Gertrude, 15, stands against a wall in Ndenga village, Central African Republic. "I missed two years of school because the rebels attacked our village and we fled to the bush," she says. “Now I am back to school and happy, but life is still very difficult because we are eight children, with my father dead and my mother handicapped. What I dream of in the future is to be able to do some trade, maybe have a little shop so I can support my family.”
When you hear “violence against girls,” what comes to mind?
Perhaps it’s the most recent kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants and the likelihood that they will be forced to marry their captors just like previous victims were.
Or maybe it’s the 120 million girls from every corner of the world who have experienced sexual violence.
Or the harassment and catcalling that you or your sister faced on your way to school?
On their way to school, in classrooms, at homes, in refugee camps, and on playgrounds – girls experience harassment and violence. Globally, more than 8 out of 10 girls experience street harassment before they turn 17. In the United States, more than one in 10 girls is sexually taunted by the time she is 11. Girls with mental disabilities are especially at risk: in Australia, up to 68% have been the victims of sexual assault.
Magu looks out a window of her home. Magu lives in a village of 5.000 inhabitants in the north of Spain with her mother and younger brother. Magu suffered from sexual and physical abuse from her father. After suffering in silence for a long time she finally managed to talk about the abuse two years ago when her teacher noticed something was wrong. Since then she has received support from her school and a psychologist.
Then there are the 750 million women and girls worldwide who married as children. The younger a girl is when she marries, the more likely she is to be socially isolated and dependent — all of which makes her incredibly vulnerable to physical and sexual violence within the home.
Even witnessing violence inside the home can be devastating. One in four children under the age of 5 lives with a mother who is a victim of intimate partner violence. These girls and boys are more likely to continue the cycle of violence as adults, either as victims or abusers.
The consequences of harassment and violence are deep and long-lasting. Girls steer clear of male-dominated fields of study or drop out of school altogether because they feel unsafe. They learn to stay silent and invisible, and the staggering statistics of gender inequality continue.
Young female students learn together with this inflatable globe, part of the educational supplies contained in a School-in-a-Box, at a new Transitional Learning Centre in the Uchiprang refugee camp, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
For International Women’s Day, we showcase the girls, women, boys, and men who are saying enough is enough. Their voices echo from places near and far, in locations at peace and those in conflict. Here are 5 ways you can join the movement to build a world where all girls and women can live free from fear and violence:
Don’t abuse. Violence against girls and women includes bullying, harassment, physical and sexual assault. It happens at home and in public. Be part of the solution, not the problem.
Talk to a girl or boy in your family or community about sexual abuse. Tell them that unwanted contact is never acceptable and that it’s OK to speak up if someone makes them uncomfortable. Point them to digital social networks such as U-Report, where they can join a global community of almost 5 million to speak out.
Support young activists mobilizing to end violence against girls by sharing their stories with your friends, family, and larger networks. Celebrate their accomplishments and help change the conversation. Let people know that this generation of young girls and boys is where the cycle of violence ends.
Join efforts such as Time’s Up. Hold perpetrators accountable for abuse and ensure that girls will be able to live and work in safety when they grow up.
Support survivors and call out sexual violence and harassment when you see it. Abuse keeps happening when people keep quiet about it. We all need to send a clear message that violence against women and girls will not be tolerated.
Want to read more about people working to protect girls? Try one of these:
From India: Kushi’s story
From Ethiopia, Kalkidan’s story
From Afghanistan, Zarmina’s story
Patty Alleman and Shreyasi Jha are UNICEF HQ Senior Gender Advisors