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Freedom from Violence for Women and Girls Around the World

Article by Gary Haugen September 18, 2015 //   7 minute read

On September 21-22, 2015, the Bush Center will bring together First Ladies from around the world, private and public sector leaders, and the next generation of innovators for the 2015 Global Women's Network, a summit focused on ideas, innovation, and partnerships to promote women's education, health, and economic empowerment.

International Justice Mission (IJM) is a global human rights organization of Christian lawyers, investigators, social workers, and educators fighting human trafficking, land grabbing, child sexual assault, and modern day slavery. IJM Vice President Nikki Toyama-Szeto will participate in a panel next week at the summit focused on empowering women and girls by combatting exploitation and discrimination. Gary Haugen, President and CEO of IJM, has kindly contributed the below guest blog to share more about the “Girl Effect” and the work of IJM.

The “Girl Effect” tells us that if we invest in girls, particularly through education, we will see the benefits multiplied significantly in their communities.  There’s a problem there, though. According to the World Health Organization, school is the most common place for sexual violence for massive populations of poor girls in the developing world.   There are women and girls alive today who are having their freedom, dignity, land, money, and right to pursue a future actively taken away from them at this very moment—and it is hindering the Girl Effect.

Enslaved and abused, exploited and beaten, everyday violence in the developing world—especially against women and girls--is a phenomena that’s hard to get our minds around.  The statistics alone are mind-blowing. There are between 21 and 36 million slaves estimated to be in the world today. 2 million children are bought and sold in the commercial sex trade each year. On top of that, the particularly grotesque nature of the crimes typically committed against women and girls are nearly unfathomable.  But I have found that once the numbers have truly sunk in, once the nature of the crime is comprehended, it becomes impossible to turn away. 

International Justice Mission is at the forefront of helping to rescue, restore and protect women and girls whose freedom, dignity and rights have been taken away—because we know that girls can’t go to school, women can’t start businesses, mothers can properly care for their children if they don’t possess the basic human necessity and inherent right that is freedom from violence.

We also believe that there is no better way to protect the poor from violence, to end modern day slavery and human trafficking than to hold perpetrators of these crimes accountable for their actions through functioning public justice systems. That is why we work diligently to partner with local law enforcement to address these crimes in their communities and why we walk side-by-side with police, governments, courts and judges to ignite sustainable transformation in public justice systems so that they serve their intended function of protecting the most vulnerable from violent oppressors.

In a TED talk I gave this earlier year in Vancouver, I told the story of Griselda, an IJM client in Guatemala who wasn’t going to school when our team first met her.  This young women, who had every desire to get an education and a school near her home, was barely leaving her home.  Griselda had been kidnapped, held at gunpoint, and raped by men in her community.  Walking to school wasn’t safe for her. IJM’s team in Guatemala worked with local police to arrest Griselda’s perpetrators and they were convicted in 2012.  Griselda was able to finish her studies to become a bilingual secretary, and she is moving forward.

In Uganda, a widow named Benedeta had her 20 acres of land, along with her livelihood, violently taken from her by a menacing and relentless group of men.  IJM worked with local authorities to help restore Benedeta to that land, and those men are currently standing trial.

Women and girls cannot thrive unless they are safe, and they can only feel safe when the justice system begins to function as it should.  The village of Svay Pak in Cambodia was once the premiere destination for foreign pedophiles, boasting a rampant commercial sex trade where very small girls were sold in an open market to be raped for profit. Thanks to nearly a decade of work on the part of the Cambodia government, local NGOs, and the international community, we are now seeing a drastic reduction in the number of minors available in the commercial sex trade.

In fact, where the Cambodian government once cited the prevalence of minors in the commercial sex industry to be as high as 30%, we now find only 2.2% prevalence of minors in the commercial sex industry and 0.1% prevalence of minors under age 15.  Granted, until that number is zero, it will still be too many, but the progress made is a remarkable testament to how a model of justice system transformation works as we seek to protect women and girls from violence in the developing world.

To make a difference in the lives of women and girls around the globe, we need to be holistic in our approach.  There is no one solution or quick fix.  At IJM we appreciate the dedicated efforts of so many individuals, organizations and governments who are providing access to healthcare, education, and economic opportunities for women and girls. Ensuring freedom, however, is foundational in safeguarding all other development efforts.  A girl cannot enjoy the fruits of international development—whether microloans or healthcare, water wells or vaccinations—unless she is free and unafraid.