to the analysis in this Study: 1) a version of the socio-ecological model, which helps to understand the dynamic relationships between factors at the micro-, mesoand macro-levels, and 2) an age and gender framework, which recognizes that a child’s vulnerability and ability to protect herself from violence changes over time with her evolving capacities. Through these lenses, common themes emerged across contexts. Guided by findings from the four countries highlighting the dynamic and constantly changing and/or overlapping domains that shape violence in children’s lives, this Study moved beyond understanding the risk and protective factors for violence affecting children, which are often measured at the individual, interpersonal and community level. In doing so, it demonstrated how patterns of interpersonal violence are intimately connected to larger structural and institutional factors—or the drivers of violence.

The structural drivers of violence identified across the four country sites, representing high (Italy), upper middle (Peru), lower middle (Viet Nam) and low income (Zimbabwe) settings, include: rapid socio-economic transformations accompanied by economic growth but also instability; poverty; migration; and gender inequality. The institutional drivers of violence, such as legal structures, ineffective child protection systems, weak school governance and harmful social and cultural norms, often serve to reinforce children’s vulnerabilities.

Drivers are rarely isolated factors and tend to work in potent combination with other factors within a single level as well as between levels of the social ecology that shapes children’s lives. While some drivers can lead to positive change for children, in this study, these factors or combinations of factors are most often invisible forms of harm in and of themselves.

While VAC is present in every country, the analyses also show how violence conspires unevenly to create and maintain inequalities between and within countries. The institutions and communities upon which children and their families depend are changing social entities with many interdependent parts. The type of violence in any one or multiple settings may vary depending on a variety of risk or protective factors and/or by age and gender.

One of the most important findings is that violence is a fluid and shifting phenomenon in children’s lives as they move between the places where they live, play, sleep and learn. Identifying and addressing unequal power dynamics – wherever they may occur in the home, school or community – is of central importance to effective violence prevention. The research also shows how behaviours around violence are passed through generations, suggesting that the social tolerance of these behaviours is learned in childhood. Data across countries also shows how violence is intimately connected to how relationships are structured and defined by power dynamics within and among families, peers and communities.

These findings, along with learning from the study process, led to the development of a new childcentred and integrated framework, which proposes a process by which interdisciplinary coalitions of researchers, practitioners and policymakers can understand violence affecting children and what can be done to prevent it. Using data to drive change, our proposed Child-Centred and Integrated Framework for Violence Prevention serves to situate national findings according to a child’s social ecology, making clear how institutional and structural drivers and risk/protective factors together shape the many risks and opportunities of childhood around the world.