To commemorate the international UN campaign #DayofTheGirl let’s investigate the mental health consequences that survivors of sexual violence and abuse have to deal with, and how lessons must be learned and acted upon to ensure young girls and women continue to get the help they need.
The impact of violence on women and girls around the world bring with it disparate contortions of grotesque violence, but how often do we really discuss the psychological impact of all it involves? For behind every statistic of another girl forcibly married off before the age of 18, or of girls and women made to undergo female genital mutilation, comes the reality of decades of scarring, unrelenting psychological harm.
It’s this kind of harm that reshapes lives, encourages insecurity, perpetuates violence and can lead to self-harm and even suicide.
Consider these two alarming statistics behind the physical side of this horror. First is child marriage: Around 15 million girls marry before the age of 18 each year – the equivalent of 1 every two seconds. Then, there’s female genital mutilation: More than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone a form of female genital mutilation. Can we imagine what the survivors of this damage go through in their lives on a daily basis? Perhaps we can never truly appreciate it, but we must learn from it. Investing in girls’ economic empowerment and enabling them to learn, lead, decide and thrive can transform lives, communities and entire countries.
Of course, we understand the need to invest and to learn when the violence causes us to cower due to its sheer ferocity but this same dedication must be served to understand and help those left putting the pieces together after encountering enormous psychological fissures in their lives. Then there is other harm that is just as psychologically debilitating over the long term but which often does not get taken seriously. Take menstrual hygiene management, for example. Attitudes towards menstruation and inadequate hygiene facilities continue to have a detrimental impact on girls’ health and well-being.
To achieve gender equality, girls and young women need equal access to technology and digital training. Instead of being another barrier, technology and the internet can be a great enabler for all girls and women.
For the first time in history, there are more people living in cities than in rural areas. Each month, 5 million people are added to the cities in developing countries. By 2030, this will mean approximately 700 million girls will live in urban areas.
Girls in cities are faced with increased risks as well as increased opportunities. On the one hand, girls face sexual harassment, exploitation, and insecurity as they navigate the urban environment, but are more likely to be educated, less likely to be married at an early age, and more likely to participate in politics.
In Asia, these issues take on a slightly different dimension and this is an issue I explored in my book on the subject, The Butterfly Room, because this is an area of the world where the emotional impact on girls is simply unimaginable.
Why? Because mental health just isn’t a priority and suicide rates are painfully high as a result. As I explored in book – which I have written after speaking to over 200 survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence – Asian families will say and do just about anything to divert attention from the pain of violence (and its stigma) from the family hierarchy. So rather than get these young girls and women the help they need, family will instead take girls to healers, spiritual leaders – and those just might be the more fortunate ones. Others will be left to live with the psychological scars, forever tainted as witches for being different and punished for failing to confirm, to simply ‘get over it’.
We need to end harmful practices and not be taken in by the masquerade of cultural stigmas because we are talking about lives not hypotheticals. Researching this issue for my book, There is a Light That Never Goes Out, I found that in the West psychological abuse is generally an issue that you are expected to ‘snap out of’ or just ‘get over’. This self-reliance is almost absent in Asia where you are not even expected to talk about it and seeing a psychologist is tantamount to admitting that there is something fundamentally wrong with you which does not even merit help.
Both these books and the research within them were crafted and supported by the efforts of international human rights campaigner Mandy Sanghera, who launched the ‘I Believe, We Believe’ campaign to get people talking about issues affecting girls.
In preparation for this article Mandy told me: ‘Over 300 people have contributed from 32 countries. This has been a great campaign to bring people together from across the globe. We have so much work to do around empowering girls and tackling violence against them. So it has been really good to see that education and empowerment has made such a difference yet we still need to be clear about protecting girls from harmful out-of-date practices and traditions. So many girls don’t know who to turn to and often suffer in silence and we must be clear that everyone has the same universal human rights.’
So on this #DayoftheGirl, we both say that it’s time to have an ‘all in’ attitude to the issue of violence against our girls and women; it’s not just about the physical abhorrence of violence but its emotional impact, one that doesn’t deserve to be undermined nor seen in a diminutive light compared to the stark horror of what we see. What we don’t see is just as damaging.
Image credit: Freepik
Saurav Dutt is an author, lawyer and syndicated political columnist. He writes regularly on human rights issues and is a campaigner on violence against women.