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Annual full-day meeting on the rights of the child, Sexual Violence in Institutions, including in detention facilities - Statement by Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur on Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, 13th session of the Human Rights Council, 10 March 2010, Geneva

Mr. President, Distinguished Members and Observers of the Council, Experts,

More than one million children around the world are deprived of their liberty, making them among the most vulnerable and forgotten human beings in our society. Unfortunately, the number of children in detention is rising. Rather than receiving preferential treatment, children in detention are at a higher risk of abuse and ill-treatment. Children are not only more likely to be subjected to corporal punishment and abuse by police or correctional officers, but they are many times subjected to violence from their fellow detainees.

Violence in places of detention, including special institutions for children, is manifest in several ways, mainly through physical and sexual violence, as well as through verbal abuse. In addition, children are also subjected to violence as a result of conditions of detention, or as a form of discipline or punishment.

According to the report of the independent expert for the United Nations study on violence against children, corporal and other violent punishments are accepted as legal disciplinary measures in penal institutions in almost 80 countries. This, despite the provision in article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that “States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child”. Sexual exploitation and abuse are also prohibited by the Convention. Furthermore, any form of corporal punishment against children is contrary to the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

One of the conditions which place children at greater vulnerability for abuse is their detention in the same facilities or even same cells as adults, despite international obligations requiring separate facilities for children. In some countries, lengthy periods of detention of children with adults have led to the former being subjected to sexual abuse by fellow inmates. Girls are placed at a higher risk if they are supervised by male staff, which is often the case. Inhuman and degrading conditions of detention, including severe overcrowding, are a third condition which can perpetuate a cycle of violence and make children more vulnerable to different types of abuse. Finally, instances of sexual violence and other abuse are not prevented as a result of the absence of or insufficient number of adequately trained staff in institutions and other detention facilities.

When sexual or other types of abuse occur against children, they frequently go unreported, mainly due to fear of further abuse or reprisals, or due to shame. The lack of effective and accessible complaints mechanisms only diminishes the possibilities of lodging complaints. Children often face particular difficulties in accessing legal aid and legal services, including forensic and medical expertise to secure evidence and substantiate their claims, depriving them of the possibility to effectively access the justice system. Furthermore, special care which must be taken by the State to ensure that victims are not re-traumatised during this process, particularly those victims of gender-based and sexual violence who also need to be protected from further stigmatization, is not always available.

For many victims the actual physical and sexual abuse may end upon their release from institutions; however, the trauma inflicted may cause the suffering to continue long after the end of their detention, particularly if no measures for an adequate physical and psychological recovery and social integration are made available to them.

Mr. President,

Children are placed in detention or in institutions for various reasons, including if they are in conflict with the law, or if they require state protection, including children who are victims of certain crimes or if they do not have an alternative place to go. However, there is not always a clear distinction between placing children who are going through judicial processes in detention facilities, and placing those in need of protection in separate institutions. As a result, detention facilities may hold children in pre-trial detention or serving sentences; victims of child trafficking or sexual exploitation; abandoned or otherwise homeless children; as well as children with mental disabilities, often held together without distinction. This lack of separation, together with the lack of special protection and assistance, as required by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, places children at further risk of abuse.

In this regard, victims of child trafficking and all forms of sexual exploitation, including prostitution and pornography, are many times subjected to judicial procedures and even detention, instead of receiving special protection. This places them at greater risk of further sexual abuse, and greatly limits their possibilities to receive adequate medical and psychological treatment.

In terms of legislation, various sex offence laws around the world only recognize the rape, sexual exploitation or prostitution of females, leaving boys outside the protection of the law.

Mr. President,

Sexual abuse should not be seen as an inevitable aspect of juvenile detention. On the contrary, it should be abolished both in domestic legislation and, perhaps more importantly, in practice. However, in order to put an end to sexual violence against children, States must ensure that there are strong policies and committed leadership from the highest authorities, appropriate facilities for children in detention, as well as committed and adequately trained personnel.

As such, in order to prevent sexual and other types of violence against children, I wish to make the following recommendations:

  • States should elaborate a clear policy that sexual violence against detainees, including children, will not be tolerated.
  • States should ensure that institutionalized care is used only as a last resort and that it is restricted to the shortest time possible.
  • All children should be removed from adult detention facilities.
  • States should establish independent and effective complaints, monitoring and investigation mechanisms.

Mr. President, Distinguished Members and Observers of the Council, Experts,

I thank you for your attention, and look forward to a fruitful discussion.

A/61/299, para. 62.