Nordic and Baltic countries gather to discuss intersectoral action to prevent child maltreatment

Policy-makers, professionals and activists from the Baltic and Nordic countries came together on 1–2 June 2017 for a workshop in Riga, Latvia, on strengthening intersectoral working to prevent child maltreatment.

The workshop, a joint venture of WHO/Europe, the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Government of Latvia, focused on intersectoral collaboration involving the health, welfare, education and justice sectors. A total of 100 participants from these sectors, representing 14 countries, took part in the workshop. Participants were presented with good practices and evidence-based experience about what works for prevention and how this can be implemented at the country level.

It is estimated that tens of millions of children and young people in the WHO European Region have experienced sexual, physical or emotional abuse and maltreatment. Less than 10% of such maltreatment comes to the attention of protection agencies. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals encourage concerted intersectoral action on this important issue, setting the specific target (16.2) of eradicating violence against children by 2030.

Child maltreatment is a leading cause of inequality and social injustice, with poorer and disadvantaged populations at higher risk. The consequences of child maltreatment are grave, with far-reaching effects on children’s physical, mental and social well-being.

Working towards a common objective: end child maltreatment

Opening the workshop, Dr Santa Livina, Head of the Public Health Department of the Ministry of Health of Latvia, stated that while every child has the right to live in safety and in environments free of violence, many children and young people continue to experience maltreatment. “Violence affects children’s social development, current and future health, and educational potential,” she said. “Children affected by violence may also display violent behaviour themselves as they grow older.”

The Ministry of Health has prioritized this issue in its plans for promoting social health, placing special emphasis on strengthening intersectoral cooperation for prevention.

Ms Līga Āboliņa, Deputy State Secretary of the Ministry of Welfare of Latvia, noted that the broad representation from different countries and organizations at the workshop illustrates that child maltreatment is a key priority issue. “We share a common objective – a world where no child suffers violence or maltreatment,” she said.

Taking intersectoral action on child maltreatment leads to positive outcomes

Childhood and adolescence are times of particular vulnerability, when toxic stress, such as that caused by prolonged violence or maltreatment, can cause impairment in brain development. This can potentially lead to a range of health, educational, behavioural and social problems that can endure throughout life and may result in early mortality.

Addressing the causes of maltreatment requires coordinated, sustained efforts in multiple sectors, and health systems must be actively engaged in ensuring a response. The costs of inaction to society are enormous: in the few countries in Europe and across the world where they have been studied, they added up to about 1–2% of the gross domestic product.

On the other hand, research indicates that ending violence and other adverse childhood experiences will result in reduced levels of poverty, inequality, alcohol and drug dependence, self-harm, mental illness, and noncommunicable diseases, as well as fewer occurrences of violence in later life.

The evidence shows that cost-effective measures for addressing child maltreatment include creating safe environments, encouraging better parenting, changing norms, making preschool education available, implementing and enforcing laws on child maltreatment, reducing gender inequality and providing social support. These measures are only possible through intersectoral action, and are most successfully coordinated through a national action plan that has been endorsed by governments.