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There are images of young girls that sometimes haunt me when I lie in my bed at night trying to cross the divide between wakefulness and sleep.

Some of those images come from a remote village in the Afar district of Ethiopia.  In the evening, as shadows lengthened and the sun settled on the horizon, young girls with elaborately beaded and braided hair danced alongside handsome young men whose curly hair shone with the butter they’d stolen from their mothers’ kitchens.  With twinkly eyes and sideways glances, the laughing girls teased their eager dance mates.

The next day, we watched those same young girls walking by pairs down an embankment, carrying loads of crushed stones in colourful sarongs slung between them.  Working alongside their fathers, mothers, neighbours, and the boys they’d flirted with the night before, they were helping to build a water diversion system that would provide their village with sufficient water for their crops and livestock.

Other images come from a similarly remote village in India.  After hours spent traveling by rickshaw, bicycle transport, and boat to get to the island where they lived, we were greeted by young girls dressed in red and white with sparkly barrettes in their hair.  They placed garlands of flowers around our necks and then carefully executed the steps of the dance they’d practiced for our arrival. Their young teacher looked on proudly, encouraging them as they danced.  Later, after the necessary formalities, these same young girls skipped along behind us as we wandered through the village visiting some of the elders and seeing how the villagers had survived a recent flood.

Girls at risk

They’re pleasant images – and yet they haunt me.  Why?  Because so much could have happened to those young girls in the time since I’d seen them last.

All of these young girls are at risk.  Where they live, they are quite possibly the most at risk members of society.

A year after my visit to Ethiopia, I met a man who’d been in that village recently.  He shook his head sadly when he told me of the sadness in the village since our visit.  A large number of young girls had died because of infection.  In village gatherings, when families bring their young daughters to be subjected to the ritual of female genital mutilation, the same dirty knife is used for dozens of girls.  Many of them succumb to infection and – with no hospitals close by – too many die.

These were the same beaded and braided young girls we’d watched innocently flirt with the butter-haired boys.

In India, after our visit to the villages in the Sundarban Islands, we sat with the staff of a local organization called HASUS who told us that their region – being one of the poorest regions in India – has the largest number of young girls who are taken from their families (with the pretense of being offered jobs in the city) and forced into the sex trade.  While we were there, a list of names was passed from hand to hand around the table.  On that list were at least two hundred names of missing girls (some of them as young as 10) that HASUS was trying to find and hopefully rescue.

Since our visit, the names of those young girls who danced on the dock especially for us (pictured above) might have been added to that list.

The many faces of discrimination

The more I travel, the more I hear stories about the vulnerability of young girls.  Rape, murder, mutilation, sex trafficking, abduction, forceful confinement – all of these abuses put an alarming number of young girls at risk.

According to the latest estimates available, some 1.2 million children are trafficked worldwide every year.  Most of these are girls who are being forced into the sex trade. Others are being used as domestic slaves.

In parts of India and other Asian countries, not only are girls being forced into the sex trade, but baby girls are being killed (simply because they’re not boys), and – where there is not enough food to feed the whole family – young daughters are sometimes left to starve.  Mostly because dowry payments make them the most expensive members of the household, girls are expendable.  Unicef estimates that 60 million girls are ‘missing’ due to prenatal sex selection, infanticide or neglect.  In China, similar problems exist because of the one child policy and the desire of many families to have sons rather than daughters.

In many parts of Africa, female genital mutilation puts many young girls at risk.  The World Health Organization estimates that more than 130 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation, primarily in Africa and, to a lesser extent, in some countries in the Middle East.  In Ethiopia, an estimated 80% of women aged 15 to 49 have been subjected to female genital mutilation.  In some countries (eg. Egypt) the numbers are as high as 97%.  The UN estimates that approximately 12% of girls die from septicaemia, spinal convulsions, trauma and blood-loss after circumcision.  By those estimates, approximately 3 million little girls have died in Ethiopia in the past 20 years alone.

There’s more.  In conflict situations, young girls are particularly vulnerable.  An estimated 90 per cent of global conflict-related deaths since 1990 have been civilians, and 80 per cent of these have been women and children.  Not only are they being killed, but they’re also being forced to join the conflict.  Latest estimates suggest that more than 250,000 children are currently serving as child soldiers – many of them are girls who’ve been captured not only to serve as soldiers but as “wives” for the commanders of the armies, and mothers to their children.

In many conflict situations, sexual violence is used as a method of warfare.  Women and young girls are terrorized and raped, and often left for dead.  In recent Unicef studies in Liberia, a country that has seen significant conflict in recent years, people surveyed agreed that young girls are the most endangered group in Liberia and that there is no place and no time of day or night where adolescent girls could be considered safe.

Even in the absence of conflict, many young girls are raped and/or forced to become child brides.  Globally, 36 per cent of women aged 20–24 were married or in union before they reached 18 years of age.  An estimated 14 million adolescents between 15 and 19 give birth each year. Girls in this age group are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth as women in their twenties.

The facts are clear – especially in countries dealing with instability because of conflict or extreme poverty, young girls are the most vulnerable members of society.  Even in North America, rape is considered a “silent epidemic”, with sexual violence remaining one of the most underreported crimes.

Is there any hope?

What does one person do in the face of such overwhelming statistics?  More specifically, what do I do when the faces of those young girls haunt me in the night?

Sometimes I do the only thing I can do – I cling to my own young daughters and promise I will do everything in my power to protect them from such atrocities.  I know that I can’t fully protect them (I myself was raped at the age of 19, shortly after leaving my parents’ home), but I will certainly continue to try.  But sometimes that’s not enough.  Increasingly, I’m feeling the need to stand up and do more – for my own daughters and for the girls who danced for me in India and Ethiopia.

Though the statistics and stories are crippling (and they almost make a person want to throw up her arms in despair and never read a newspaper again) they don’t tell the whole story.  Fortunately in my travels, I have not only seen the dark sides of the stories, I’ve seen the bright sides.  I’ve seen hope and I’ve seen deep levels of commitment.  Most importantly, I’ve seen people who are making a difference.

In India, the young staff of HASUS are about as committed and compassionate as any people I’ve ever met.  Working out of small, cramped, and run-down offices in Mandir Bazer, they work tirelessly to gather the names of the missing girls and search for them in brothels and sweat-shops in the city.  While we were visiting, they took us to a construction site where they are building a new facility to house the young girls they have rescued from the sex trade and are helping to rehabilitate and re-integrate into society.  In a small shack on the property, three young girls (former prostitutes) were being trained to do needlework so that they’d have a trade to provide for themselves in the future.

A couple of years ago, I met Mrs. Angelina Acheng Atyam, a mother whose daughter was abducted and forced to serve with the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda (and, while in captivity, gave birth to 2 of her abductor’s children).  A few years ago, while her daughter was still in captivity, she decided that the only way to move forward from the depth of grief and anger that held her in its grip was to find a way to forgive and then stand up and fight.  In a visit to Canada, she told a story of how she’d visited the mother of her daughter’s abductor to offer forgiveness and compassion.  She started an organization called Concerned Parents Association Uganda to advocate for peace in her country and the return of all children held captive by the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Her daughter and two grandchildren managed to escape the LRA and now live with her.  Her daughter is going to university and is working to build a better life for herself and her children.  Other young girls are being rescued and returned to their homes because of Angelina’s courage and determination.

In Ethiopia, I met a vibrant young woman named Elizabeth.  She’d moved from the large city of Addis Ababa to the remote village we visited in the Afar region because she cared deeply for the people there and wanted to help them.  She was teaching them to build water diversion projects so that they’d have access to water for their crops and livestock, but more importantly, she was serving as a model for the young girls of the village so that they could stand up for themselves in their village, take on leadership roles, and not accept the abuse of female genital mutilation.  Because of her influence, the role of women is slowing changing.  Women now sit on local government bodies – something that was unheard of before she moved to the village.

There are others like Elizabeth and Angelina and the staff of HASUS all over the world.  They might not be able to change the whole world, but they’re changing their little corners of it.  The least I can do is commit to joining them in their efforts.

What can I do?

Here are a few things that you and I can do to make a difference for young girls suffering from a myriad of abuses:

  1. Find and support good organizations that are actively involved in protecting, rescuing, educating, and standing up for young girls.  I’ve mentioned a few that I’ve come into contact with recently – HASUS, Concerned Parents Association Uganda, Stephen Lewis Foundation, Unicef.  There are lots of others.  International Justice Mission (“a human rights agency that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression”), V-Day (an organization started by Eve Ensler’s that believes “rape, incest, battery, genital mutilation and sexual slavery must end now”) and The Girl Effect (an organization known for their powerful communication tools like this video).
  2. Write letters to your members of parliament urging the government to invest in the protection and education of young women all over the world.  Even though the statistics may be lower in North America, it is important that our policies not only protect our own daughters, but that young girls who seek asylum in our countries can be protected from their oppressors.
  3. Educate your daughters, nieces, and all of the children you care about so that the future can look better than the past.  Just as importantly, educate yourself. For starters, read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
  4. Stand up to the oppressors and abusers.  Don’t let them win.  Look for ways to get involved.  You might not be able to travel to India to help rescue young girls from the brothels, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help them.  Some of the girls who are trafficked are being used as sex slaves right here in North America.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see the girls I met in India or Africa again, but their images will stay with me.  They will serve to remind me that, until every little girl is safe from rape, mutilation, abuse, and murder, the world is not a just place.  Until justice is found, none of us should get too comfortable or complacent.

It is partly for the young girls who danced for me in Ethiopia and in India, and who deserve a chance at a full and vibrant life, that I am pouring my passion into Sophia Leadership. Something must change.

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