The Dangers that Face the Girl Child
By Teresa Doherty
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For the UN Day of the Girl Child, we had the privilege to interview Hon. Justice Teresa Doherty from Northern Ireland. Throughout her career she has dealt with both war crimes and cultural traditions that impacted on girls. She took some time to share some of her observations with us.
Justice Doherty heard evidence of events in 2 civil wars in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, and Sierra Leone. She notices that, in the public view, child soldiers mean young boys. Certainly, they suffer greatly but the fact that many girls are also abducted and made into child soldiers is overlooked. Most importantly, girls in these contexts are sometime used as sex slaves by many other rebels. In Sierra Leone, she heard evidence that such girls were given to "SBUs" -- small boys units to be used for sex by the boy soldiers.
Even though rape has been described as a "weapon of war" and both declared a war crime, a crime against humanity and denounced by international and national institutions, it was a shock for her to hear girl witnesses say that the men had 'rights' to have sex with them if they were captured.
For Justice Doherty, the word 'right' is a powerful and some young witnesses seemed to almost accept that they could be mistreated so traumatically. Sometime, these girls who were forcefully abducted and raped were not accepted back into their families when the war ended because there was a belief that they were "tainted with rebel blood". They suffered more than many of the boys who were given some rehabilitation.
These consequences are often rooted in cultural practices. Other traditional practice harmful to girls in these contexts are arranged marriages and FGM. Justice Doherty has even heard girls who underwent initiation that included FGM consider themselves superior to classmates from ethnic groups that do not have such practices. She also once refused to make court orders to transfer a girl child as compensation.
To help address these issues, Justice Doherty helped in drafting legislation that would ban FGM. However, she thinks that it is the older women, the matriarchs, the grandmothers who adhere to many of these practices. Therefore, to ignite change, we must educate older women and convince them to move away from practices which harm both the health and rights of the girl child.