‘Invisible girls’ face normalised violence

9 MAY 2017

The low social status of marginalised adolescent girls exposes them to daily violence, our latest research warns. That this abuse is largely accepted threatens progress that could be made towards equality.

New research by Plan International shows how violence and its consequences define many adolescent girls’ lives, particularly where factors like poverty, ethnicity, disability, lack of education and isolation overlap. Worryingly, this abuse is widely accepted by girls, their male peers, family and members of their community.

Quantitative and qualitative data from girls, in their own words, has given a snapshot of the realities of life for girls in three key areas. The prevalence of violence towards girls and young women is likely to have a hugely damaging effect on the ongoing fight for equality.

The girls’ data gap

Episodes of abuse such as physical violence, verbal violence, sexual violence, emotional violence, rape and harassment punctuate the lives of millions of adolescent girls around the world every day. Yet these incidents too often go untold, unreported or unrecorded.  

There is a massive data gap where adolescent girls’ lives are concerned, especially for those marginalised by poverty, lack of education and discrimination. This gap risks impeding progress on ending gender inequality by 2030 as set out in the Global Goals.

As part of a drive for better data, Plan International has published three linked reports on the daily realities of adolescent girls in Nicaragua, Pakistan and Zimbabwe to give a snapshot of the experiences of adolescent girls on themes aligned to the Global Goals.

Documenting impact of violence

From rural and urban sites, the Counting the Invisible reports show how violence and its consequences define many adolescent girls’ lives, particularly where factors like poverty, ethnicity, disability, lack of education and location overlap.

Discrimination, violence and rape are the biggest issues girls my age face. I have faced it, all of us have faced violence and discrimination.

One girl interviewed from central Nicaragua summed up the all-pervasive nature of abuse she encounters. “Discrimination in the family, in the street, violence and rape are the biggest issues girls my age face. I have faced it, and not only me, all of us have faced violence and discrimination.”

A married adolescent mother from Pakistan’s Sujawal district echoed that resignation. “Physical violence is common here and everyone has to face [it]. It’s the biggest issue over here.” she told Plan International researchers.

Low status, few rights

What makes the violence so difficult to tackle are social, cultural and sometimes religious norms that place low value on girls within families and communities while effectively absolving the perpetrators of violence from taking responsibility. Girls’ rights to live free of violence, and to access education, health care and justice, are given scant regard. Abuse against them is widely accepted as inevitable.

Girls are well aware of their lesser status. In the Zimbabwe report, 70% of adolescent girls interviewed said they did not have the same opportunities as boys. In focus group discussions, the boys confirmed that they enjoyed a better status to girls, whom males considered as “assets”.

According to female interviewees from rural Sindh province in Pakistan, girls “…should be ready for all kinds of violence and mistreatment. Men and boys of this community think and behave with their girls and women as they are their property, like their camels, cows and goats.”

Violence in the home

Violence at home was most commonly reported, perpetrated by parents, guardians, siblings and extended family. Girls in Nicaragua explained that violent home lives drive many adolescents into early marriages, only to find further abuse in the marital setting.

[Girls] should be ready for all kinds of violence and mistreatment.

Among interviewees, 77% of Pakistani girls and 68% of Zimbabwean girls said wives endure violence to keep the family together. Nicaraguan girls mostly disagreed, but almost a third said it was sometimes acceptable for a boy to use violence against his wife or girlfriend.

Male attitudes unquestioned

Both boys and girls encouragingly expressed desires to improve girls’ lives, but startlingly few suggested changing male behaviour and attitudes to do so. Only one girl among Zimbabwean interviewees suggested boys and fathers be taught to value girls equally.

Nicaraguan boys in focus groups believed that girls were at risk of rape because of how they dressed and behaved, not because of male behaviour. Similarly, Pakistani boys in focus groups did not question male roles in violence but searched for external causes and restrictive solutions.

They described how drunken men sometimes break into girls’ homes and rape them, blaming this on a lack of protective walls around the girls’ homes. Violence was sometimes necessary, they said, for instance, to punish girls for talking to other boys on their mobile phones.

Feelings of safety in public

Many girls interviewed, 79% of Pakistani girls and 59% of Nicaraguan girls, felt unsafe in public spaces. Zimbabwean girls disagreed, with 60% saying they did feel safe in public. However, the vast majority of girls in all locations felt unsafe in public after dark.

Reflecting the cycle of violence that Pakistani girls face, female interviewees explained how they hide their experiences of sexual attacks for fear of shaming their families and receiving further punishment. They, like many of the girls interviewed in Nicaragua and Zimbabwe, felt responsible for avoiding violence, by dressing appropriately, being submissive, keeping busy and if possible, getting educated.

Girls count and must be counted

Altering such ingrained norms and mindsets requires long term strategies underpinned by better data. The reports recommend multi-layered approaches to improve girls’ status within families and communities. More robust data collection and greater cooperation with national and provincial academic institutions will help generate evidence to gauge the gravity of these situations.

The girls in the three reports are but a snapshot. Millions of girls are currently ‘invisible’ to governments and policy makers because they are not being counted. While girls remain uncounted, it is hard to see how the Global Goals’ promise to ‘leave no one behind’ can be honoured.