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22 Nov 2022
Bess Herbert

How the climate crisis is driving violence against children – and emerging preventative and protective strategies to implement now

Is the climate crisis driving increased violence against children? And what can be done about it? In this NORRAG Highlights published on the occasion of International Children’s Day, Bess Herbert, Advocacy Specialist at the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children explores mounting evidence that climate impacts are increasing violence against children. Drawing from interviews with experts working on the intersection between the two issues, she describes a range of preventative strategies that could be implemented at scale, arguing that child focused adaptation must be prioritised to protect children in a context of growing climate instability.

The climate crisis is the defining human and child’s rights challenge of our generation. It is recognised as the greatest threat to health and wellbeing, particularly for children,[1] with impacts across all dimensions of society.

One billion children, including many of the most disadvantaged and those living on the climate frontline, are already at extreme risk from the impacts of climate change. Nearly every child worldwide is impacted by at least one climate hazard.[2] Their physical and physiological vulnerability and dependence on others means children stand to suffer first and most.

Children have been calling for and taking action on climate change since it emerged as a concern decades ago[3]. However, despite their greater climate burden, children and concrete measures to address their interests are largely missing from climate plans and processes.[4]

The climate crisis is increasing violence against children

While it has been the focus of limited attention, there is mounting evidence that climate change, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss appear to be powerful structural drivers of violence against children. Reports describe increased violence against children in and following fast and slow-onset climate disasters and humanitarian settings; in contexts of population displacement and migration, food scarcity and conflict, driving up levels of child labour, child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), parental violence, wider gender-based violence and emotional harm, among others.

Climate impacts place significant additional strains on households, and especially on the most vulnerable families. Stressors include loss of livelihood, home, possessions, and resources; rising food prices and scarcity; difficulty obtaining water; social upheaval and forced migration. These conditions push households beyond their capacity to cope, increase violence in families, and force them to make desperate decisions to survive that can have devastating impacts on children’s short- and long-term wellbeing. For example, withdrawing a child from school to help provide for the family, or arranging an early marriage.

In addition, the climate crisis is exposing more and more children to the high-risk contexts of conflict, displacement, and natural disasters. The situation is worsened as climate impacts erode family and community protective capacity, social safety nets, and response services.

  • Gaps in the evidence

Despite growing reports, there is little systematic research in this area, and a pressing need for disaggregated data to improve understanding of children’s particular experiences in different contexts. Information is especially lacking for many of the countries most vulnerable to climate impacts, and for the most-affected communities in remote and marginalized areas.

There are also indications that violence against children may be increasing in ways that are so far poorly understood – such as following forest fires and in heatwaves; among child land defenders, climate activists, and Indigenous children; in localities surrounding extractive industries; and in levels of transactional sex and violent banditry, among others.

  • Worrying indications of scale

While more research is needed, there are indications that the climate crisis may be driving violence against children at scale. For example, global levels of child labour are increasing after a twenty-year decline[5], child marriage has doubled and FGM increased by 27 per cent in areas in the Horn of Africa[6], and risk-laden youth migration is a national emergency in Somaliland[7]. In each case, extreme climate impacts are contributing to the conditions where populations can no longer cope, with harmful consequences for children.

Climate impacts are predicted to dramatically worsen in the coming years, directly affecting hundreds of millions more children.[8] Experts are already witnessing the additional strain on over-burdened child protection systems, and express real fear that without dramatic increase in investment and action they will be overwhelmed by the escalating scale of need.

Emerging preventative and protective strategies

The only long-term solution to the climate crisis is a rapid decrease in greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels. However, for children on the front line already suffering the consequences, adaptation that strengthens resilience to climate impacts is as vital as mitigation and must include measures to protect them from the heightened risk of violence. Only by making visible the connection between violence against children and climate change, and addressing them together, in policies, planning and budgets, can we create safe environments for children, even as climate impacts worsen.

A range of preventative and protective strategies can be identified and could be implemented at scale to support children’s resilience and safety:

  • Strengthening protective systems and services, in particular cost-effective community child protection systems. Services must be inclusive and prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable, should be shock responsive, mobile, and adaptable to disaster. Barriers to services such as fees or exclusion by migrant status should be removed. Psychosocial services should be widely available, adaptable, and responsive.
  • Education is a critical protective service for children,[9][10] providing them with information and support, increasing their protection from violence, especially child marriage and child labour, and delivering the skills to adapt livelihoods later in life. Access to safe schools for all children is a priority.
  • Taking a localised approach supports contextualised knowledge and responses, improves connections between local and national levels, and fosters adaptive solutions emerging from the grassroots. Community based disaster planning involving children can consider child protection risks as part of a localised approach.
  • Shifting emphasis from a disaster response to an anticipatory approach is another cost effective, preventative strategy. It involves preparing in advance for climate impacts expected in a particular area before disaster strikes. Child protection measures must be mainstreamed within anticipatory action.
  • The disconnection between the climate and child protection sectors is a fundamental obstacle in protecting children. Climate partners, child protection, finance, education, health, and others must be brought together to ensure a comprehensive multi-sectoral approach is achieved.
  • Finally, lack of appreciation of the severity and consequences of the climate crisis combined with capacity issues and unpredictability make long term approaches a challenge, however forecasts of severe climate impacts must be considered from a child protection perspective now.

Climate impacts are predicted to have a devastating impact on children. A transformative approach supported by unprecedented funding is needed to develop and implement preventative and protective strategies on a wide scale. To support these strategies, governments and others must place children, their rights and voices at the centre of their climate planning and policies and be held accountable for the protection of children.

Children have done the least to create the climate crisis, but they carry the heaviest burden now and in the future. They must be empowered and supported to help shape climate and child protection agendas as their right and as a sustainable and effective protective approach. And critically, there must be dramatically increased investment in child-focused climate adaptation that incorporates child protection measures.



Bess Herbert is Advocacy Specialist at the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. Her work focuses on ending corporal punishment, systematic approaches to violence prevention, and the impacts of the climate crisis on violence against children.


[1] Watts, N., Amann, M., Arnell, N., Ayeb-Karlsson, S., Belesova, K., Boykoff, M., Byass, P., Cai, W., Campbell-Lendrum, D., Capstick, S. and Chambers, J., 2019. The 2019 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: ensuring that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate. The Lancet394(10211), pp.1836-1878.

[2] UNICEF, 2021. The Climate Crisis Is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children’s Climate Risk Index. UNICEF.

[3] Desmet, E., 2016. Children’s rights and the environmental dimension of sustainable development.

[4] UNICEF, 2021. Making Climate and Environment Policies for & with Children and Young People, Climate and Environment Discussion Paper.

[5] International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF, 2021. Child Labour: Global Estimates 2020, Trends and the Road Forward. ILO and UNICEF.

[6] UNICEF, 2022. Child marriage on the rise in Horn of Africa as drought crisis intensifies

[7] Bueno, O., 2019. “No Mother Wants Her Child to Migrate” Vulnerability of Children on the Move in the Horn of Africa.

[8] IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

[9] Pereznieto, P., Rivett, J., Le Masson, V., George, R. and Marcus, R., 2020. Ending violence against children while addressing the global climate crisis. Overseas Development Institute.

[10] UNICEF, 2021. The Climate Crisis Is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children’s Climate Risk Index. UNICEF.

Photo Credit: World Bank Photo Collection

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