Listen to their voices the key to eradicating sexual violence against girls in the Americas

*Posted by Frances*

The recent reports on sexual violence in Haiti’s camps; Aftershocks, and the sexual abuse of girls in Nicaragua; Listen to their voices and act, prompted me to review again the Americas overview section in the Amnesty International 2010 report: The State of the World’s Human Rights (it is very helpful; get your copy here). In particular I wanted to look at the issue of sexual violence against girls and their level of vulnerability in the region, not least because sexual violence, as we know, is often very much a children’s issue.


As campaigners for children’s rights we look to support calls for action in many countries in the Americas to do more for the protection of the rights of girls. It would seem that in order for change to occur in many countries there is a strong need to listen, accept and incorporate the experiences of survivors of sexual abuse into plans for progress.


From the Amnesty 2010 report, it is apparent that deep-seated problems remain. Economic recession increased the number of people living in poverty worldwide by 9 million. Despite this, the Amnesty report highlights that in the Americas there was a continued lack of long-term government led policies to combat human rights violations for those living in poverty and girls continued to be among those most at risk of rights abuses.


In several South American countries it is reported that violence against women and children ‘remained endemic’ and in fact the number of reported cases of sexual violence rose. At the same time, authorities in several countries acknowledged they were unable to deal with the level of complaints.


The reports on Nicaragua and Haiti that have been published this year highlight deep seated and varied problems of sexual violence in both countries, which we as children’s rights activists can work on, calling for governments to listen to those who are at risk.


It is acknowledged that rape and sexual abuse in Nicaragua are under reported crimes and yet more than two thirds of reported issues between 1998 and 2008 involved girls under the age of 17 and clearly therefore represent a children’s rights issue. The Amnesty 2010 report concludes that official efforts to support women and girls were ineffective. As such the CHRN welcomes the latest report on Nicaragua; Listen to their voices and act, which calls on the Nicaraguan government to change the way it deals with the sexual abuse of girls.


The report is based on interviews carried out by Amnesty International, including those with 35 girls and one seven year old boy – all survivors of rape. (Read the full report on our news page here.) The report strongly calls for a complete overhaul due to the current lack of support for young survivors of abuse who often have no access to information on how to seek help, will face stigma and blame when reporting abuse and risk even being told by police they are lying. Listening to victims is an obvious first step for change.


It is not the first time that Amnesty International has put pressure on the Nicaraguan government regarding this issue, which implies a deep-seated lack of political will on the part of the Nicaraguan government. This must change in order to comply with their international and national obligations. Nicaragua has ratified the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which requires that states always prioritise the best interests of the child and prevent sexual violence against children while also ensuring justice and reparation for survivors. This now needs to be enforced. As the report emphasises in its recommendations to the Nicaraguan government ‘ The responsibility for eradicating sexual violence lies with everyone in government.’


Rape of girls is endemic in Nicaragua the report concludes and often the perpetrators are close family members. The study also revealed that young girls and teenagers are at particular risk of pregnancy as a result of rape. At the same time, however, abortion is prohibited under all circumstances. It is striking that total prohibition on abortion in all circumstances, including rape or risk to the mother’s health, remain in Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that laws which deny rape and incest victims the option of accessing safe and legal abortion services are in breach of the CRC and it is clear that absolute prohibition leads some girls to resort to unsafe abortion practices, sometimes with fatal consequences.


As the Listen to their voices and act report states, ‘Nicaraguan laws on abortion breach the right of girls to health and dignity’. Significantly Amnesty International has reported that 2009 saw an increase in maternal deaths in Nicaragua and 16% of these were due to complications following unsafe abortions – no such deaths had been recorded in the comparable period in 2008, before the law prohibiting all forms of abortion came into effect. If the government were to listen, they would hear survivors’ views such as that of Estefany, who was raped at gunpoint at 17 and had a child as a result, who says ‘ I would ask the government to allow therapeutic abortion for survivors. Even though if they had offered abortion to me, I would have said no, it has cost me a lot to accept and take on this responsibility.’ Despite concerns from UN committees, including the UN Committee against Torture, Nicaragua has taken no steps to repeal the law.


The report also highlights that girls are more at risk of maternal death than older women. In Latin America maternal mortality is four times higher among teenagers under 16 years old than women in their twenties, often due to complications because younger girls have not yet reached physical maturity. Both this and the instance of death due to unsafe abortions clearly sit within Amnesty’s Demand Dignity campaign, active on the issue of maternal mortality – an issue which often affects girls under the age of 18. (Read the full Demand Dignity report here).


This is where we as children’s activists can play a role and call on the Nicaraguan government to make changes and listen to survivors of sexual abuse. Click here to take action against sexual abuse of girls. By taking action we can show support for those such as Clara, a youth rights promoter, who says in the report ‘ We are girls and we have rights, and so long as they do not respect these rights, we will continue to fight to demand them.’


In Haiti we know that the situation is different, that the people have suffered the repercussions of the devastating earthquake in January 2010, which killed over 230,000 people and left more than 300,000 injured. Nonetheless, the importance of the need to listen to survivors and those at risk of abuse is just the same.


The Amnesty 2010 report on Haiti is particularly interesting as it was compiled before the earthquake and shows that, before the devastation, life for children and girls was often very tough. Thousands of children used as domestic workers, for example, described by the UN as a ‘modern form of slavery’, were at grave risk of abuse. Rape and sexual violence ‘remained widespread’ in 2009 with a lack of structure or resource to combat the issue. Notably more than half of rapes reported involved children.


It was with this in mind that I went back to the Aftershocks report. It describes how one year on after the January 2010 earthquake, over 1 million people are still living in severely overcrowded, mostly informal settlements where conditions are described as ‘appalling’, and shelter ‘precarious and wholly inadequate’. 38% of those living in camps are girls under the age of 18.


You can find the Aftershocks report here. It is a moving account of the hardship of life in the camps and provides an overview of Amnesty International’s analysis and suggestions for improvement of the situation. It is also an opportunity for the young girls affected by sexual violence in the camps to speak out and be heard, some of whom are as young as 11 years old.


The report gives a clear portrayal of what can happen after a natural disaster when women and children are not necessarily included in disaster relief planning. The earthquake exacerbated pre-existing violations of economic and social rights while communities already at risk became more vulnerable to abuse by being displaced and losing the networks that had provided support. The risk of rape and sexual violence has therefore increased dramatically in the past year and insufficient steps are being taken by the government to ensure protection for women and children in the vast majority of the camps.


What is clear is that women were not included in the organisation of the camps. This may be because the camps were meant to be temporary. One year on, however, there is no plan to move people and therefore women and girls live in constant threat of sexual attack. As the Aftershocks report states, ‘the earthquake shattered what few protection mechanisms did exist’. I listened to experts Anne McConnell, of the Haiti Advocacy Platform Ireland-UK, and Chiara Liguori, Caribbean researcher for Amnesty International, discuss this issue on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour radio program. They made the point that the earthquake hurt the women’s movement in Haiti not least because the Ministry for Women’s Affairs building was destroyed and many women’s movement leaders died. This may go some way to explain why the voices of women and girls were less well heard in the immediate aftermath. A year on, however, this needs to change.


In 2005 rape became a recognised crime in Haiti and can now be challenged in the courts. It is clear, however, that resources are insufficient to enforce this and the police are ill equipped or often reluctant to deal with cases. Those interviewed for the report suggested that if you do not know your attacker there is little hope of a prosecution. Even to report an incident, girls often have to make statements sitting outside destroyed police stations which highlights an obvious lack of a secure place to make a complaint without fear of stigmatisation or reprisal.


Regardless of other pressures, primary responsibility for ensuring the human rights of displaced women and girls in Haiti must lie with the Haitian government. As supporters of children’s rights we support the calls for the new Haitian government, formed this year in February, to communicate a comprehensive plan to deal with the camps. This plan needs to include measures to increase security, ensuring that the needs of women and girls are heard and taken into account.


The Aftershocks report will ensure that the international community continue to shed light on what Anne McConnell described as a ‘global scandal’. Despite the devastation and lack of resource, a women’s movement does remain in Haiti in the form of the ‘Women’s commission of victims for victims’ which works tirelessly to campaign for the rights of women and girls in the camps. As members of the CHRN we will continue to support this campaign, remembering the particular vulnerability of young girls and welcoming calls for the voices of women and girls to be heard.


So what does this mean for children’s rights activists? It is clear that both the Haiti and Nicaragua reports highlight issues prevalent in their societies. While there are significant differences in circumstance, the unifying theme between both reports is the conclusion that the key to eradicating problems is to listen to both those who survive and those at risk of abuse or violence. As children’s rights activists we will continue to campaign in support of calls for change, highlighting the need to include the experiences of young women and girls in their discussions if the situation is to change. 


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