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The fear of violence and how its restricting girls lives

The fear of violence and how it’s restricting girls’ lives

It’s estimated that worldwide one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. That’s about 938 million women - more than the number of undernourished people in the world and close to the population of Africa. A UNICEF study found that the majority of women who’d experienced sexual violence first experienced it between the ages of 15 and 19, one in five experienced it before the age of 15.

However, it’s not just those who are directly hurt by violence who are affected by it. When girls grow up in societies where violence and harassment are prevalent, normalised even, the fear of violence has serious impacts for girls’ opportunities and freedom.

The responsibility for preventing violence too often falls to girls: “don’t walk there”, “you can’t wear that”, “don’t go out at night”, “you shouldn’t be alone”. Restrictive advice like this often limits a girl’s ability to leave the house when she chooses. This, crucially, also restricts her access to everyday childhood opportunities such as being allowed to play sport with boys or not continuing her education.  

Children from the Dominican Republic

Girl, Dominican Republic

[Boys] go into the toilets when I’m peeing, they push the door to see the girls who are peeing. I went to the toilet and they pushed the door and I hadn’t peed yet.

Real Choices, Real Lives’ is a research study following the lives of 142 girls, in 9 countries, over 18 years. This year the girls turned 10 and the fear of violence that girls around the world experience was clear in our conversations with the girls. Dozens had stories of gender-based violence in their or others’ communities, and where the girls didn’t, their parents did. At the age of 10 the girls are already afraid of rape, abduction and murder.

Wherever there were reports of violence, restrictions on girls were found too. One of the girls in the Philippines spoke about the immediate consequences of a girl being raped in her community:

Girls are no longer allowed [out at night]. Before, it was okay; but not now, no one is comfortable.

Another girl from Cambodia told us:

When my friend’s mother sees me going somewhere, she discourages me and says that I might be abused.

Avoiding violence by restricting girls aged 10 might seem logical, but this strategy is rarely adapted as girls get older. In 2011, we spoke to teenage girls in some of the communities in which the study is based. One of these girls from Brazil explained very clearly how the fear of violence that develops from a young age can end up affecting the most important decisions in a girls’ life:

Education must be equal for boys and girls; our rights must be equal, too, but this doesn’t happen. Often, we want to take a professional course, but the community doesn’t offer it. Our mothers never let us take a course outside the community because normally the school is far from home and they are afraid of sexual violence and harassment. The boys want to go too, and there isn’t enough money for both, so the boys end up taking the course.

At 10 years old, the girls in the cohort study have high aspirations, they want to study and work - 18 say that they want to be doctors and 32 want to be teachers. In order to have these careers, the girls will very likely have to study away from home and often the fear over safety will prevent a girl from moving away, graduating and going on to fulfil her potential.  In eight years’ time the girls in our study will be 18, how many will have fought their fear of violence in order to achieve their aspirations?

At Plan International UK we’re working to tackle the root causes of violence so that girls don’t have to avoid it. Our Champions of Change programme works with young men in Latin America to challenge harmful gender norms in their communities. To prevent violence against women and girls it’s essential we work with boys and men.

We’re also working with, and listening to, girls in order to create safer cities. We can make cities safer by educating staff on public transport and police, lighting dark streets and designing buildings with safety in mind - so that girls don’t have to change their behaviour. We’re also working to prevent violence in schools so that girls can Learn Without Fear.

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