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The Astonishing Cost of Violence Against Children

Trillions of dollars and billions of bad memories.

Attempts to quantify the monetary cost of violence against children have, over the years, led to some attention-grabbing figures, but never to the creation of an equation of hurt. The most recent global estimate comes from the Overseas Development Institute. The study, commissioned by the ChildFund Alliance, discusses the costs of global violence against children, estimated through a number of measures. The report suggests that the global cost of violence against children could be anywhere from 2 to 8 percent of the GDP of the world — potentially as high as $7 trillion dollars per year. The fact that the possible costs vary that much speaks to how little we know. We know that violence costs a lot. It would seem that world leaders don’t know if it costs enough to be worth stopping.

When discussing the cost of child violence, and when estimating child violence, researchers mostly concern themselves with economic losses attributable to violence, rather than the money spent trying to ameliorate it — partly because there isn’t data available to calculate the money spent protecting or helping children. Costs are calculated by estimating, among other facets, the ability of children who were abused to contribute to the economy later in life, the costs of hospital resources on abused children, the premature death of children due to abuse, war, or labor, the cost of legal aid, and chronic absenteeism. It’s a depressing list and a long one.

There have been other estimates about the cost of violence against children, but they have always been just that — estimates. A 2007 study showed that the cost of child abuse and neglect in Australia to be between $3.5 to $5.5 billion Australian dollars, which, globalized, would put the total damage at $1.17 trillion USD. The Centers for Disease Control estimated a year later that the cost of abuse and neglect in the United States was anywhere between $124 and $585 billion U.S. dollars, which globalizes to a far higher number. In South Africa, in the year of 2015, the cost of child abuse was nearly 6 percent of their GDP, a number that can be extrapolated to $1.69 trillion USD globally. Other estimates, like the one conducted by the Copenhagen Consensus, found that violence against children cost the world nearly 11% of the global GDP, which puts the annual figure at $8.3 trillion USD.

It is clear going through the numbers that everyone is doing the math in different ways. Still, logic and empathy dictate that the numbers are too high.

Perhaps because there are so many numbers in circulation and perhaps because the work behind it was more thorough and scholarly, researchers and non-profits now commonly cite the 2014 ODI report when assigning a value to the suffering children. That report accounted for 275 million children (10 Texases, two Russias) across the world experiencing violence in their own homes, 85.4 million children working as child laborers, nearly two million children subjected to sexual abuse, nearly 223 million children sexually assaulted, and a quarter of a million children conscripted as child soldiers.

Exactly how that cost of this violence is measured highlights the troubling limits of research, particularly in low and middle-income countries. Scholars have found it nearly impossible to estimate costs of violence against children for many reasons: lack of records about health, social, and legal services in many countries being the primary reason. As a result of the lack of information, the actual costs of violence are likely higher than even the highest estimates of the study. ODI determined the money spent dealing with these situations — like money spent on hospital services, inability to enter the global workforce, and chronic absenteeism — as an indicator of the problem. And the problems are alarming. 

Children who experience domestic abuse are likely to have higher rates of mortality, chronic absenteeism from school, long-term or short-term disability, and physical injury. These costs show themselves in hospital care, education losses, and ability to contribute to the global capital later in life. Children who engage in labor practices like mining, enslavement, construction, and more, are more exposed to other forms of violence in general. They also are likely to experience an increased risk of injury and illness and have a difficult future finding further income-generation after they leave childhood. Children who are conscripted into armed forces are likely to die, have psychological health issues, or be sexually exploited in the name of war.

Would settling on a number solve these problems? Of course not, but it would help activists and parents rub leaders’ faces in their failure to take adequate action. Still, we’re a long way from having a number and an even longer way from having a plan.