Reviews of violence against children in disaster settings focus on armed conflict. Little is understood about natural disasters which has implications in planning humanitarian response. We examined the magnitude and direction of the association between exposure to natural disasters and physical, emotional, and sexual violence against children, and assessed the quality of the evidence.
We searched 15 health and social science databases from first record until May 16, 2018. Publications describing all types of quantitative study design were eligible for inclusion. We presented study characteristics and quality in a narrative form and generated pooled estimates using a three-level random effects model. We evaluated Cochrane’s Q with p-values below 0.10 and radial plots to assess heterogeneity. Planned subgroup analyses explored differential results by violence form, study design, and analysis method.
11 publications met inclusion criteria. The majority were cross-sectional studies examining physical or sexual violence in the United States. We found no evidence of a consistent association or directional influence between natural disasters and violence against children. Combined categorical violence outcomes had substantial heterogeneity [ Q (df = 66) = 252.83, p < 0.001]. Subgroups without evidence of heterogeneity had confidence intervals that included a possible null effect. Our findings were mainly limited by inconsistencies in operational definitions of violence, a lack of representative sampling, and unclear establishment of temporal order between natural disaster exposure and violence outcomes.
Based on the available evidence, we cannot confidently conclude that natural disasters increase the level or severity of violence against children above non-disaster settings, however heterogeneity and study quality hamper our ability to draw firm conclusions. More nuanced and rigorous research is needed to inform practice and policy as natural disasters increasingly affect human populations.