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. Continue reading