Content note: This article discusses sexual assault and violence against women and girls.
October 11, 2014 will be the third International Day of the Girl Child. UNICEF began this day in 2012, a day that focused on the issue of child marriage. Last year, the subject was education for girls. This year the theme is Empowering Adolescent Girls: Ending the Cycle of Violence.
I am excited that violence is this year’s focus. When I worked in another state as a child therapist in an inner-city neighborhood, I once had a 14-year-old girl bring in two friends for her session. She and another girl around her age wanted me to talk to their 11-year-old friend, who was thinking about having sex with her older boyfriend. The boyfriend was insisting on it. The older girls agreed with the general idea that “spreading your legs” (in their words) is part of having a boyfriend, but were worried that their friend was too young. Though they could not see any coercion in their own lives, even they could tell that in their 11-year-old friend’s case, something was wrong. At one point I asked them, “Do you enjoy it?” All three looked at me as if I were talking a foreign language. The idea that sex could be pleasurable had never occurred to them.
We need to work to prevent violence against girls where it begins — with the perpetrators and their enablers.
These girls were not alone, and although they reflected a particular cultural setting, partner violence is not unusual anywhere. According to the United Nations, one in three women worldwide experiences partner violence, many of them as children and teens. The statistics in this article include countries where teenage girls are often married, and in several countries the proportion exceeds 50 percent.
Violence against girls is often considered acceptable where the social structure gives men dominance over women. Practices like female genital mutilation, which is often strongly supported and facilitated by the women of a culture group, reinforce violence as a social norm. Female genital mutilation is restricted to a group of northern African countries as well as Iraq and Yemen, but the practice has been carried by immigrants into Western countries, including our own. While the practice was made illegal in the United States in 1996, the law was not amended until 2012 to include transporting girls abroad to have the procedure done; this was done as a provision of the Defense Authorization Act that year.
Girls’ education is another issue connected to violence. A recent report by the World Bank Group found that
Girls with little or no education are far more likely to be married as children, suffer domestic violence, live in poverty, and lack a say over household spending or their own health care …
There are places where educating girls is considered dangerous to a way of life, perhaps for these very reasons. Earlier this year, 200 girls were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram, and the authorities did little to find and rescue them until their families started a media campaign that got world attention. It has been six months, and negotiations have failed several times, and are still ongoing. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by Taliban forces for advocating education for herself and other girls, and who has since become an international spokeswoman in the fight for education, visited the Nigerian families this summer.
The issue is who controls our sexuality. For millennia, cultures around the world have put this control in the hands of male family members — fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. Women became the medium of exchange between families to assure peace and diversity in the gene pool; virginity and the ability to bear sons became commodities increasingly under male control, eventually becoming the concern of the state.
We are not surprised to see this in the developing world, though we are horrified. So when a Sumatran city proposes a virginity test for girls to enter high school in response to “the high rate of ‘adultery’ and ‘prostitution’ among female students,” we are appalled. As we are when police, after a brutal gang rape of a 16-year-old Kenyan girl known as “Liz,” order some of the accused boys to cut the grass around the police station instead of prosecuting them. A national uproar led the local police chief to promise a complete investigation into the crime. To his credit, the first trial opened in June.
Kenya had been the scene for a historic court decision in May 2014, which probably influenced the handling of the “Liz” rape. One-hundred-sixty girls between the ages of 3 and 17 had sued the government for failing to protect them and enforce existing rape laws.
And the judge in the high court in Meru declared: “By failing to enforce existing defilement laws, the police have contributed to the development of a culture of tolerance for pervasive sexual violence against girl children and impunity.”
Another victory came in India, this time concerning child marriage. The family of a young bride sued the groom’s family because they allegedly were demanding a very large dowry and beating the girl for failing to produce it. In this case the magistrate who was charged with entering the suit also filed a case against the girl’s family.
“Child marriage is an evil worse than rape and should be completely eradicated from the society. This will not be possible if the stakeholders like the state fail to take appropriate action against the offenders.
“The court is not expected to sit as a mute spectator and let the evil perpetrate,” the magistrate said while directing the DCP, South, to file a status report by October 19.
But the Western world is not free of these types of occurrences. In Rotherham, England, a report recently was published about a ring that abused and prostituted some 1,400 girls over 14 years. Police and social services had been notified a number of times and repeatedly blamed the girls themselves; in one case police arrested the girl’s father who was trying to protect his daughter. Class and race are also involved in this horrible case, which may partially explain, but cannot even partially excuse, what happened.
Girls repeatedly are blamed for their own rapes. Additionally, victim status is often transferred from the survivor to the attackers, as in the Steubenville case. Three high school football players, accused of raping an unconscious girl, went to trial, where the court was asked to take into account how convictions would ruin the lives of the young men on trial. The trauma inflicted on their victim was seemingly not as important as the young athletes’ futures. In West Virginia, a program was proposed for high school athletes that seemed to focus on the need to resist the urge to take and circulate pictures, since new media make their private actions public in a potentially destructive way.
Audrie’s law, the result of hard work by the parents of Audrie Potts, who committed suicide after such an assault, has made its way through the California legislature and is awaiting the governor’s signature. It would give a minimum of two years to juveniles convicted of sexually assaulting an incapacitated or mentally deficient victim. This proposed legislation is controversial. Part of the issue is the use of mandatory minimums for juveniles, for whom rehabilitation is generally stressed. Rolling Stone published a story about the case a year ago that is harrowing in its detail, and also cites similar cases.
In a Montana case, the perpetrator is not a juvenile, but a teacher who repeatedly raped a 14-year-old student who later committed suicide. The judge sentenced 54-year-old Stacey Dean Rambold to 15 years in prison, all of it suspended except for 31 days.
Baugh said he was not convinced that the reasons for Rambold’s termination from treatment [a program for sexual offenders] were serious enough to warrant the lengthy prison term suggested by the prosecution. Baugh said he listened to recorded statements given by Morales before her death and believes that while she was a troubled youth, she was “as much in control of the situation” as Rambold.
The judge also said Morales was “older than her chronological age.”
Judge Baugh has been publicly censured for this case. Baugh’s sentence was not only reprehensible, it was illegal under Montana law, which mandates a minimum of two years for rape. In a new sentencing hearing, Judge Randal Spaulding sentenced Rambold to serve 10 years.
Clearly, we need to recognize the pressing need to fight violence against adolescent girls, and I commend UNICEF for taking this step. But empowering girls is not enough. We need to work to prevent violence against girls where it begins — with the perpetrators and their enablers. We are in a state of transition, when some authorities are beginning to recognize that they need to protect girls; the cases in India and Kenya are examples of the change. More than a year after the Steubenville rapes, the coaches, principal of the school, and other adults were charged by the Ohio Attorney General for their roles in facilitating and covering up the crime. But change comes slowly.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety keeps a listing of agencies that can help victims of abuse and violence. The Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault (SACASA) has a 24-hour hotline staffed by speakers of both Spanish and English that can be reached at 520-327-7273, 800-400-1001, after hours at 520-235-3358, with a TTY/TDD/SMS line at 520-327-1721. Hotlines elsewhere in the state can be found on the Department of Public Safety website.