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In the Face of Extraordinary Risk, Three Girls Demand Justice

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Last week The New York Times' Nick Kristof wrote about a Pakistani girl named Assiya Rafiq who, at 16, was held captive and raped and beaten for a year. She finally made it to the "refuge" of a police station, where four officers took turns raping her all over again. Despite threats to her family, Assiya is speaking out against these crimes and pressing charges against her kidnappers and the police. She hopes it will bring change for other girls, including her sisters.

Assiya's courage is inspiring and thanks to Nick, this critical issue has moved one step closer to the forefront of global consciousness. The response to Nick's column has been amazing. Within two days, $75,000 had been donated to Mercy Corps, a fund established to provide various forms of aid, including the legal fees associated with cases like Assiya's. The State Department has also reached out to help. The show of support is amazing, but far more is needed.

Assiya's story is sadly not unique. Studies have shown that up to 46 percent of women in developing countries have experienced at least one episode of sexual abuse in childhood. Most girls in developing countries live in a world completely devoid of safety. In a previous blog I talked about a World Bank study that found that as far as poor girls are concerned, the police are actually a source of insecurity rather than security. Instead of the authorities protecting girls from violence, the authorities were the source of the violence, just as Assiya experienced.

Even when they aren't the source, stories abound where failure to enforce laws and prosecute offenders makes them willing accomplices.

But just like Assiya, girls are standing up and fighting back. I am humbled by their courage.

Imagine a 13-year-old girl enjoying school and friends as any teen-ager should. Tragically, this scenario is not the reality for millions of young adolescents. In Zambia, for instance, "R.M" was raped by her teacher when he asked R.M. to pick up homework in his house. It was only after she developed a sexually transmitted infection that she confided in two other teachers. The rape was brought to the attention of the school's headmaster (who had previous knowledge of the teacher acting inappropriately with schoolgirls) and to the police, but R.M.'s rapist was never prosecuted.

For thousands of girls like R.M., the story usually ends there. Her rapist remains a threat to other girls and she suffers the emotional and physical consequences of a school and community that say violence against girls is acceptable.

R.M.'s story has another chapter. R.M. sued her teacher, seeking damages for personal injury and emotional distress, the school for not protecting girls, and the Zambian Ministry of Education, requesting it issues protective guidelines, and the Attorney General for failure to prosecute her rapist. Equality Now's Adolescent Girls' Legal Defense Fund (AGLDF) worked with R.M.'s lawyer and advised him on applicable international and regional law which enumerate adolescent girls' rights.

Eighteen months later, Zambia's High Court passed a landmark decision awarding R.M. the U.S. equivalent of $14,000 for pain and suffering, mental torture, aggravated damages and medical expenses. The judge overseeing the case called for the investigation into possible criminal prosecution and urged Zambia's Ministry of Education to set regulations to prevent future rapes in schools. The court decision was made even more significant because, for possibly the first time in Zambia, it cited the country's obligation to women and girls under the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. While the case certainly isn't over--with a notice of appeal filed by Zambia's Attorney General--it marks a turning point.

But most girls don't get the chance to have their day in court. Isolated and without support, girls have suffered in silence for far too long. The AGLDF gives them a voice and a forum within which to exercise power they didn't know they had. Girls need your support to turn courage into change. They need to know resources exist to help them advance their fight. With support, a girl's potential to change the system is possible.

In Ethiopia, Equality Now has taken on the case of Woineshet, who was abducted at age 13 and raped for days. During her efforts to prosecute, Woineshet was pressured by others in the village, as well as the judge in the case, to marry her abductor. Why? They argued she would never find a husband because she was no longer a virgin and, at the time, Ethiopian law exempted abductors and rapists from punishment if they subsequently married their victims. Advocacy efforts by Equality Now and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association led to the abolishment of that law.

Today, Woineshet continues to seek justice. The AGLDF and Ethiopian Women Lawyer's Association have filed a complaint on her behalf to the African Commission on Human and People's Rights.

While I'm enraged by the continued failure of so-called authorities to protect girls, I'm motivated by the fact that action is being taken and change is happening. Taken together, these cases underscore two urgent needs. First, governments must pass and enforce laws that protect girls. Second, girls need safe spaces - not just in school, but also in their villages and cities - where they can socialize and learn without the fear that pervades their daily lives. (Check out www.girleffect.org to learn about the key factors girls need present in their lives.)

For girls, legal protection and safe spaces mean they have a chance to avoid the trapdoors of school drop-out, early marriage, HIV infection, or early pregnancy. When girls are able to dodge these obstacles, everyone benefits.

To get there, girls need your support through organizations like Equality Now and others that are working to ensure girls' legal and human rights. Beyond that, we must also talk about the issues girls face, and the failure of governments to protect them, with anyone who will listen.

If Assiya, R.M. and Woineshet have the courage to make their voices heard, surely you do too.

To learn more or donate to the AGLDF visit Global Giving at www.globalgiving.com/girleffect.

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Maria Eitel

Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York Times