Dr Gabrielle Jamela Hosein
ENDING VIOLENCE against women and girls is the aim of the annual campaign 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, from November 25-December 10.
Today, I focus on how violence drives girls’ adolescent unions and reproduces violence in girls’ lives.
Adolescent unions are common, with at least one in three adolescents in Trinidad (28.4 per cent) becoming sexually active between 13 and 17 years old (38.8 per cent in Tobago). Of this group, more than half first had sexual intercourse before the age of 14.
As reported by the 2017 Global School-based Student Health Survey, there was a much higher incidence of sex among boys than girls.
However, 25-36 per cent of women whose first sexual experience occurred before age 15 (12 per cent of total respondents in the 2018 Women’s Health Survey) were more likely to report having been forced into this act than women whose age of first sexual experience was 15 years or older. Early sexual initiation for girls is too often violent and non-consensual.
Besides normal adolescent sexual curiosity and desire, family violence is one of the drivers of such early unions. Growing up in a home with violence between parents, against mothers or against children leads girls to seek escape and feelings of safety in others, or to consider later violence in their own lives to be normal. Addressing the vulnerabilities associated with adolescent sexuality requires ending domestic violence, which causes intergenerational dysfunction and trauma.
Girls also search to have unmet needs for love, care, encouragement and attention met through early unions. Their unmet needs may be economic and include food, shelter, school fees, transport costs, clothes and phone top-up.
Low-income girls also develop complex coping strategies as they grow in insecure neighbourhoods dominated by men in gangs. Girls recognise that they are attractive to older men because they seem easier to control. Such power imbalance is eroticised, becoming part of what men seek.
This makes poor girls especially vulnerable to predatory adult men whose dominance and income can seem reassuring, though these relationships can become controlling, threatening and violent.
Marriage and union data suggest that one in ten girls enter unions before 18 years old. Among women who reported at least one experience of physical violence in their lifetime, it was prevalent among 47 per cent of those who were married or lived with a partner before 18, versus 28 per cent of those in a union at 19 years old or older.
Current partner violence – meaning happening within 12 months of the 2017 WHS data collection – was one in ten for those in a union at 18 or younger, versus one in 20 for those whose first union was 19 or older. Early unions correlate with higher levels of intimate-partner violence in girls’ lives. This is why we must teach girls (and boys) about gender-based violence through health and family life education in schools.
Programmes that focus on abstinence and virginity in sexual health education miss the fact that experiencing child sexual abuse also leads girls to early unions. In TT, one in five women reports experiencing sexual abuse before the age of 18. Further, one in four women who were first married or cohabiting with a male partner by the age of 18 or younger also experienced sexual abuse before she was 18. Child sexual abuse is a driver of and correlates with adolescent unions.
Early unions are themselves considered a form of gender-based violence because they increase risks of partner violence, unplanned pregnancy, school dropout, burdensome care responsibilities, economic dependence and poverty. Whether visiting, transactional or cohabitational, they can (and do) harmfully affect girls’ human rights, equality, development, well-being and independence.
Given the data and established risks, it’s also a form of state violence (rather than morality) to deny sexual and reproductive health-rights information, resources and services to adolescents without parental consent.
The family, which should be a primary protective institution, was widely and consistently flagged as a driver of early unions, and uncomfortable with protective approaches that include comprehensive sexuality education. Transforming social norms that reproduce fear, shame and denial about the realities of violence in adolescent girls’ lives is therefore key. Significant work is needed with men and boys to reduce male sexual entitlement, and predation and rape of girls. Men in families have roles to play too.
Adolescent unions are both driven by violence and increased risk of violence against girls. Making the connection between adolescent sexuality and violence against girls and women is necessary.
Diary of a mothering worker