Adolescent Girls' Legal Defense Fund

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For many girls, including those in poor and developing countries, the critical adolescent years are shaped by harmful experiences that have irreversible, irreparable and often lifelong consequences. The emergence of girls’ sexuality during puberty generates damaging responses—societies feel free to disinvest in their schooling and personal development while appropriating their labor, sexuality, and fertility. Generally, young girls have no socially protected means to protest abuses by family, partners, teachers, or strangers.

Equality Now’s Adolescent Girls’ Legal Defense Fund (AGLDF) was created to help rectify the unique and devastating human rights abuses suffered by girls in early adolescence that harm their self-esteem, strip them of their human rights and deny them present and future access to legal protection, social entitlements and economic opportunities. The AGLDF supports and publicizes strategically selected legal cases, diversified to represent the most common and significant human rights abuses of adolescent girls. Its main objectives include:

  • Increased legal protections for girls through impact litigation and law reform;
  • Enhanced capacity of communities to address adolescent girls’ human rights; and
  • Greater visibility and public policy impact of cases nationally, regionally and internationally.

Cases are chosen based on their significance as well as the prospect of finding restitution for the victims and reshaping the rule of law by setting precedents or highlighting the need for equal protection under the law. In addition, bringing cases to the attention of the public can foster widespread public debate and an increased demand for individual rights. In February 2012, Equality Now published a report, Learning From Cases of Girls' Rights (pdf, 4.2 MB), based on knowledge gained by AGLDF cases which identifies and addresses the common obstacles faced by adolescent girls in their pursuit of justice.

AGLDF Advisory Board

Chair: Judith Bruce (Population Council)
Lisa Alter (Lawyer and Co-Founder of Girls Learn International)
Laura Barnett (Director, performer, educator)
Dale Buscher (Women’s Refugee Commission)

Elizabeth Evatt (Former Chair of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women- CEDAW)
Jane Fonda (Actor, philanthropist, activist) 
Marianne Gimon (Independent consultant specializing in gender and international development)
Ann Graham (Specialist in women’s philanthropy; consultant to the United Nations)
Steve Hammond (Partner at Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP)
Judge Claire L’Heureux Dubé (Former Canadian Supreme Court Justice; leads trainings for judges in Africa)

School girls in a safe spaces group, part of Equality Now's project to end violence against girls in Zambia

Equality Now is currently supporting the following cases through the AGLDF:

ETHIOPIA: Rape, Abduction and Forced Marriage

Marriage by abduction, a common practice in parts of Ethiopia, occurs when a man kidnaps a woman or girl, rapes her and then pressures her to marry him. Equality Now's campaign highlighted the case of Makeda, who was abducted at age 13 and raped. Although she was rescued and her rapist arrested, when he was released on bail he abducted her again and held her for a month until she managed to escape, but only after he had forced her to sign a marriage certificate.

Those involved in Makeda’s abduction were sentenced to prison by a trial court in July 2003; however, in December 2003 the decision was overturned by an appeals court, and the perpetrators were released. Backed by Equality Now and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA), Makeda and her father appealed the decision to Ethiopia’s highest court, to no avail. The abductor and accomplices remained free, and all domestic legal avenues had been exhausted.

In 2005, following advocacy efforts by Equality Now and EWLA, Ethiopia repealed the law that provided for exemption from punishment in these cases for rape if the rapist subsequently married his victim.

In 2007, EWLA and Equality Now filed a complaint with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on behalf of Makeda arguing that the Ethiopian government’s failure to punish Makeda’s rapist is a violation of its obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

In 2008, we started negotiations  for an amicable settlement on Makeda’s behalf with the Ethiopian government at its request. However, due to a continued lack of progress, in April 2010 Equality Now asked the ACHPR to render a final ruling as to whether the case was admissible and we could therefore proceed.

Makeda’s case was featured in Half the Sky, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

In April 2014, the ACHPR found the case admissible, which was a good sign as most cases are dismissed before reaching the merits stage. Equality Now submitted a brief on the merits of the case (addressing the specific violations that occurred) to the ACHPR in May 2014. Following the Ethiopian government’s reply, we submitted a final brief in October 2014.

In March 2016, nearly 15 years after Makeda was raped and nine years after our complaint to the ACHPR, the Commission alerted us that Makeda had won her case against Ethiopia! In a precedent-setting decision, the Commission ruled that Ethiopia had failed to protect, and also importantly, to prevent her forced marriage by abduction and rape when she was 13 years old.

From the decision (Communication 341/2007 – Equality Now vs Ethiopia):
“The rape of [Makeda] constituted a serious violation of her dignity, integrity, and personal security as guaranteed under Article 5, 4 and 6 of the Charter, respectively…She was abducted and raped by private individuals and the Respondent State failed to provide her the necessary protection. This was the first tier of violations. When she sought justice, which the Respondent State is obligated to render to her, she was denied justice by the failures of the prosecution and judicial authorities to establish criminal responsibility and punish the perpetrators. This was the second tier of violations…Permitting the perpetrators to escape criminal sanctions discloses some kind of subtle approval or tolerance of the acts they committed…Having failed to prevent the violations and render appropriate remedies through the criminal justice system, the Respondent State now bears responsibility for the violations and is liable to provide reparations to [Makeda.]”

Makeda, who was moved to safety and is focused on her education, was happy about  the decision, allowing her to finally close this chapter in her life. The decision also requested that Ethiopia pay Makeda 150,000 USD – a large award for the ACHPR – for her suffering and called for escalated measures specifically dealing with marriage by abduction and rape, the implementation of judicial training and for a report back to the Commission within 180 days. This is historic as it is the first time the Commission has dealt with an abduction, rape and forced marriage case, and is one of a very small number dealing with sexual violence in general. We are thrilled that Makeda received some justice, and hope it will have a positive ripple effect for current and future generations of Ethiopian girls and women – and  across the continent.


ZAMBIA: Rape of Schoolgirls by Teachers

Mary at school

The “defilement” or rape of minors is rampant in Zambia. Equality Now has been actively supporting a case involving the rape of a 13-year-old girl, Mary, by her teacher. The teacher called Mary to his house on the pretext of picking up her exam papers and raped her. 

Remarks made by the principal of the school when the incident was reported to him indicated that this was not the first such incident involving this teacher, but that the school had not taken any action. On the urging of Mary’s aunt, the teacher was arrested but subsequently released and has not been prosecuted.

Equality Now worked with a pro bono lawyer who brought a civil case on behalf of Mary against the Ministry of Education, the school and the Attorney General. On 30 June 2008, the High Court in Lusaka passed a landmark decision (PDF, 330 KB) awarding Mary damages worth K45,000,000 ($14,000) for pain and suffering, mental torture, aggravated damages and medical expenses.

Calling the failure of the police to prosecute the teacher “a dereliction of duty,” the judge referred the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions for a possible criminal prosecution. He further urged the Ministry of Education to set “regulations, which may stem such acts.” Equality Now advised Mary’s lawyers on relevant regional and international treaties ratified by Zambia and, as a result, the High Court judgment cites relevant provisions of the African Women’s Rights Protocol. This judgment represents a step towards domesticating the Protocol in Zambia; however, the Zambian government put in a notice to appeal it.

In August 2009, following advocacy efforts by Equality Now, the Zambian government withdrew its notice of appeal, making the landmark ruling final.

Chongwe Boys Network, part of Equality Now’s project to end violence against girls in Zambia

To support Mary’s case and to respond more strategically and collectively to issues of abuse of girls, Equality Now helped convene a coalition of Zambian civil society organizations working on the issue of sexual abuse of girls. This coalition put together a comprehensive project to end violence against girls in Zambia through a multi-sectoral approach involving the empowerment of girls, provision of health and legal services, legal reform and awareness-raising. The coalition also continues to monitor the adoption of measures by the Ministry of Education to prevent and better address teacher rape and other forms of sexual violence against girls. This project, coordinated by Equality Now and funded by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, was initiated in 2010 and ended in 2013.

Results of the project:

  • The creation of school guidelines to prevent such violence in schools which were presented to the Zambian Ministry of Education.
  • Empowerment of 1,652 girls through Safe Spaces programs in six schools.
  • Trainings for over 79 lawyers and 30 paralegals to provide legal support to girls; 40 healthcare workers to better recognize and respond to signs of sexual abuse; and 92 journalists to better report on cases of sexual violence.
  • Greater community awareness achieved through community dramas, radio shows and public service announcements.
  • A documentary - “Our Girls, Our Future” - on the subject of ending violence against girls in Zambia, which has been distributed widely around the country.

Equality Now’s letter to the Zambian Ministry of Education (PDF, 34 KB)


KENYA: Female Genital Mutilation

TNI (Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative) FGM workshop with Maasai women, including circumcisers

Sasiano Nchoe was a 12 year old Maasai girl who died on 18 August 2008 after undergoing FGM. Although Kenya enacted a law banning FGM in 2001, it is still practiced widely in certain communities, including among the Maasai, and the law is not implemented. Sasiano was buried, but her body was exhumed after Equality Now’s partner organization, the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative, became involved and alerted the authorities.

As a result of the autopsy, the circumciser, Nalangu Ole Sekut, and Sasiano’s father, Kantet Ole Nchoe, were arrested and charged with manslaughter. However, the accused absconded while on bail, which delayed the trial.

It was after Equality Now raised the issue of police inaction in implementing the anti-FGM law that the Narok police re-arrested the accused. On 1 April 2010, the accused appeared before the Narok Court and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. They were each sentenced to ten years imprisonment.



Mariam and her mother outside Lahore court house with Sidra Humanyun (WAR) and Mehr Qureshi (Equality Now)

In Pakistan, there is no specific law on incest in the penal code and, given the conservative nature of society, issues such as rape and incest are surrounded by stigma and are very difficult to address.

In 2009, Equality Now, along with our local partner War Against Rape, Lahore (WAR), got involved in a case where a 15-year-old girl (Mariam) was raped by her father. When Mariam’s mother and uncles went to report the case, the police were skeptical that a father could rape his daughter and tried to dissuade Mariam from making a complaint, telling her that it would ruin her father. The father bribed the prosecutor and police to push for a dismissal of the case. The magistrate also granted bail to the father without informing Mariam.

Working in conjunction with WAR, Equality Now found a pro bono lawyer to take on Mariam’s case. Together we were successful in persuading the police to not dismiss the case, but rather to re-investigate. As a result of Mariam’s lawyer’s diligence, the prosecutor—who had allowed the father to get out on bail without informing the complainant—was suspended and the case was reassigned. Furthermore, an anonymous donation has allowed Equality Now to provide Mariam and her family with housing, education and counseling.

Though the case went to trial in May 2010, the first hearing did not take place until January 2011 and was subsequently delayed due to postponement tactics employed by the perpetrator and his lawyer as well as court inefficiencies During the trial, Mariam was forced to testify in plain view of her father until her lawyer and WAR intervened to obtain special permission allowing a screen to be set up to shield her in the courtroom. In addition, statements made by the prosecution and medico-legal personnel exposed a fundamental lack of understanding of sexual violence laws. For example, Mariam’s lawyer had to contend with an outrageous claim by the medical examiner who stated that due to the absence of physical marks of violence, Mariam could not have been raped. Throughout the protracted proceedings, Mariam’s lawyer had to intervene repeatedly to protect her, including from the prosecutor.

After more than two years of persistent efforts, on 22 July 2011 the judge sentenced the perpetrator to the highest penalty for raping his daughter, thereby affirming justice for Mariam. However, we were informed in August 2013 that while in jail waiting for his appeal to be heard at the High Court, the perpetrator died of a heart attack. Equality Now continues to work with partners to get a specific provision on incest included in Pakistan’s rape laws and work towards putting in place victim friendly court procedures.

Sexual violence and incest workshop in Lahore, 2010

In December 2010, along with our partner WAR, Equality Now held a workshop on sexual violence and incest in Lahore, Pakistan with representatives of civil society, lawyers, parliamentarians, judges and the media.

In January 2012, Equality Now, WAR Lahore and Nasreen Welfare Trust Legal Aid Services published a study on incest in Pakistan that highlights the obstacles incest survivors face in accessing justice and provides solutions based on best practices from other countries.


YEMEN: Child Marriage

A tent home in which Wafa used to live with her family

Research shows that the average age of marriage for girls in rural areas of Yemen is around 12 or 13 and up to 50% of all Yemeni girls are married before they reach the age of 18 years. Yemen has no legal minimum age of marriage, and cases of child marriages are common. The Yemeni government has failed to take any action to ban such marriages.

In 2010, along with our partner Yemen Women Union (YWU) Equality Now became involved in the case of 11-year-old Wafa who, in 2009, was taken out of school and married off by her father to a 40-year-old farmer. The groom gave him 215,500 Yemen Riyal (US $913) as a down payment for her dowry of 400,500 Yemen Riyal (US$ 1692).

After a year of marriage during which she was violently beaten by her husband, Wafa escaped from her abusive husband and ran back to her parents’ house. By then, her father had passed away and her mother was unable to help her due to psychological problems caused by years of abuse. However, Wafa threatened to kill herself if her family sent her back to her husband’s house.

In 2011, a court in Hija province finally agreed to grant her a divorce. While YWU and Equality Now had wanted the court to grant the divorce, without requiring Wafa to repay her dower (money paid to a woman in consideration of marriage), unfortunately the court did not go so far. Wafa’s father had spent his daughter’s dower before he passed away and Wafa’s relative, acting under duress and threats from Wafa’s husband, borrowed money to pay back the dower, thereby curtailing Wafa’s attempts to appeal the condition of her divorce

Equality Now took on this case—building on our campaign to get Yemen to enact a law establishing a minimum age of marriage—in order to assist this young girl to put the trauma of child marriage behind her and to highlight the legal problems encountered by girls in countries that do not specify a minimum age of marriage. Without a law banning child marriage and, no remedy for child brides to get out of their marriages without having to pay back their dower (over which they lack effective control), girls such as Wafa remain at constant risk of exploitation.

In a promising development, in September 2013, Yemeni Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour requested the reintroduction of a 2009 parliamentary bill that would effectively ban child marriages in the country. Equality Now and YWU support the Minister in her efforts in calling for renewed discussion of the child marriage legislation. We continue to work with the YWU to push for a minimum age of marriage law in Yemen.


SAUDI ARABIA: Child Marriage

Saudi Arabia, like Yemen, has no legal minimum age of marriage, and child marriages continue to be prevalent. Saudi Arabia’s commonly accepted practice of male guardianship over women, where a woman is considered to be under the guardianship of her father or closest male relative for her whole life, is directly contradictory to international human rights standards. The combined effect of the lack of a minimum age of marriage and the practice of male guardianship mean that a Saudi girl can be forced into marriage at any age by her male guardian.

In 2010, Equality Now became involved in the case of 12-year old Fatima, a Saudi girl whose father sold her in marriage to a 50-year old man who already has a wife and ten children, most much older than Fatima. Her father sold her for 40,000 Saudi Riyals (approximately US$ 10,665), which he used to buy himself a car. Fatima’s paternal grandfather and uncle were strongly opposed to the marriage but could not prevent it because Fatima’s father, as her male guardian, has the right under Saudi law to marry her off at any age to whomever he pleases.

In May 2011, Fatima was back at home with her family and refused to go back to her husband. Her husband said he would not grant her a divorce unless he was paid a large amount of money. Equality Now intervened to support Fatima’s paternal uncle who wanted to help his niece get a divorce. In November 2012, Fatima got her divorce papers without having to pay back the dower and the divorce was finalized in February 2013 after a required 90-day waiting period.

Equality Now took on this case as part of our campaign to ban on child marriage in Saudi Arabia. We continue to work with partners to call on the King to issue an edict to establish 18 years as a minimum age of marriage. We also join partners in calling for the system of male guardianship over women to be abolished so that Saudi women have the right, along with other things, to enter into marriages of their choice.

In April 2013 the Saudi Ministry of Justice proposed to introduce new regulations on the marriage of girls. The draft regulations set 16 as the minimum age of marriage and are a welcome first step in fulfilling the government’s international human rights obligations in relation to child marriage. We are calling on the Saudi government to implement this regulation as soon as possible and to put in place further regulations protecting girls from harm including by raising the age of marriage to the internationally recognized standard of 18.


BRAZIL: Sex Tourism

Countless girls are exploited through sex tourism. Sex tourists travel to places where they feel they can exploit women and girls undetected and with impunity. 

Equality Now is spearheading a civil case in the U.S. on behalf of a number of Brazilian girls who were sexually exploited by clients of a fishing tour company in Brazil run by a U.S. citizen. This U.S. citizen brought U.S. tourists on fishing trips to the Amazon. He and his employees would lure young girls from local indigenous communities, some as young as 12, onto his boats. The girls were then forced to have sex with the clients on the boat (as a result of which some became pregnant); some of the girls were also forced to perform stripteases and pose for nude photographs.

Equality Now secured a law firm to take the matter on a pro bono basis, and a civil suit was filed in federal court in Atlanta (where the defendant is located) in June 2011. The judge stayed the civil suit in August 2011 as required by the civil remedy provision, pending the completion of the U.S. criminal investigation into the matter and possible prosecution. The judge lifted this stay in November 2012 so that the civil case can proceed. This is potentially a precedent-setting civil litigation against a sex tourism company as we believe that this may be the first civil action under the trafficking law on behalf of victims of sex tourism. We hope the lawsuit will result in restitution for the plaintiffs and have a deterrent effect on sex tourists.


KENYA: Gang Rape

Through the Federation of Women Lawyers, Kenya (FIDA-Kenya) we became involved in the case of Niara, a 17-year-old girl in Kisumu, Kenya, who was brutally raped twice, but each time the police failed to take action against the perpetrators.

Niara was first raped by her father, as a result of which she became H.I.V positive and pregnant. She reported the rape, but the police took no action. Later, after receiving threats from her father’s relatives, Niara was gang raped by a group of men who also inserted needles into her abdomen. Again the police took no action.

Equality Now has taken on this case to highlight the lack of police responsibility in responding to cases of sexual violence against girls.

Niara now lives in safety and is continuing her education. Equality Now, together with our partner FIDA-Kenya, are strategizing on ways to put pressure on the police in Kisumu to investigate this case; we are also looking into the possibility of bringing a civil action against the police for failure to act.


UGANDA: Incest Involving Severely Disabled Girl

In 2011 Equality Now, in partnership with Legal Action for Persons with Disabilities (LAPD), took on the case of a severely disabled (deaf, mute, blind and lame) Ugandan girl named Sanyu who had a child as a result of possible incest. Sanyu is now living in a home for the disabled, but was denied access to justice since she could not identify her rapist due to her severe disabilities. The government would not pay for DNA tests for her child or her father and her brothers, who are suspects in her rape, and the child was taken away from her.

Equality Now successfully raised funds for DNA testing and after sustained advocacy with Ugandan authorities had the case reopened. Three of the suspects were apprehended in August 2011 and DNA samples were taken. The police also took DNA samples from Sanyu and her baby for the Government chemist to review. The remaining suspect, one of Sanyu’s brothers, was not tested as he had run away. DNA testing languished for over a year and when finally received, the results showed that, though none of the three were the father of Sanyu’s baby, the baby’s father was genetically of the same paternal line. To our knowledge, efforts were never made to apprehend and test the remaining brother, who was found dead in early 2013. Equality Now is strategizing with partners on next moves in this case to set a precedent that the government take special measures to address and prevent sexual violence against girls with disabilities.

We hope that this case will highlight issues of vulnerability of disabled girls to violence and will establish an important precedent on the steps the government must take to protect girls with disabilities.


PAKISTAN: Gang Rape by Police

In 2011, through local partner Blue Veins, Equality Now learned about Saba, a 16-yearold Pakistani girl who was kidnapped and held for a year during which she was allegedly repeatedly gang raped by a number of individuals including police officers and a civilian member of the Pakistani Army. Though traumatized, she was able to give details of distinguishing features and marks on the bodies of some of the accused. We took on the case with the goal of setting a precedent to end police impunity for violence against women and girls.

In December 2010, police officers entered Saba’s home on the pretext of looking for her brother in connection with a minor incident. Her brother was not at home and Saba was taken to a house where she was drugged and gang raped. In September 2011, a now pregnant Saba managed to escape while being transferred by two men she had been sold to by her kidnappers (she gave birth to a baby girl in January 2012). While Saba and her impoverished family were trying to fight for justice, despite alleged police corruption and threats from local fundamentalists, they were attacked outside a local court and Saba’s brother was brutally shot dead.

Despite witness accounts of the murder, the senior investigating police officer refused to take action. Pressure from human rights groups and the media prompted the Pakistani government to take action on both cases. Following the Peshawar High Court's call for thorough inquiries and strict action against all perpetrators and the police officers who failed to take action in the rape and murder cases, in December 2011, 14 people were arrested in the rape case and 29 police officers were suspended. DNA samples were taken from the baby and the alleged rapists but did not result in a match to any of the suspects. The Chief Justice of the Peshawar High Court ordered Saba to undergo multiple lie detector tests and found the results inconclusive. Equality Now wrote to the court expressing great concern about subjecting a rape victim to lie-detector testing which is psychologically damaging and, given the inconclusive nature of the results, highly prejudicial. However, on 19 June, the Peshawar High Court in Pakistan dismissed its inquiry into this case.

Following the remand of the case from the High Court, on 31 January the lower court acquitted the defendants, including several police officers, in the gang rape case. We are concerned for the safety of Saba and her family after this ruling as they will no longer have state protection and they have already been targeted for bringing the case. We are strategizing with partners about ways to protect her.

Girls’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.