Violence And Fear Is Holding Girls Back. It’s Time To Change The Story

Many people have described 2017 as a watershed year for women’s rights. At the start of the year, women’s marches took place in more than 20 countries, including the USA, Thailand, South Africa, Mexico, Italy, India, Australia and the UK. More recently, actors and other high-profile women have taken a public stand against sexual harassment in Hollywood, in comedy, in politics and elsewhere. These prominent cases have brought the world’s attention to the pervasive nature of this issue for women everywhere. In my home country, contestants in the Miss Perú 2017 beauty pageant used their platform to speak about the ‘vital statistics’ around violence against women in our country.

I applaud these examples of women’s voices and experiences being heard.

Today is International Volunteer Day. As Chair of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts – an organisation for every girl, run by dedicated volunteers – I want to make sure that girls and young women are not forgotten in these discussions.

Until every girl is safe from violence

Across the world, a shocking 50% of sexual assaults are committed against girls under the age of 16. All girls have the right to grow up free from violence and the fear of violence. Yet, millions of girls are unsafe every day – at school, on public transport, and at home.

Girls under 16 are especially vulnerable to sexual assault, violence and harassment, yet there is a lack of reliable data about this issue. To make change happen, we need to listen to girls and understand their experiences. This is why the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), has launched our #GirlsAreUnsafe campaign.

As part of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, which takes place from November 25 – December 10, we are asking girls around the world to share drawings showing the spaces where they feel unsafe. We are calling on governments to take action by creating a global voice demanding that gender-based violence is eradicated.

A global issue

It has been hugely eye-opening to see these drawings from girls across the world – girls as young as seven who fear violence as they go about their daily lives. Whether they’re from Australia, Argentina, Trinidad and Tobago or the Central African Republic the drawings we’ve been sent show clear themes on where girls feel unsafe, with a large number saying their unsafe place is walking on the street when it’s dark or on public transport.

One 13-year-old girl from Argentina explained that she feels unsafe, “On the street. You just feel very insecure because men shout things to you”.

This harassment is experienced by girls and young women all over the world. Girl Scouts in Tunisia have told us that harassment is commonplace. 16year-old Khawla shared that, “In Tunisia, girls are made to feel less than what they’re worth.” She continues, “Girls are seen as objects. Violence and sexual harassment is rife – it happens every day on the street. If I wear a short skirt, people stare at me.”

Fear of violence affects the everyday lives of girls and young women. It affects their future opportunities and their life choices. Girl Guiding and Girl Scouting helps girls around the world to recognise violence and navigate healthy relationships through non-formal educational activities and global campaigns. Girls including 12-year-old Divine from Rwanda have explained to us why this is so important for them:

“At school we don’t learn about things such as how to tackle violence or sugar daddies. We can’t openly talk about these issues as boys are around, but Girl Guiding has given me a safe space to address them… Through open discussions, our Girl Guide mentors have taught me what to do if I feel am at risk of violence. Now I know who I can go to for help and I’ve learnt that I don’t have to keep quiet.”

Our programmes and campaigns help girls to navigate the specific context of their communities and countries. Massa, a Girl Guide from Liberia told us how Girl Guiding supports girls where she’s from:

“There are many issues that have affected the Liberian society that Girl Guiding has helped with addressing, for example, early child marriage. We have an educational programme focused on this topic to help girls recognise the importance of education.”

Beyond the girl guides

I am hugely proud that our work is supporting Girl Guides and Girl Scouts to speak out and take action, but more than this, I am proud that our sector-leading Voices Against Violence programme and Stop the Violence campaign are reaching further, supporting other groups and communities where support is greatly needed.

We have heard from an organisation in Colombia using our programme to support their work on the prevention of violence against girls and teenage pregnancy. Their workshops are developed with girls from a vulnerable slum community, using different resources from our “Voices Against Violence” curriculum.

Earlier this year a number of WAGGGS’ trainers visited the Moria Refugee Camp in Lesvos, Greece to deliver sessions on advocacy – to support girls and women to speak out about the violence and sexual assault that they have experienced.

Supporting girls to speak out and demand change has always been central to what we do. As media coverage on sexual harassment and violence against women and girls continues to grow, it’s important that the scale of these issues is understood.

Our #GirlsAreUnsafe campaign is a stark reminder that young girls across the world are experiencing harassment, violence and assault – but it is also a call from girls for a better, safer world.

Celebrating incredible volunteers

This International Volunteer Day, as we call on governments to create safe school, community and home environments for every girl, I want to say a big thank you to the 1.5 million women and men around the world who volunteer to make Girl Guiding and Girl Scouting happen.

It is these brilliant volunteers that make it possible for us to deliver campaigns and educational programmes for girls in 150 countries. It is these brilliant volunteers who are empowering girls to speak out and stop the violence. It is these volunteers who are listening to girls and giving them a safe space where they can be free from violence, fear and the daily realities of harassment and abuse.