Posted by: rachelhampton | 12/01/2010

The sexual abuse of girls: More than “just” health

“Gender-based violence is a linchpin,” said Gary M. Cohen, executive vice president of Becton, Dickinson and Company. “It holds many things together, but if you pull it out things unravel.”

This “linchpin” was the subject of today’s briefing, Together for Girls: A Campaign Against Sexual Violence Against Girls. In 2002, about 150 million girls under the age of 18 had experienced some form of sexual violence – about 60 percent of these incidents involved girls under the age of 15. Not only are these acts egregious violations of human rights, but they also have long-lasting health consequences:

  • Girls who are the victims of sexual violence are three-times more likely to have an unwanted pregnancy, and girls aged 15 years and younger are five-times more likely to die during childbirth than their older peers.
  • Girls who are sexually abused are at an increased risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other STIs, and are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors as adults.
  • Girls who are subject to sexual abuse have high rates of chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and lung disease, and are at increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicide.

However, the sexual abuse of girls isn’t simply a health issue, or even a human rights issue. It is deeply interconnected with other development issues, including education, gender equity, infrastructure, productivity, and national security.  Cohen pointed out that preventing the sexual abuse of girls is key achieving a number of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). For example, girls who experience sexual violence are more likely to drop out of school (MDG 2).

The solutions aren’t purely health-related either. Milanne Verveer, U.S. ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, described how education can provide a “protective covering” for girls, by increasing their autonomy and ability to contribute productively to society. Cohen discussed the need for social and behavioral interventions to address the societal norms and beliefs that permit sexual abuse in some countries. Theresa Kilbane, Senior Adviser of the Child Protection Program Division, UNICEF, highlighted the importance of creating effective legislative and law enforcement systems to protect children from sexual abuse.

In response to this complex problem, a number of private sector actors came together in 2009 to form Together for Girls, a partnership to tackle sexual violence against women and girls. The partnership focuses on three pillars: conducting national surveys and collecting data; supporting a plan of action at country level, including interventions targeting law enforcement and the legal system; and launching communications and public awareness campaigns, including the use of mobile technology to provide services to people who are the victims of sexual abuse. By including interventions for a broad range of sectors, Together for Girls not only “treats the symptoms” of violence against girls, but actually attempts to “prevent the disease.” As evidenced by the comments of the panelists today, sexual violence affects a number of other issues and the response must be equally diverse and broad-reaching. Together for Girls is one program that clearly addresses this need.

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