Gender Inequality and Reproductive Health
Sexual violence is common in the lives of adolescent girls. This gross violation of their rights also harms their reproductive and sexual health. Only over the past decade has the extent of sexual violence against girls come to be understood and documentation begun. Studies in India, Jamaica, Mali, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zimbabwe found that between 20 and 30 per cent of adolescent girls had experienced sexual violence.(58)
COERCION The first sexual experience for many adolescent girls is forced. In South Africa, 30 per cent of young women indicate that their first sex was coerced. Sexual violence undermines girls’ development by making it difficult for them to remain in school, destroying their confidence in adults and in peers, and putting them at risk of STIs, unwanted pregnancy and short- and long-term physical or psychological damage.
Male adolescents and adult men often tolerate or even condone sexual coercion. Young women, too, may view sexual violence or sex that is obtained through force, fear or intimidation as normal, reflecting perverse gender norms in some communities or societies.
One study in South Africa found that sexual violence and coercion against young girls was so widespread it was referred to as “everyday love.”(59) In another study of 30,000 young people, one man in four claimed to have had sex without a girl’s consent.(60) Most young men and women expressed the belief that forcing oneself on someone one knows is simply “rough sex”, and not sexual violence, and the majority of women stated that women were responsible for sexual abuse.
The circumstances of sexual violence almost everywhere are similar: girls are most often raped or otherwise abused by people they know, including family members. Sometimes assailants are respected members of their communities: teachers, employers and even religious leaders. Educators increasingly recognize the need to be proactive in countering the violence. The School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa developed an approach to combating sexual and gender-based violence as early as primary school, challenging teachers’ attitudes and encouraging them to convey anti-violence messages to students.
TRAFFICKING IN YOUNG WOMEN AND GIRLS Estimates of the number of women and children trafficked each year into the sex trade (often through coercion or abduction) and labour enslavement vary widely, ranging between 700,000 and 4 million.(61) The selling of young women into sexual bondage, a serious violation of their rights and threat to their health, has grown considerably over the past decade.(62) Extreme poverty, the low status of women and girls, lax border checks, and the collusion of law enforcement all contribute to the expansion.
In Asia and Eastern Europe, girls as young as 13 are trafficked as “mail order brides”.(63) In India, an estimated two in five sex workers are below age 18.(64) In Sri Lanka, a majority of child sex workers are boys.(65) According to one regional estimation, between 1-2 million men and women are trafficked annually, the majority in Asia. Over 225,000 originate in South East Asia, and an additional 150,000 in South Asia.(66)
Many women from the states of the former Soviet Union are taken to Israel, other parts of the Middle East or Western Europe; many are under age 16. The justice system in many countries is more likely to jail or expel the young women than to punish the traffickers.
Young sex workers are often kept from the view of authorities. In Cambodia, for example, an assessment of the 100 per cent condom use policy for sex workers found that young female sex workers were often hidden when police came to record their identities.(67)
Young sex workers, both female and male, are at high risk of HIV infection. They have little or no negotiating power to insist on condom use and are often targets of coerced or forced sex, which can increase the chances of HIV transmission. HIV prevalence among young sex workers tends to be high—from an estimated 25 per cent in Cambodia to 48 per cent in parts of India and 70 per cent in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.(68)
Some countries have begun to challenge the trafficking trade, often in alliance with community leaders. Thailand’s Government, for example, made assisting youth at risk of entering the sex industry a high priority in the early 1990s. Target areas include eight provinces in northern Thailand with high rates of HIV/AIDS and high percentages of girls who drop out of school.(69) Teachers are trained to identify girls at high risk of being sold, and to work with their families to keep them in school and to earn money locally.