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Silence Breeds Violence Against Girls in Southern Senegal

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Fearing social stigma, families in Senegal's southern region are remaining silent in the face of widespread sexual violence against girls, says a study released this month.

A study released this month revealed alarming rates of violence against girls aged 10-18 in Senegal's southern regions of Ziguinchor, Kolda and Sédhiou.  Conducted by the U.N. Children's Fund and the University of Ziguinchor, the study says breaking the silence around sexual violence in the region is key to protecting girls.  But a state education worker in the Sédhiou region, Yadicone Sané Diatta, says that too often a family's honor is put ahead of the child's needs.

Diatta says silence to preserve the family's honor often is a family's first reaction when a girl is raped.  She says the girl has perhaps already been promised in marriage, so her family does not want her to be stigmatized by the community.  Diatta says the family prefers to handle it themselves instead of going to the authorities.  It is also not rare, she says, for the perpetrator to be an uncle, cousin or other family member.

Diatta says the silence breeds impunity. She points to one teacher who was imprisoned after impregnating one of his students this year, but cites that as the exception.  Many cases, she says, are not even reported, which just encourages perpetrators.

Head of girl's education for the Ziginchor region, Aminata Traoré, said girls are at risk in schools and in the community.  She says many of the girls attacked are from poor families and they go on the street to sell peanuts and bananas, where they are exposed to risk.  Traoré says there are many cases of these girls being raped.  Also, sometimes the very people who are supposed to be protecting the girls take advantage of them, and the girls become pregnant.

Local education authorities say rates of early marriage and pregnancy among girls aged 10-18 in Senegal's southern regions are alarming. The report pointed to more than 700 girls, from 10-18, who were pregnant in 2009.

Education specialist in the Kolda region, Oumar Diatta, says early pregnancy is a form of violence against girls because it has negative effects on their health, their morality and their education.  The girls are very young, he says, so pregnancy and childbirth, often in rural areas, are difficult and risky.  He also says traditional practices still common in the Kolda region, like female genital mutilation and forced early marriage, constitute forms of violence.

Researchers hope the study will be a call to action for local authorities and international actors to work together to better assist victims and fight violence against children.

UNICEF's head in Ziguinchor, Christina de Bruin, says systems for child protection need to be improved, along with encouraging social change in how people deal with this violence, and reinforcing partnerships and protection systems to deal with emergency cases.  She says this study has helped by collecting the data, and now the need is clear to work to better protect children.  She says prevention is the first step.

Those working on child protection in the region say educating families and children about sexual violence and children's rights is paramount in keeping girls safe.

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