Judith Bruce
Publication Date
December 1, 2011

This document, part of a set of five thematic reviews called GIRLS FIRST! Perspectives on Girl-Centered Programming, explains forms of violence that affect girls, how they are inhibited from accessing resources that can support them, and how this denial of their rights conditions them to the acceptance of forms of violence.  It puts forward arguments for investing in the rights of girls, highlights promising practices, and expresses an evidence-based point of view on where the field must allocate resources in order to most quickly and effectively improve girls’ lives. The series is funded by support from the UN (United Nations) Adolescent Girls Task Force, UN  Women (previously UNIFEM), the Nike Foundation, the UN Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Violence against girls takes many forms, including culturally normative practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation, and is reported to be widespread: "Extreme violence affects at minimum a third of all females and a high, possibly rising, proportion of girls younger than 15." Location and hours of the day when girls feel safe are substantially fewer than for boys. Research techniques such as safety scans show: relative access to safety nets and comfort in various settings, such as public transport stations, is challenging; discomfort and vulnerability are common, and the extent to which girls must develop strategies to protect themselves from violence, including the possibility of a resulting HIV infection, is widespread. In Zambia, 86% of girls interviewed incorporated the strategy of staying home in their planning for protection. However, research shows that girls who attend school are less likely to suffer sexual violence, as are girls with strong two-parent households. In South Africa, girls with financial goals are more likely to assess HIV risks and have HIV tests. These kinds of research findings are available to guide programming for girls.

The document recommends the following:

  • Use data to find girls at exceptionally high risk.
  • Devote more resources to building protective assets of the girls at most risk.
  • Use girls’ knowledge to design prevention, mitigation, reporting procedures, and treatment programmes - especially of 10-14 year-olds who are out of school, 10-14 year-olds living with one or no parent, and underage girls in exploitative work. For example, "[t]he Population Council has developed a safety scan tool for use by girls and boys to define times of the day, week, season, or situation that are sources of threat. Girls themselves should be asked to identify when they feel at risk...."
  • Create regularly available platforms and spaces for girls, particularly those at the highest risk of exploitation. For social support: "A family of peers with a mentor is a vital asset in and of itself. It is also a means by which a girl can learn her rights, come to understand teacher codes of conduct, have access to services and support, and obtain justice when she needs it."
  • Purposefully recruit at-risk girls.
  • Anchor programmes with girls as the core client: Reach out to others selectively and based on girls’ assessments.
  • Determine which (if any) media could make a difference based on girls’ experiences. Rather than generalised social marketing, "...for behavior change and certainly for vulnerable groups, specific access to information is far more effective than generalized messages. Girls, for instance, need to know specific risky scenarios."
  • Protecting girls as they seek justice. "The Adolescent Girls Legal Defense Fund has developed guidelines for better addressing violations of girls’ rights and equipping legal systems to meet the needs of adolescent girls."

Among their recommendations

  • "Require gender-sensitivity training for all personnel (police, prosecutors, clinicians, and judges) who deal with adolescent girls’ legal needs.
  • Ensure that medical exams are quick, minimally invasive, and carry few reporting requirements.
  • Take special measures for adolescent girls in trials, such as:
    • Providing separate waiting rooms for survivors and witnesses to avoid contact with perpetrators.
    • Being sensitive during cross examination to counter harassment of survivors.
    • Allowing the use of screens or in-camera testimony to avoid contact with perpetrators.
    • Keeping girls informed about the legal process and its outcomes.
    • Limiting the number of times a survivor must testify.
    • Enforcing time limits within which legal proceedings must be initiated and concluded."
  • Measure results at the level of the girl. "...Negative reports about quality of services increase when clients are informed about their rights or appropriate expectations about care. Similarly, we can expect that adolescent girls who are sensitized and supported may initially report more abuse. Programs cannot guarantee a girl’s safety, but they can measure how well prepared she is to deal with violence, by assessing her protective assets, such as having someone to turn to in a crisis and having specific safety plans....Programs can most likely measure shifting levels of comfort with violence within the community, and they can document expanding areas and times of day in which girls feel safe. Many of the short-term measures of protective assets should be achievable within relatively short periods of time. For example, girls can acquire personal documentation and a more explicit sense of risk in their environment, and can evolve specific plans and knowledge to avoid it."

Resources and programmes highlighted in the document include:

  • Berhane Hewan, working to change child marriage norms in Ethiopia (See Related Summaries below).
  • A Zambian effort for creating safe girls' clubs for early adolescents.
  • The TAMASHA project in Tanzania for women working in bars (See Related  Summaries, Participatory Research and Action, below).
  • Biruh Tesfa (Bright Future), providing meeting spaces, skillbuilding, and protective assets for domestic workers, orphans, and migrants in urban Ethiopia (See Related Summaries below).
  • Abriendo Oportunidades in Guatemala, using "Safescaping" GPS technology to help girls map communities (See Related Summaries below).
  • The Safe Cities programme in Egypt, aiming to reduce sexual harassment and sexual violence by working with at-risk women and girls, local authorities, other grassroots groups, and the media to create greater access and safety in public spaces.
  • Paraprofessional Social Work Training Program, International Rescue Committee (IRC), Somali Region of Ethiopia, bringing two community members from each village to be trained in social work.
  • Apne Aap, working to eradicating sex trafficking in India, (See Related Summaries, The Place Where We Live Is Called the Red Light Area, below).
  • Growing Up Safe and Healthy (SAFE), reducing the gender equality gap through gender-based violence prevention messages in Bangladesh.
  • It’s All One Curriculum, summarising a unified approach to sexuality, gender, HIV, and human rights education (See Related Summaries below).

Population Council website, February 21 2013.