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Sexual violence against adolescent girls

Adolescent girls are disproportionately vulnerable to human rights abuses that can have severe and long-lasting consequences. At the same time girls generally lack a support system through which they can protest abuses and attempt to access justice.

Why are adolescent girls vulnerable to sexual violence?

For many girls, the critical adolescent years are shaped by harmful experiences that have irreversible and irreparable, and often lifelong consequences. Adolescent girls are not adults, they are children. Yet they are preyed on sexually, and then blamed as if they were adults, both in the law itself and in practice, in violation of international law and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

  • According to UNICEF, around 120 million girls worldwide, just over 1 in 10, have experienced “forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts” at some point in their lives. Of these, at least 15 million alone have been raped.
  • Although girls being married off before the age of 18 has declined worldwide, still an estimated 12 million girls a year are subjected to child marriage, another avenue to rape, often legitimized by the law.
  • In addition, an estimated 200 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to female genital mutilation, often in preparation for marriage, and a lifetime of abuse and pain.

Our experience has highlighted common obstacles that these girls face, including lack of knowledge of their rights and how to access them, fear of stigma, not being believed and being blamed, re-victimization through the justice system, and lack of girl-friendly services. No longer afforded the protections of childhood, nor recognized as adults, they find themselves in a precarious position, often victimized and blamed for being a sexual predator or “temptress” by the perpetrator and the society around them, leaving them isolated and unsupported with little voice to demand their rights. So even when legal recourse is available, adolescent girls have a limited support structure to protest abuses by family members, partners, teachers, or strangers.

How do laws around the age of consent affect adolescent girls?

We are working to repeal a provision known as “estupro,” which imposes lesser penalties for perpetrators who rape 14- to 18-year-old adolescents. Estupro is damaging legislation that imposes lesser penalties for the rape of an adolescent girl than of a young girl or adult woman.

In some jurisdictions, the accused may have a defense if he reasonably thought the survivor was over a certain age, even if she was actually under the age of consent.

The age of a minor should be defined as 18 in the law on buying sex from a minor and the age of consent in statutory rape laws should be raised to 18 where there is an abuse of trust and exploitation of position of vulnerability. If a child is reasonably considered not to be able to consent in law then this should apply whatever the circumstances, including if the child is being exploited in prostitution. The penalties should be equivalent. If exploiters of women and girls are not subject to the full force of the law:

  • A signal is sent that women and girls and, of these, particularly the most marginalized in society, are of lesser worth
  • A signal is sent that such exploitation can occur with impunity, enabling more not less sexual violence and making vulnerable women and girls ever more vulnerable

UN Women guidelines propose that laws should make provision for a broad range of circumstances in which consent is immaterial, such as sexual assault by an individual in a position of authority such as in a school setting

How are girls in schools affected by sexual violence?

Women and girls are exploited in a range of circumstances. Not uncommon among these is the exploitation of girls by their teachers at school. 

Along with sexual violence being committed by teachers and other authority figures, girls are sometimes expected to “transact” sex for a variety of things such as getting better grades, transportation to school, etc.

Punishment for these acts is rare, and in some countries, should the girl become pregnant she is then excluded from continuing education, a further human rights violation.

From our work in Zambia, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere we have learned that if girls face violence when they are trying to get an education:

  • Their parents may withdraw them from school or they may feel they need to withdraw themselves, leaving them with little or no education
  • Their education may be interrupted through trauma, fear, and lack of self-esteem
  • Their future prospects for work may be hampered
  • There may be damaging sexual health and other consequences to the girl, for example from sexually transmitted infections or through pregnancy and a possible consequential ban from schooling

What is Equality Now doing to protect adolescent girls?

To prevent and address violations of the rights of girls, it is critical that institutional systems, including laws and policies and mechanisms to enforce them, are properly established and that the special circumstances and needs of adolescent girls are taken into account in designing and implementing such systems.

Gender-sensitive laws and properly functioning legal systems coupled with systems aimed at the empowerment of girls will have the combined effect of deterring potential violations of girls’ rights and encouraging girls to claim their rights.

Through our Adolescent Girls’ Legal Defense Fund (AGLDF) we aim to:

  • empower girls to stand up for their rights;
  • make sure the justice system works for girls when their rights are violated;
  • set precedents with the case of one girl that will have a broad impact on thousands of girls just like her;
  • use cases to advocate for better laws and policies to protect girls; and
  • raise the visibility of local cases to show their national, regional and international impact.