Five years ago, a dedicated group of cross-sector partners stood on stage at the 2009 CGI Annual Meeting and made a bold commitment—to end sexual violence against girls. These partners included Gary Cohen of Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), Amy Robbins of the Nduna Foundation, Ann Veneman of UNICEF, Michel Sidibé of UNAIDS, Ileana Arias of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Nizan Guanas of Grupo ABC, and several others from UN agencies and the private sector. The commitment has since grown into the global public-private partnership known as Together for Girls.
In 2007, the HIV prevalence for young women ages 20-24 in Swaziland was among the highest in the world at 38 percent, compared to 11 percent for young men of the same age. While many experts suspected that sexual violence was a major contributing factor, there was no data available at the time to support this theory. To better understand the situation, the Government of Swaziland, UNICEF, and the CDC collaborated on a study focused on sexual violence against girls, the first national-level survey on the issue ever to be conducted outside of a high-income country. The findings concluded that 38 percent of girls had experienced sexual violence prior to age 18 and that those girls were almost four times more likely to contract HIV or another sexually transmitted infection over their lifetime. The study confirmed what many had suspected: sexual violence was fuelling new HIV infections among girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa and undermining the achievement of almost all of the Millennium Development Goals.
Swaziland Leads the Way
While the data provided invaluable information, what was particularly remarkable was how it was used. In Swaziland, the government, civil society, and donor partners quickly and comprehensively mobilized to take action. The country established its first Sexual Offenses Unit for crimes against children and opened one-stop centers for those who had experienced violence to provide them with access to health, legal, and social services all in one place. The country also began working hard to prevent violence through a range of strategies—from training the justice sector to prosecute offenders, to engaging influential religious leaders to speak out against violence. As a result of this and other work, Swaziland has significantly improved its ranking in the African Child Policy Forum’s Child Friendliness Index, moving up from 45th in 2008 to 9th in 2013.
Today, just five years after the CGI commitment was announced, Together for Girls and its partners are working in nine countries across Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean to apply the methodologies first modelled in Swaziland. Seven more countries are set to join the partnership by the end of 2015. Each program is in various stages of implementing the Violence Against Children Survey (VACS) to obtain a detailed understanding of the issue and are using the findings to mobilize a government-led comprehensive response. While it is still too early to evaluate reductions in violence, countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, and Zimbabwe are already implementing robust response plans to instigate changes in laws or law enforcement, interventions in schools and communities, or the establishment of district-level child protections teams.
Since its inception, the Together for Girls partnership has continued to grow. In 2010, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) became a partner, recognizing the important role of violence prevention in achieving an HIV-free generation. The World Health Organization (WHO) also joined as a technical partner. The Together for Girls partnership has also expanded by collecting national data on both girls and boys, and by focusing on broader forms of violence, not only sexual violence. This expansion was based on increasing evidence that linked emotional, physical, and sexual violence to near- and long-term damage to children’s health, well-being, and development.
Becoming a Movement
The commitment made at CGI was ahead of its time. Global emphasis on addressing violence, and particularly the vulnerability of girls to sexual violence, has grown demonstrably over the past five years due in part to the advocacy efforts of Together for Girls. Interest and demand to engage with Together for Girls exceeds our present capacity. At least a dozen additional countries have requested to join our partnership, inspired by the successes they have observed in countries that are already engaged.
A landmark event for Together for Girls will take place this week, May 28-30, 2014. At the invitation of the Government of Swaziland, international experts and over 180 representatives of our partners—including government and civil society members from 20 countries—will meet to share their experiences and knowledge on violence prevention, including how to translate national data into a response plan with actions that will make communities and countries safer for children.
The enthusiasm and commitment of our partner countries and organizations are inspiring, and the growing mobilization in communities, among governments, and on the global stage is a promising sign of a burgeoning movement. That being said, relative to other public health and human rights issues, there is a massive gap between the magnitude of the problem and the availability of resources to address it. But based on what has been accomplished in just five years since the CGI commitment was announced, namely the rapid expansion of countries engaging in the Together for Girls partnership, we are making gains toward a world with less violence and one where all children are safe, healthy, and valued.