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If we can’t talk about it, we can’t end it: Playing your part to end violence against children

In my first week at Together for Girls, I learned very quickly that experiencing sexual assault doesn’t make a person a victim, but a survivor; that there’s a difference between coerced and forced sex; that pairing photographed faces of young people next to data on the issue of sexual violence against children is a unanimous no-no, violating their rights and putting them potentially at risk. I’ve learned that in the countries where Together for Girls is working, more than 50 percent of children experience physical violence before turning 18, and that for 25 percent of girls in many countries, their first encounter with sexual intercourse is unwanted.

And unfortunately, there are many more stats like these for me to learn.

I’m in the second quarter of my one-year Global Health Corps Fellowship—my very first experience working in global health (or any health for that matter)—at my small yet mighty placement at Together for Girls in Washington, DC.  Together for Girls is the private-public partnership that brings together five UN agencies, the US government (and as of just recently, the Canadian government!) and the private sector to end violence against children, particularly sexual violence against girls.

“Wow, why did you jump to such a terrible issue to begin your career in health?” say many palpably uncomfortable people upon learning my answer to the standard “so what do you do?” question. But little do they know, they’ve started a conversation that should be taking place the world over:

Why aren’t we jumping to address the issue of violence against children?

Sexual violence against girls is the elephant in the room sitting on the edge of global health concerns, and is just now beginning to be recognized by the public in a bigger way—“thanks” in part to the bravery of public-facing young women like Peek.com founder Ruzwana Bashir and Columbia University’s Emma Sulcowicz. But despite highly publicized cases and public remarks across the world, the most marginalized groups of women and girls are still excluded from many of the advances that we assume as norms today. They are often more vulnerable to violence and have greater trouble reporting and accessing services if violence occurs.

I get it though; talking about violence against children is unpleasant. And talking about sexual violence and girls is pretty much unbearable. But when do the numbers get big enough that we’re forced to have a conversation about it? The CDC estimates that one billion children a year experience some form of abuse.  The recent UNICEF report “Hidden in Plain Sight” details the miserable extent of physical, sexual and emotional abuse against children across 190 countries, citing that globally, about one in 10 girls (about 120 million) under the age of 20 have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts. The report also mentions that one in three ever-married adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 years (84 million) have been victims of emotional, physical or sexual violence committed by their partners or husbands.

And to make things worse, data from the Together for Girls partnership shows that girls who experience violence have a higher risk of negative health conditions later in life. In Swaziland alone, girls 13-24 who have experienced violence are 3.7 times more likely to contract HIV and 3.5 times more likely to experience complications with pregnancy compared to those who haven’t been exposed to violence. And to make things even worse, the UNICEF report shows that many instances of violence happen in places where children are supposed to feel safe—their homes, schools and communities. Bottom line, the issue of violence against children is truly “hidden in plain sight.”  And of course, if a girl lives in a wealthy country with access to education, rule of law and respect for human rights, she is far from immune – just ask girls on any college campus in the US where it is estimated that one in five will likely graduate with more than just a degree, but also a history of rape.

Playing your part to end violence against children

Obviously, there’s no clear-cut solution to this issue, which really takes shape as the complex beast that it is once you factor in the culture of victim blaming, as well as the many forms of violence that sit deep in traditions, like child marriage, beading, female genital mutilation (FGM) and many more. But if we don’t start acknowledging the significance and the breadth of the issue and the silence that too often surrounds it, real action globally and locally just won’t happen.  We know there are interventions that can help survivors recover and–even more importantly–that violence can be prevented. But we have to lift the silence.

So let’s start talking about it. Together for Girls just launched the second issue of Safe—the first-ever digital magazine focused on the global epidemic of violence against children. Launched in 2013 during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, the inaugural edition focused on sexual violence and highlighted inspiring survivor stories, the hard work being done by organizations and individuals to combat the issue, and celebrated the many positive steps already taken. With issue II, we’re shifting gears and connecting the dots between health and violence through TfG data, stories from HIV-positive survivors, interviews with change-makers leading the fight, and a world-spanning list of heroes who are using innovation and grit to end violence.  We want Safe to be a tool to advance the conversation surrounding violence against children, and not just the uncomfortable part either – the solutions part.

There are incredible organizations all over the world (like this one and this one and this one) that are using empowerment frameworks, recovery centers and the voices of girls to challenge the culture of violence, proving that progress is being made. But the organizations working on this issue need the voices of the public to help bring this issue into the light, to remove the barriers for advancement that are rooted in every society.

So learn about the issue. Question behaviors that silence survivors. Call out people or organizations perpetuating violence. Join a campaign working on the issue. It takes a global village to end violence again children—so let’s start getting comfortable with talking about it.

Learn more about Together for Girls and read issue II of Safe magazine here.