This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a catalytic gathering of activists and decision-makers that established—for the first time—a truly global women’s rights agenda. Although the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was established decades ago, many of the challenges to women’s and girls’ basic rights identified in 1995 remain entrenched today, including high rates of gender-based violence (GBV) perpetrated against girls.
Women and Women’s Rights
While we celebrate twenty-five years of a global women’s and girls’ rights agenda, the unprecedented spread of COVID-19 threatens progress. Pre-existing toxic gendered social norms combined with increased isolation and economic stress means that women and children have been forced into quarantine with their abusers, rendering them increasingly vulnerable to all forms of abuse. Children’s lives, says the UN- Secretary-General António Guterres, “are being totally upended,” particularly when women, as their primary caretakers, are at increased risk for gender-based violence. The fallout for girls is vast.
Alongside this surge of domestic violence, adolescent girls and young women face particular risks. Globally, almost 90 percent of schools closed in the face of COVID-19, with many countries reopening totally or partially in the last month; the Malala Fund reports that twenty million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school when the pandemic subsides.
Disruption to girls’ education, in addition to the economic impact of the pandemic, will mean an increased risk of child marriage, unwanted pregnancies, sexual exploitation, and forced labor. This has a devastating effect on the lives of girls, their futures, and their agency in making decisions about their lives. Out of school, girls are more likely to be at risk of violence and exploitation leading to pregnancy. This can be particularly harmful in places where they are affected by discriminatory policies and practices, such as those which ban pregnant girls and young mothers from accessing education.
The pandemic has caused an additional, unanticipated disruption: teenage pregnancy. Each year approximately sixteen million adolescent girls give birth—mostly married girls in developing countries—and pregnancy- and childbirth‐related complications are the number‐ one cause of death among girls aged fifteen to nineteen.
Any power gained is eroding—evidenced by a recent report from the Orchid Project showing increased rates of female genital mutilation and cutting across East and West Africa as a result of COVID-19. Approximately fifteen million adolescent girls aged fifteen to nineteen worldwide have experienced forced sex (forced sexual intercourse or other sexual acts) at some point in their life. These figures represent a small slice of a global phenomenon, with increased reports of domestic violence by women and girls from Cyprus to Argentina to the United States and France.
Women and Women’s Rights
Consistently, girls identify GBV as the biggest issue in their lives. In consultations around the Beijing Platform for Action, they emphasize that GBV directly impacts everything they do and everywhere they go. The threat of violence permeates in their homes, in school, in public spaces and on transport, and in justice systems unresponsive to their needs preventing them from living safely and freely.
“Much of the problem with violence is that men think they own women and their decisions. Then the young boys learn that from adults and also abuse their girlfriends and sisters and grow up believing they are superior to women. They [the parents] were raised with violence and now they replicate that with us”
Adolescent girls, Paraguay
Beijing+25 is an unprecedented opportunity to capitalize on twenty-five years of evidence and lessons learned to ensure that adolescent girls are at the center of the women’s rights agenda, and no longer fall through the cracks. We have the chance to effectively bridge the movements to prevent and respond to violence against children and violence against women.
Accelerated advocacy backed by powerful data on violence against children and youth (collected across twenty-one countries) has laid bare the facts: adolescent girls worldwide face unique risks of gender discrimination and gender-based violence, including sexual violence, human trafficking, and forced marriage. Only a decade away from 2030—the year UN Member States committed to delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals —adolescent girls remain at a huge cultural and systemic disadvantage. Adolescent girls are discriminated against as females from birth. Denied access to education, subject to serious health risks, and threatened by violence, their views and concerns are often willfully unheard.
A recent analysis of data comparing two Violence against Children and Youth Surveys (VACS) in Kenya found substantial progress has been made in reducing violence against children and youth, except among thirteen- to seventeen-year-old girls, who reported increased rates of physical (from 18 percent to 37 percent) and sexual violence (from 11 percent to 14 percent) from experienced in the twelve months prior to the survey.
“ Sexual abuse cases against girls are also on the rise. Being confined with parents whose small business have been shut down makes it even worse and increases the risk of gender-based violence at home. Many girls are forced to exchange sex for food as their families cannot buy it and they are not protected in school.”
Youth activist, Kenya
While we’ve seen incremental progress in many countries, adolescent girls continue to be left behind, particularly those who are living in humanitarian or crisis settings. The evidence base now shows that we can prevent violence against women and girls through a range of interventions, within programmatic timeframes. Globally, there is also a growing consensus around ‘what works’ and increased funding behind it. Global platforms such as the End Violence Partnership are well-positioned to coordinate collective, evidence-based action. At Together for Girls, data and evidence from around the world are now accessible, as are analyses of how sexual violence early in life creates unparalleled health and educational inequities. Finally, international NGOs like Plan International utilize data to inform programs and advocacy and support girls themselves to hold governments accountable.
So why is the ‘world still a violent and highly discriminatory place for girls’?
A Call to Action
Increased investments are key to advancing effective approaches to keeping girls safe—and this should include evidence-based interventions. We know violence is preventable and we have solutions at hand. In pandemics and beyond, it is equally important to consider interventions for vulnerable populations including but not limited to, adolescent girls in out-of-school-settings, conflict-affected populations, women, and girls living with disabilities, and others. Interventions in a variety of social and cultural contexts are especially critical. The call to action is clear.
- The alignment of two well-established evidence-based frameworks, INSPIRE, and RESPECT, should inform each other to address the multiple risk factors, recognizing that synchronized strategies are more likely to reduce violence against children and women.
- To ensure the rights of girls are fulfilled, girls and young women must be given space at all levels of decision making to be heard and to effectively engage with the evidence that will hold decision-makers accountable.
In these last 25 years, the pace of change in girls’ lives has been slow but the tools and data to provoke that changes have now been constructed. What was true in 1995 is still true today, but what was lacking—data, evidence, and political will—can now be leveraged to create real change for millions and millions of girls.
“I do not want to go back to normal or even to the new one. I do not want anything that this patriarchal system normalizes. I want changes that allow us to have bodily autonomy, that treat us with respect and dignity, and that make a radical change, a change that is good for everyone, and for a world that … no one suffers from violence or inequality.”
Youth activist from Bolivia