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Empowering girls: ending the cycle of violence

Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General - Family, Women's and Children's Health

Commentary
10 October 2014

As we observe the International Day of the Girl Child, it is time to celebrate the enormous potential each young girl has to help build a brighter future. But she can only do this if she grows up in the right conditions, with the right support and in the right environment. Her potential needs to be carefully nurtured and promoted.

Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General - Family, Women's and Children's Health.

Adolescence is a critical time that can determine the entire trajectory of a girl’s life. With the right care, investment and environment, she will become educated and grow into an adult who can take key decisions that will lead her to be an agent of change and contribute to economic growth in her community and in the society.

Unfortunately, however, many girls face tremendous challenges that prevent them from achieving their full potential. The theme of this year’s Day of the Girl Child highlights one of the major challenges: violence against girls – a universal phenomenon that persists in all corners of the globe, jeopardizing the human rights, health and well-being of too many young lives.

Much of this violence is rooted in gender inequality. Poverty and lack of education compound the problem. Violence starts early, and with the onset of puberty, girls’ exposure to abuse – sexual, physical and psychological – is heightened, fuelling a vicious cycle that can persist into adulthood and beyond.

Violence against girls

Every year, more than 14 million girls marry before their 18th birthday. Early marriage is most prevalent in rural and impoverished areas of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, but the practice is by no means limited to these regions.

“Together, we will unlock every young girl’s future potential for generations to come.”

Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General - Family, Women's and Children's Health

Poverty often triggers this practice. Families may hope that an early marriage will secure a young girl’s financial future and honour. Too often, though, these unions result in disempowerment, abuse, and early pregnancy – all of which can lead to serious health consequences.

The data is compelling: nearly 30% of girls aged 15–19 in a marriage or dating relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of their intimate partners. Complications linked to pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death among these young women.

Early marriage violates a girl’s rights. It effectively ends her education and her potential to earn her living later in life, contributing to society’s economic and social development. It can also put her life in jeopardy.

Although not always at the hands of their spouses or partners, the violence and sexual abuse against girls is often perpetrated by someone she knows well: a family member, a relative, a care-giver or a teacher. Other forms of violence, such as female genital mutilation, are deeply rooted in cultural practices and traditions.

The consequences are tragic: physical injury, unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortion, sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Girls who experience violence are also at increased risk of smoking and of harmful alcohol use. In some cases, the violence turns deadly.

Global momentum

There is however hope that this situation can change.

There is no doubt that the political commitment to end violence against girls is high on the agenda and we have great examples of action in countries.

India has recently launched a comprehensive strategy for adolescents, based on the principles of participation, rights, inclusion, gender equity and strategic partnerships, recognizing the need to respond to their health and development needs in a holistic manner. The initiative, which engages various sectors across government and beyond, envisions that all adolescents in India are able to realise their full potential by making informed and responsible decisions related to their health and well-being.

We have valuable experiences from civil society programmes in Africa and other continents aimed at stopping violence against girls in schools and promoting education and necessary changes in legislative frameworks to reduce violence and increase school attendance.

Globally we are raising awareness as well: 2 weeks ago, speaking at a panel event, Canada’s Foreign Minister, John Baird, noted that 4 years ago, child marriage was an “uncomfortable issue” that leaders avoided due to cultural sensitivities; now, it is openly debated on the floor of the UN General Assembly; and the first-ever “Girl Summit”, hosted by the UK government earlier this year, showcased innovative activities under way and galvanized important commitments from governments and other partners towards ending child marriage within a generation.

These are issues which are also a priority for us in WHO. Often, a health-care professional will be the first point of contact for a victim of violence. Thus, the role of the health sector is particularly important and can be part of the solution.

The way forward

International commitment is at an all-time high. Now it’s time to transform global pledges into tangible results for girls.

Stopping violence against girls is a shared responsibility requiring the expertise, resources and engagement of all sectors of society. Everyone has an important role to play, from families and communities to civil society and national leaders. Only through coordinated action will we begin to see concrete progress.

We must ensure equal access to education and employment opportunities for women and girls. We must challenge social norms that support male authority and control over women and girls. We must empower adolescent girls with skills, confidence and life options. We must work with adolescent boys and girls to develop equal relationships grounded in mutual respect. We must train parents, caregivers and schools to discipline children through non-violent practices. These are but a few examples.

We, at WHO, have now made violence against women and girls a top priority. We are in the process of developing a new plan of action, following the resolution approved by Member States in May of this year at the World Health Assembly, “to ensure all people at risk of or affected by violence have access to timely, effective and affordable health care – particularly women, girls and children.”

The new plan of action will look at strengthening the role of the health system within a national multisectoral response. We will invest in enhancing the evidence base and sharing it to inform effective policies, programmes and legislation. We will scale up the provision of guidance to countries to help them make the right decisions about how to end violence against girls and provide survivors with appropriate care.

We look forward to working with countries and partners as we develop the global plan of action. We look forward to working together to implement it, to move towards the necessary changes in attitudes and perceptions around violence, and to move closer towards our collective desired goal of zero tolerance towards violence, in particular against women and girls and children.

Today, as we mark the Day of the Girl Child, I am convinced that with our joint efforts we can make violence against girls a thing of the past. I join my colleagues and collaborators in calling for the protection and empowerment of all girls, everywhere. Together, we will unlock every young girl’s future potential for generations to come.