To be it, girls and boys need to see it


By Gabriela Bucher, Chief Operating Officer, Plan International

Domestic-violence-kidsWhy representation is key to eliminating gender-based violence.

We entered Women’s Month during a landmark year for girls’ and women’s rights, when a number of hallmark standards for women’s human rights globally — from the Beijing Declaration to the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 — are being reviewed and renewed. But decades after these agreements were signed, millions of girls and women remain subject to gender-based violence. 84 million girls worldwide are trapped in child marriages and subject to intimate partner violence. 3 million girls are still at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) every year. It’s time for drastic action.

Gender-based violence is rooted in outdated, entrenched and deeply harmful attitudes about gender that pervade in our societies. The Social Institutions and Gender Index shows that intimate partner violence, for example, is higher in countries where it is most socially accepted. To eliminate gender-based violence around the world we must tackle the problem at its source by unpicking harmful gender norms, beginning at an early age and empowering young people to becoming ambassadors for gender equality within their own communities.

While preparing to speak at the OECD’s Summit on Violence Against Women in Paris last month, I was reflecting on how often violence against girls and adolescent girls is overlooked when we speak of violence against women.  Across the American continent, up to two-thirds of all victims of sexual assault are aged 15 years or less. In my home country of Colombia, the proportion of sexual assault victims who are under 18 is as high as 80%. These figures are staggering. The World Health Organisation has acknowledged that one of the key factors that increases vulnerability to gender-based violence is being young. It is clear that girls and young women are disproportionately affected by intimate partner violence, and least equipped to deal with it – and yet they are so often forgotten in conversations around Intimate Partner Violence.  It is said that worldwide 1 in 5 girls are married before the age of 18.

This International Women’s Day, we must commit to changing our approaches and accelerating change: it simply isn’t happening fast enough. We can start by acknowledging the inexorable connection between violence against girls and young women and harmful masculinities. Harmful gender norms and stereotypes are embedded at a young age. By the time they reach primary school, children have already started to be socialized into gender norms, roles and attitudes. Ideas of what it means to be a “real man” or “real girl” are only reinforced during crucial periods of their lives, such as adolescence. From the stories that they are told at bedtime to the advertisements they see on buses and television, young people are bombarded with damaging images and messages portraying women as obedient and submissive and men as strong and forceful.

That is why, for International Women’s Day this year, Plan International is demanding that we #RewriteHerStory. Side by side with the young people who lead our global campaign, Girls Get Equal, we want to call out the lazy stereotypes that portray girls and young women as sex objects, hopeless romantics or over-emotional drama queens (to name but a few) and highlight how such typecasts harm people of all genders.

Youth-led advocacy and campaigns around gender equality are further reinforced by efforts to dismantle harmful stereotypes within our communities. Only by working with children from childhood through adolescence and into early adulthood can we effectively change these gender stereotypes and transform our societies. Our Champions of Change initiative works with young men and women to identify how toxic masculinity manifests in their lives, acknowledging that adolescence is a deeply formative time in our lives. Despite only having begun in 2012, we have already seen significant results. Our pilot programme in Latin America found that the boys who went through the programme were 30% more likely to believe there were no circumstances in which women deserved to be beaten, and 25% more likely to say that it was unacceptable for a man to beat his female partner if she refused to have sex with him. Following the programme, not a single boy thought either of these beliefs were acceptable.

This is how we must tackle gender-based violence: by working with the next generation to uproot the harmful norms that lay the foundations for violent behaviour. Governments around the world must invest in and ensure the provision of comprehensive sexuality education that focuses not only on the physical and anatomical aspects of sex, but also on how to form healthy, respectful relationships and deconstruct harmful gender roles. By confronting toxic masculinity early, and continuing to challenge it at key stages of young people’s lives, we can change the way that boys and girls see themselves – and how they treat each other. We can promote mutual respect and cooperation to ensure that each child gets an equal start in life, setting up the next generation to enjoy greater equality than the last. Achieving a society that affords girls and women equal dignity and autonomy to men and boys is our collective purpose. This International Women’s Day, I challenge policy makers, advocates, and all individuals to call out negative stereotypes and help to #RewriteHerStory.