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Left Unchecked, Violence against Girls Will Morally Doom Efforts to Reach Millennium Development Goals

©UNICEF/NYHQ2008-1164/Susan Markisz
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Saad Houry

UNICEF Says Girl Victims of Violence Still Treated as Criminals; Panellists Tell Harrowing Stories of Turning to Prostitution, Trading Sex for School Grades

While more Governments were adopting laws and policies to address the multiple forms of violence against girls, those youths still bore the heaviest burden of the failure to secure equitable development for all as victims of female genital mutilation, rape and both commercial and sexual exploitation a scenario which, if left unchecked, would morally doom efforts to reach the Millennium Development Goals, the Commission on the Status of Women heard today.

In a panel discussion to evaluate the implementation of agreed conclusions on the "Elimination of discrimination and violence against the girl child", adopted by the Commission at its 2007 fifty-first session, Saad Houry, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), decried that the root causes of violence against the girl child still did not receive enough attention in policy, programme development and resource allocation.

In a keynote address, Mr. Houry said that too often, girl victims of violence were treated as criminals imprisoned in cases of rape and deported in cases of trafficking, which only exposed them to more systemic and physical abuse. Despite some growth in social services, their needs went largely unmet, particularly in the case of adolescent girls, who often married early and suffered from anaemia due to malnutrition. They excused wife beating, just as their elders had done. They were also less informed than adolescent males about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. Programmes to engage boys were too few and too limited in their focus.

Gains had been made, he conceded, applauding the formulation of new codes in Turkey to criminalize marital rape, calls by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights to enforce national laws that protected women from violence, programmes in India that engaged men and boys in reducing gender violence, and more general statistics showing that the incidence of female genital mutilation and cutting had fallen, in part because of increased Government action.

"While direction of change is to be celebrated, its pace is not," he declared, reminding participants that countries would be failing morally if they measured pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals by statistics only. Key actions must include empowering women to be role models for girls and expanding programmes for men and boys. Further, the ability of adolescent girls to transition to secondary education must be ensured, and their access to health and judicial services greatly improved. Perhaps most importantly, power relations in communities must be transformed. A better understanding of social norms and how they affected decisions was needed in order to define better policies.

Next, the Commission heard presentations by three young women who were part of a girls' delegation of Plan International. Taking the floor first, Ika, a 19-year-old from Java, Indonesia, recounted the story of Rose, whose unemployed father had forced her into prostitution. When she became pregnant, she moved in with her grandmother, fearing expulsion from school, ostracism by her community and disbelief among the police. She was eventually forced to marry one of her father's gambling friends and leave her baby behind. Rose's story was one of many she had heard, Ika said. To turn the tides, education systems that built strong character were badly needed. In a broader sense, children's rights regulations must be integrated into school systems, she said.

Following her remarks, Ya Marie, an 18-year-old from Sierra Leone, spoke about violence against girls in Freetown, saying it was common for male school teachers to treat girls as if they did not belong in society. Girls were often beaten for coming to school late and refused entry into the next academic year if they did not have sex with their teachers. "They must trade sex for grades," she said. In the streets, girls were subjected to all forms of violence, especially at night and especially by groups of boys who chased them down for sex. Afterward, girls sometimes entered prostitution, as they feared reprisal from their families and communities. She hoped Governments present today would work to end such violence by addressing poverty and enacting laws to promote gender equality.

Rounding out the discussion on a positive note, Lil Shira, a young woman from Cameroon, described a project that trained children to use technology to raise awareness about issues affecting their communities. A digital map had been created, which used a global positioning system that highlighted specific needs. By way of example, she told the story of a girl who had been forced into early marriage by her father to repay a family debt. Immediately, she said, the community informed the mayor and the divisional officer and, along with the Traditional Council, one of the highest authorities, they confronted her father. In the end, the father was penalized and forced to sign an agreement ensuring that the girl would finish school. "All that happened because the girl spoke out."

When the floor was opened to interactive dialogue, participants thanked the three young panellists for being strong role models in their communities and applauded them for their courage in sharing their experiences. "We support these civil society and youth-led efforts," one delegate said.

Speakers asked whether it was best to target teachers, parents or students to ensure girls' safety in schools. Girls were good advocates for their peers, some said, and asked what had motivated the panellists to become involved in girls' rights issues. One speaker asked panellists how to improve statistics-gathering on violence against girls in schools and how the United Nations and other actors could enforce Security Council resolutions on children and armed conflict. Another delegate wondered if the international community was too focused on punishing perpetrators, but remiss in addressing root causes.

Government delegates shed light on their challenges and successes in eliminating discrimination and violence against girls. Representatives of civil society and Government alike lamented the rising incidence of rape among young girls, numbering in the hundreds of thousands in their societies, inadequate regulations to punish perpetrators of those crimes, and lax enforcement.

But they also pointed to steps by university officials to protect young women from sexual harassment on campuses and efforts to teach students about the harmfulness to society at large of such harassment. One speaker said programmes in Nordic countries intended to instil in men a greater sense of responsibility about respecting women and women's sexuality as a way to prevent rape, encouraging those to be replicated elsewhere.

Another participant implored the Committee to pool resources with other United Nations bodies addressing the needs of the girl child, in order to maximise the effect of the Organization's actions.

In response, Mr. Houry said statistics on violence against girls were lacking because much of the violence happened in the home and went unreported due to shame among families and teachers alike. Violence was not confined to the developing world; it was a universal problem. It was not enough to have national laws; judges and police must be trained, support must be given to victims and harmful social norms must be tackled.

Ms. Shira added that girls should be able to claim their rights and speak out, to compel the general public to reflect on issues concerning girls and come up with possible solutions.

Participating in the discussion were the representatives of Italy, Jordan, China, Guatemala, France, Portugal, Cameroon, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Sweden (on behalf of the Nordic countries), Qatar, Canada, Gabon, United States, Indonesia, Paraguay, Pakistan, Thailand, Senegal, Philippines, Angola, Israel, Switzerland, Ghana, Cuba, Egypt, South Africa, Zimbabwe, India and Mexico.


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