Learning how to challenge violence against girls by confronting inequality

Jenny Parkes 

Yesterday marked the start of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Around the world, campaigns aim to raise awareness at local, national and international level, broadcasting stark figures about the extent of violence faced by women and girls.

In our study of violence against girls in three mainly rural sites, 80% of girls in Mozambique, 83% of girls in Ghana, and 90% of girls in Kenya said they had experienced violence in the past 12 months.  While, increasingly, figures like these reveal how widespread violence is in girls’ and women’s lives, of particular concern is our lack of knowledge about what to do about it.

With funding from the UK’s Big Lottery Fund, ActionAid’s project, Stop Violence Against Girls in School, has over the past five years combined local community interventions with advocacy work and research to attempt to challenge violence through multi-level action. It has set up girls’ clubs and boys’ clubs in schools, Reflect circles to create dialogues with parents and community members, held workshops and training sessions on gender and violence with teachers and professionals, and has engaged in advocacy work at national and local level to strengthen clarity, consistency and implementation of national laws and policies.

At the end of the project we found that it has had some success in shifting attitudes and knowledge about gender violence and inequality. In some families, there has been a reduction in the burden of labour for girls and more girls are now in school. Girls in Mozambique and Ghana have become more likely to speak out about violence, and in all three countries girls who are members of girls’ clubs show greater confidence in taking action on violence. Community-based child protection structures developed by the project have improved coordination between traditional and formal justice systems. Often working collaboratively with other organisations, the project has influenced national governments to strengthen legislative and policy frameworks on violence against girls.

Some areas, however, have proved particularly resistant to change. Corporal punishment in schools is still commonplace, and where caning has reduced, sometimes it has been replaced with other harsh forms of punishment, like forcing children to kneel for long periods. While the girls’ clubs in Mozambique have helped girls in communities near cities to speak out about their experiences of sexual violence, open discussions about safe sex and relationships have proved difficult, especially in the most remote communities. There are still silences and stigma around sex and pregnancy. A girl in Ghana told us:

“I know of a friend who got herself pregnant because her mother could not afford and her father was no more. And a boy promised her he will help her and the day they had sex for the first time she got pregnant. My friend was attending primary school and that brought her education to a stop, but the boy continued his education.”

Our findings show the importance of multi-dimensional actions to challenge violence, and the critical importance of addressing not just the acts of violence but the inequitable norms and institutions that lie behind these acts. Challenging violence effectively in these contexts means addressing the combined effects of poverty, marginalisation and discrimination on girls, their families, schools and communities.

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