Gender Based Violence and the World Bank: Who is Being Left Behind?

One year after the Good Practice Note on GBV, are children being protected?

Background: Where does the Bank stand on gender based violence?

The World Bank’s good practice note on gender based violence (GBV) turned one year old in September. This good practice note (GPN) is still in the process of implementation, but it is clear that the absence of differentiated measures for the protection of children is a serious shortcoming likely to result in harm to children. Though children are mentioned throughout the document, there is minimal detail regarding what specific measures should be taken to prevent and remediate child sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA). Section 2.3 of the good practice note, which covers children, states that child SEA and GBV share a large number of risk factors, and that treating children who have experienced SEA requires a different response from addressing  GBV in adult women, but does not enumerate what those responses need to be. 

Children are uniquely vulnerable to experiencing sexual violence, as they cannot, by definition, consent to sexual activity, and often lack the ability to assert their bodily autonomy in risky situations. Children are also less likely to report SEA. Young children in particular may not be fully aware of what has happened to them, and as a result, adults who are not trained to recognize the signs of abuse may not be able to respond adequately. Children may also fear retaliation, either from the perpetrators themselves or by members of the community due to cultural stigma. Boys often face additional barriers to reporting due to social and cultural stigmas. Additionally, the impact of sexual violence is also much more pronounced with children, and can greatly disrupt their emotional and psychosocial development, resulting in lifelong trauma. This creates a need for immediate, child sensitive psychosocial services, along with medical, financial, educational and other support services, to be made available to children who make reports of sexual exploitation and abuse. 

Despite the unique vulnerability of children to experiencing sexual violence, the GPN’s focus is primarily on GBV committed against adult women and teenage girls with young children and boys almost completely ignored by the note. Section 2.3 the GPN cites a statistic that “Boys also report sexual abuse, although usually at lower levels than girls.” (Paragraph 19) without examining the underlying causes contributing to low reporting rates. Often, there is more stigma associated with the SEA of boys, which can obscure the magnitude of the problem. According to the UNICEF evidence review on child SEA, SEA of boy children occurs at only slightly lower rates to the SEA of girl children. The evidence review points to multiple studies on pages 1 (paragraph 5), page 17 (table), and page 90 (section 4.1 paragraph 4) that demonstrate significant, if lower, rates of SEA of boy children. Bridging this gap in reporting should be a component of the Bank’s child SEA strategy going forward to ensure that no children are left behind.

The most effective way for the Bank to prevent the occurrence of child SEA in projects and mitigate its impacts would be to institute policies that specifically address these issues.

What should a policy on preventing child sexual exploitation and abuse look like? 

During the design phase, the unique risk of child SEA would be assessed in tandem with the assessment of GBV risk. This would include an assessment of specific risks to young children, boys and girls. Risk factors that should be examined include but are not limited to; worker influx, shifts in existing power dynamics, high prevalence of GBV in the project area, socio-economic conditions, presence of child focused NGOs, legal framework around child marriage and child SEA, and the prevalence/cultural acceptability of child marriage and SEA. 

The task team would be responsible for ensuring that the borrowing country government adequately trained project staff and conducted consultations with local child rights CSOs and relevant community leaders, in addition to community sensitization around project-specific SEA risk. Clauses on child protection policies would be mandated as part of any procurement arrangement, contract, or code of conduct. High risk projects would be monitored by a third-party GBV services provider with experience in responding to child SEA. Ideally, this service provider would be an organization with strong ties to the local community in order to build on existing social relationships. 

The policy would mandate child-sensitive grievance redress mechanisms (GRMs) that allow children to come forward without fear of retaliation. To make children comfortable with coming forward, both male and female GRM liaisons should be available so that children can disclose to a person of the sex they feel most comfortable with. These liaisons should be located in spaces accessible to children, and should be accessible to all children, as disability, language, and other factors can make it more difficult for children to report. Children should be believed, as false reporting of child SEA is practically nonexistent, and their confidentiality protected. Throughout the process, the first and foremost consideration should be the best interest of the child, as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child article 3, paragraph 1.

The World Bank must adopt and effectively implement comprehensive guidelines on child sexual exploitation and abuse, in order to ensure that the GBV reforms that began after the Uganda TSDP case truly prevent the types of harms identified in that case from continuing to occur in Bank funded projects.