Ensuring #JusticeForGirls starts with good laws

by Shelby Quast | ShelbyRQuast | Equality Now
Saturday, 10 October 2015 10:37 GMT

Girls/Lena Stein

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Everyday should be about girls, but today is dedicated especially to them. International Day of the Girl 2015 is yet another opportunity to put girls center stage.

For many girls, their childhood and adolescent years are shaped by harmful experiences such as sexual violence, child marriagefemale genital mutilation (FGM), and sex trafficking.

Understanding that a lack of support systems can leave girls without the means to speak out against abuses and seek help, Equality Now’s #JusticeForGirls program uses strategic litigation and related advocacy to ensure a level playing field for girls – particularly during their critical adolescent years.

Today, Equality Now is proud to announce an exciting new additional component to this initiative. The GENEROSITY of GIRLS Fund supports programs that directly impact the lives of girls. Initial recipients are partner organizations that work on the front lines with adolescent girls: Safe Hands for Girls in the U.S., The Girl Child Network in Uganda, and the Rural Education & Economic Enhancement Programme (REEP) in Kenya.

Founded by FGM survivor Jaha Dukureh, Safe Hands for Girls supports and empowers girls at risk of FGM by providing culturally appropriate support groups, economically empowering girls, and supporting their goals for higher education. The Girl Child Network in Kampala, Uganda, empowers girls to develop their own curricula for more than 20 after-school clubs. With support from The Fund, The Girl Child Network has the opportunity to empower 500 girls. The Rural Education & Economic Enhancement Programme (REEP) empowers girls in Busia County, Kenya, where Equality Now recently supported a sexual violence case and brought 70 similar cases to the attention of local law enforcement. With support from The Fund, REEP will reach 1,000 girls.

Ensuring that strong laws and access to justice is the first step towards making gender equality a reality, yet many countries, such as Liberia and Mali, have yet to put in place laws which ban (FGM), a severe form of violence that is likely to affect up to 30 million girls over the coming decade.

Meanwhile, if you happen to be born a girl in Yemen or Saudi Arabia, you still have no legislative protection against child marriage. Other countries have laws against such abuses, but fail to implement them

In Saudi Arabia, we worked with Fatima, a 12 year old married to a 50 year old man with a wife and 10 children. Her father received the equivalent of $10,000 for her, which he spent on a car. Fatima’s husband gave her a PlayStation for her wedding gift. We worked with a Saudi lawyer to help Fatima and the resulting publicity helped put pressure on her husband, who finally consented to the divorce. 

Sexual violence continues to be an epidemic in every country in the world. Awareness has increased over the past fifteen years but enforcing the rule of law continues to be a problem for most governments. The law provides a framework that determines a person’s worth. 

In Morocco, Amina Filali was raped when she was sixteen. But a loophole in the law exempted rapists from punishment if they marry their victims. Instead of punishing rapists, judges forced girls to marry them. Amina could not bear a lifetime of being raped, so she took her own life swallowing rat poison. Other girls have done the same. We campaigned very actively with Moroccan groups to change the law. While the change came too late for Amina, it can hopefully protect other girls.

And this is not just an issue for the economically developing world. Half a million women and girls in the U.S. have undergone, or are at risk of undergoing, FGM. In fact, no country has reached gender equality. 

But things have at least started to change. Twenty years ago, FGM was seen as a cultural practice, but it is now recognized as violence and as a violation of human rights. There are now laws banning it in the majority of those countries where it is most prevalent. Two decades ago, the media did not really cover violence against girls as an issue, but that is changing by the day.

The sexual violence epidemic against girls around the world is no longer a hidden issue and almost two million people signed a petition to ensure #JusticeForLiz, a 16 year old girl who was gang-raped and left for dead in Kenya, which led to the arrest and conviction of the rapists.

At a global level, the newly-adopted Sustainable Development Goals include women and girls throughout the agenda. We now need to ensure that progress toward achieving these goals, such as ending FGM and child marriage, are implemented and measured wherever women and girls are affected - not just in select countries.

Today is for all of the world’s girls, but the benefits are much more extensive. If every girl is valued and given the same opportunities as boys; if she is free from all forms of violence and discrimination, amazing things can happen – not only for the girl whose life is changed forever but for her the community and the whole world which becomes safer, happier and more balanced.

Ensuring #JusticeForGirls will benefit us all.