By Equality Now*
“To be able to realise their full potential in society as women, girls need to be empowered to raise their voices against injustices committed against them and they need a system that will support their quest for justice.”
In 2001, 13-year old Makeda Zebene Negash was abducted twice from her house in Ethiopia, raped and forced to sign a marriage contract with her rapist before she was able to escape the second time.
At the time, both abduction and rape were criminal offences under Ethiopian law, but if marriage was subsequently agreed upon (no matter if it was coerced), the law stated that the husband would be exempt from criminal responsibility for his crimes. Equality Now and our partners took up this case in 2002 and though we were able get the law that enabled kidnappers and rapists to go free by marrying their victims, 11 years later Makeda (not her real name) is still awaiting justice and restitution for the crimes against her. Therefore as we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month in the United States, we want to take this opportunity to focus on the human rights abuses that affect millions of girls around the world and an often complex and lengthy legal process that can prevent them from reaching their potential as fully-functioning, valued members of society.
At Equality Now, we have long felt that a focus on girls was missing from development circle dialogue, even though statistically the majority of severe human rights abuses of females occur in late childhood and adolescence:
- Up to 50 percent of sexual assaults worldwide are committed against girls under 16.
- Up to one in five girls under the age of 15 experience sexual abuse.
- In the developing world, more than 60 million women aged 20-24 were married before they turned 18.
- Three million girls are at risk of being subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) each year.
- Eight percent of trafficking victims are women and girls, with the majority being trafficked for sexual exploitation.
- According to UNICEF, 40-60 percent of known sexual assaults within the family are committed against girls aged 15 years and younger. The perpetrators of violence were those who tended to be close to girls and the most frequent venue of violence was the girls’ home.
For many girls, especially those living in poverty, the emergence of sexuality during puberty generates damaging responses – societies feel free to disinvest in their schooling and personal development while appropriating their labor, sexuality and fertility – that can result in severe, lifelong and often irreversible consequences. Frequently compounded by the lack of an effective support system and access to education and health services, millions of girls are left without the means to defend themselves against physical, sexual and psychological abuse perpetrated by their families, teachers, boyfriends or strangers.
To be able to realise their full potential in society as women, girls need to be empowered to raise their voices against injustices committed against them and they need a system that will support their quest for justice. Only when these issues are brought out in the open and addressed will we open the door to prevention. In 2008, we created the Adolescent Girls Legal Defense Fund (AGLDF), to put an emphasis on girls’ human rights and the importance of ensuring their access to justice. Through support and promotion of strategically-selected legal cases, AGLDF addresses the most universal human rights violations against adolescent girls in order to remove the common obstacles to justice, thereby reshaping the rule of law.
To date AGLDF has taken on cases involving:
- Rape, abduction and forced marriage in Ethiopia, that led to a repeal of the law allowing rapists to go free by marrying their victims;
- Teacher rape in Zambia, that led to a landmark judgment of the Lusaka High Court creating government accountability to prevent violence in schools;
- Incest in Pakistan, that resulted in the perpetrator being awarded the highest penalty under the law and a movement to amend the Pakistan Penal Code to properly address incest and sexual violence;
- Child marriage in Yemen, that led to an 11 year old being granted a divorce from her middle-aged husband and further galvanized the movement for a law banning child marriage in Yemen;
- Female genital mutilation in Kenya that has resulted in the severe penalties for the father and circumciser and will serve as a deterrent for future cases;
- Rape of a disabled girl in Uganda, that we hope will result in a judgment establishing government responsibility to address such cases;
- Sex tourism in Brazil, that will set a precedent on the use of US anti-trafficking laws on behalf of Brazilian girls exploited by sex tourists;
- Gang-rape in Kenya, where we hope to establish police responsibility to investigate cases of sexual violence against girls;
- Rape by police in Pakistan, that we hope will end impunity for police for committing abuses of girls.
What we overwhelmingly learned, and published in our recent report, Learning From Cases of Girls’ Rights, is that no matter the location or type of abuse, there are five common obstacles to justice that once overcome, can empower girls:
- They need to know what their rights are so that they can demand them;
- They need a supportive environment where they are free to speak out without fear of stigma or disbelief;
- They need assurance, especially girls who are victims of sexual violence, that they will not be re-victimized by the legal system;
- They need assurance that access to justice will be swift;
- They need support services that are girl-centered and sensitive to their specific needs with focus on empowering them to make their own decisions.
Establishing legal recourse and precedents that hold the legal system and governments accountable for protecting girls’ rights improves lives. By placing a focus on the prevention of violations by providing girls with rights education and support networks; by challenging gender stereotypes and attitudes through creative use of media, positive role models, voices of girl leaders and awareness raising in communities; and by providing a better response to violations by equipping legal systems to address the needs of adolescent girls and ensuring that girl-centered support services are available, a positive future for girls, one that is “bright, equal, safe and rewarding.”
“What I have gone through made me lose my ambitions but from now I have started a new life full of flying colors. I am glad to have people like you supporting me in times of need.” – Niara, 17, incest and gang-rape survivor
*Equality Now is an international human rights organisation dedicated to ending violence and discrimination against women and girls.
Learning From Cases of Girls’ Rights is available at: equalitynow.org/resources#SV
To learn more about AGLDF, visit: equalitynow.org/agldf
To raise your voice to stop human rights abuses against women and girls, take action at: equalitynow.org/actions.
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