NEW YORK (TrustLaw) - Adolescent girls are not getting enough legal support to stop them falling prey to rights abuses, particularly sexual violence, according to legal advocacy group Equality Now.
“Legal systems around the world just don’t work for girls,” Yasmeen Hassan, global director of the New York-based organisation, told TrustLaw in an interview.
Key legal obstacles include: girls’ ignorance of their rights or how to exercise them; the fear of stigma, not being believed or being blamed for abuse; further victimisation of girls by the justice system; and lack of tailored support services, says “Learning from Cases of Girls’ Rights”, a recent report from the Adolescent Girls’ Legal Defense Fund (AGLDF).
The AGLDF was formally established in 2008 by Equality Now, but incorporates cases it was working on going back to around 2002. The fund, which partners with local women’s rights organisations, was created to push for reform of legal processes that increase the burden on abused girls.
It does this by taking on potentially high-profile cases that are emblematic of the most common abuses and legal obstacles faced by girls aged nine to 20. So far, the fund has pursued nine cases in seven countries - Ethiopia, Zambia, Kenya, Pakistan, Yemen, Brazil and Uganda - some of which are ongoing.
The most common abuses the AGLDF has encountered all involve sexual violence, including rape, forced marriage, incest, female genital cutting, child marriage and sex tourism, Hassan said.
The 46-page report contains story after story of brave victims betrayed by legal processes that do not prosecute perpetrators, free them on appeal, or become so drawn-out and intimidating that the girl is traumatised, loses credibility as a witness and cannot carry the case forward.
RAPISTS GO FREE
For example, there is the case of Makeda (all names in the report have been changed to protect privacy), an Ethiopian girl who was abducted twice at the age of 13, raped and forced to sign a marriage contract.
In some regions of Ethiopia, marriage by abduction is a common practice. A girl is kidnapped by a group of men, raped by the one who wants to marry her and then forced to agree to marry him.
Although abduction and rape are crimes under Ethiopian law, such forced marriages are usually condoned by village elders and supported by the family who consider the deflowered girl damaged goods. In the past, if the marriage was agreed on, the man was exempt from prosecution.
Not in Makeda’s case, however. Her abductor and rapist was sentenced to 10 years in jail and his four accomplices got eight years, marking the first case in which accomplices were also charged and convicted for abduction.
During that process, incidents of marriage by abduction declined - an indication that the implementation of the law acted as a deterrent, Equality Now’s Hassan noted.
Yet just four months later, an appeals court reversed the lower court’s decision and released all five men from prison. Makeda’s abductor and rapist went on to do the same to another girl. In addition, after the court released the men, the practice became more common again, according to Hassan.
The AGLDF did, however, succeed in changing the law that exempted men from punishment if the woman they had abused agreed to marry them. It also brought a pioneering case - seeking compensation for Makeda and an investigation into the prosecutor and judge who freed the men - before the quasi-judicial African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, where it has languished for five years.
Makeda, disturbed and embarrassed by all the attention, is now a student in the United States.
In another case in Kenya, 17-year-old Niara was raped and impregnated by her father, who infected her with HIV. She reported the incident to the hospital where she sought treatment. When it became public, her father ceased his HIV/AIDS treatment and died. His family blamed Niara for his death and threatened her.
She was subsequently abducted and gang-raped by five men. Although she was able to identify two of them, police have failed to make any arrests or investigate the threats she received.
Prosecution is hobbled because “the girl is such a mess” psychologically that she is considered an unreliable witness, even by the local women’s groups that would have pushed the case forward, Hassan said.
INTIMIDATING LEGAL SYSTEMS
In the widespread absence of support for girls and better training for law enforcement agents and prosecutors, the AGLDF has found that the legal system can often be yet another agent of intimidation and victimisation, Hassan pointed out.
Despite this, the fund has scored legal successes. In Zambia, a rape case involving a girl and her teacher resulted in a High Court precedent that made the government responsible for protecting girls from sexual assault.
In Kenya, in what is thought to be the first court case involving female genital mutilation (FGM), perpetrators in the Maasai community were convicted and given significant sentences.
And in Pakistan, a father received the death penalty for raping his daughter - a sentence Equality Now did not support, but an affirmation that the law could be successfully applied in incest cases.
Many other lessons are being learned through the programme’s work with adolescent girls.
“One of the messages... very clearly is that we have to listen to girls. You don’t treat them as children. You deal with their concerns as equals and let their voices inform the response and the intervention,” Hassan said.
Legal systems should also be re-examined, she said.
“We know that is it very critical that defendants have the right to prove their innocence. But you also cannot victimise and re-victimise victims so badly that the system doesn’t work,” she said, referring to problems such as long court delays and forcing girls to testify about being raped in front of their accused assailants in an open court.
When that happens, Hassan said, it amounts to a “message to all people violating young girls that there will be no deterrence even if the law is there, even if the law is being implemented, if this girl is not able to take the case through court. And she can be intimidated not only by the perpetrator but by the system."
This story is part of TrustLaw Women’s coverage for the United Nations’ first-ever International Day of the Girl Child on October 11.