Every five minutes, almost a hundred girls around the world are forced into sex. Only one of them will ever reach out for help.

Last year, a powerful movement called #MeToo empowered millions of girls to break the silence on abuse and support each other.

Yet for every woman and girl who said #MeToo - countless others around the world were forced to stay silent about abuse. The fear of denial, shame, punishment, blame, further violence and retaliation against them or their families kept sexual abuse a shameful secret in their lives.

But the shame doesn’t belong with these victims. The shame is on the systems that allow sexual assault to go unchallenged. The blame lies not with women and girls - but the communities that stop them from speaking out, getting help and rebuilding from trauma.

These five passionate advocates work incredibly hard to make sure girls are safe in their communities and that victims can access services and support. The challenges they face prove that this campaign is far from over. They need their #MeToo moment.

Zarmina, activist for women and children’s rights in Afghanistan

Zarmina has dedicated her life to helping girls and women who’ve experienced violence and abuse. The victims she supports face incredible obstacles - and so does she for trying to help them.

“Some people looked with disdain at me and my family, they hurled abuse at us,” she says. “They did this firstly for allowing me and my siblings to go to school, and secondly, because I was doing my bit for the girls in my community.”
“Publicly, women do not come forward to report violence or sexual harassment, but we do have safe houses for girls and women who have gone through violence and sexual exploitation.”
“I’ve heard about #MeToo but unfortunately,
such a thing has not happened in Afghanistan.”
“I think that ordinary people are the ones that can back women’s rights and help women to be safe in their communities. I hope that one day something like #MeToo could become common in Afghanistan and people could raise their voices against violence and abuse.”

Kalkidan, student and advocate for girls in Ethiopia

Kalkidan’s only 14 but she’s already seen the impact of violence against girls first-hand. She joined her a gender club - a UNICEF-supported initiative at her school - because she wanted to support victims of sexual abuse.
“Sometimes girls who have been abused are afraid to talk about what happened, and they are treated badly by society,” she says.

“A friend of mine was being sexually abused by her teacher. Some of her friends excluded her because they thought she brought it upon herself. She was even forced to leave her parents’ house because of the shame she thought she would bring her family.” 

“When she told me what had happened, I reported it to the school. The school authorities pursued the case and punished the perpetrator.”

Kushi, social worker for child victims of sexual abuse in India

Kushi is there day and night for children in Bangalore who’ve experienced sexual abuse. She helps them navigate the legal system and supports their recovery. And she knows better than most the challenges they face speaking up and seeking justice.

“Campaigns like #MeToo have encouraged many people to speak about what has happened,” says Kushi. “But in India it would be very difficult for them to get justice as the overburdened criminal justice system will not be able to respond adequately. One of the biggest challenges in my work is right at the beginning: convincing a person or family to report sexual violence or abuse.”
“In India, girls and women disclosing sexual abuse are treated poorly by society. The shame and blame is often placed on the victim and not on the perpetrator. In addition to having faced the abuse, a girl or woman who would like to report a sexual offence also has to deal with the societal view that she has brought shame to her family. Sometimes these girls and women need to relocate and restart their lives. This is something that makes people think a lot before reporting a sexual offence.”
“If your phone gets stolen most people know exactly where they need to go, but if a child is being abused most people don’t know whether to go to the police, a child welfare committee, an NGO or to a hospital.”
“Though we know boys are more likely to be sexually abused than girls, records show that reports of sexual offences against boys make up only one or two per cent of cases. In Indian society men and boys don’t express their emotions and are required to be “strong”. If a boy comes forward to report a sexual offence, he may be considered weak or even effeminate.”

“Most perpetrators are known to victims. About half are family members. So, for a child or a woman to report a sexual offence against someone in the family, with pressure and possible threats to stay silent, takes extraordinary effort and bravery.”

Mary, human rights activist in South Sudan

Mary advocates for peace in South Sudan, where a recent outbreak in violence has plunged much of the population into crisis. She thinks women and children in South Sudan need their own #MeToo movement to tackle harassment in their communities and workplaces.

We need a movement to mobilize women here to speak out. When a girl or woman wants to report sexual abuse, it is very difficult. Those who come forward have to face shame from others who question why they are talking about it."
It’s not just sexual harassment and violence, says Mary. “Women are discriminated against and they are not allowed to express themselves. They are not allowed to choose what they want. They are not allowed to choose their partners. They are forced to marry against their will.” 

“They are seen as objects, things. They are voiceless.”

Nop, teacher and youth advocate in Cambodia

Nop interned with UNICEF Cambodia to give young people like her a voice. She used the internship to speak out about what the #MeToo movement taught her about Cambodian society. 

“Does society encourage us enough to speak up against sexual abuse and harassment offenders? No. Rather, we are taught to “avoid” those misconducts,” she says.

“Cambodian girls and women who are victims of sexual assault, abuse, harassment and exploitation may not be able to demand justice and emotional support from the public. Instead, the crowd would put blame on women for wearing revealing clothes, going out late at night, drinking, and the list goes on. This victim blaming is another barrier that discourages women from standing up for themselves.”

“Girls and women do not deserve all these discriminatory rules and societal expectations. We deserve better.”

UNICEF is there for every girl in danger

UNICEF works with girls, parents, communities and governments to keep children safe from danger and help victims recover. We’re helping to:
  • Ensure equal access to education. Well-educated girls grow up to transform their communities and then pass on those benefits to their children. 61 million girls are out of school at the primary and lower-secondary level but UNICEF is helping governments get girls in school, deliver supplies, train teachers and prevent them from dropping out.
  • Prevent child marriage. UNICEF helps stop child marriage by changing attitudes, funding youth groups and helping governments make the practise illegal.
  • End human trafficking. Women and girls are the most frequently identified victims of trafficking. UNICEF helps governments strengthen laws, create effective systems to protect children and respond to violence and abuse. 
  • Promote programs designed to end gender-based violence and offering psychosocial support to girls and women who have been harmed.
  • Stop female genital mutilation (FGM). This year alone, millions of girls will be forced to undergo FGM, most of them before their fifth birthday. UNICEF works with communities and governments to change attitudes and keep girls safe.
And we’re taking steps to stamp out abuse and harassment in UNICEF’s staff and networks. We have a responsibility to keep everyone who works with UNICEF safe from sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse of power and authority. Find out more.

Thank you to UNICEF Connect, Voices of Youth Cambodia and UNICEF USA for the stories, images and powerful words that shaped this piece.

Help keep girls safe

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Each new Global Parent helps us go further, work faster and keep more children safe. Sign up today to help protect children from early marriage, labour and exploitation, and to deliver life-saving water, health and nutrition supplies wherever the need is greatest.