By Maheen Kaleem, Equal Justice Works Fellow/Staff Attorney, Rights4Girls
In 2001, the United States officially recognized April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This recognition was the result of decades of activism on the part of advocates who worked tirelessly to end the silence that shrouds sexual violence. They have made incredible strides by educating the public about the inherently shaming nature of sexual violence, the importance of consent, and the knowledge that sexual violence plagues every community in our country. Throughout the U.S., 1 in 5 women will be raped at some point in their lives, and 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while in college.
While much of our advocacy has focused on adult women, we know that girls are especially vulnerable to sexual violence: one in four American girls will experience sexual violence by the age of 18, and nearly half of all female rape survivors report being first victimized before the age of 18. And yet our discussions, even among advocates, often leave out our most vulnerable and marginalized girls- girls who are subjected to the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline.
In 2015, Rights4Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation published a report entitled, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story. This report outlines how experiencing childhood sexual violence as a girl can actually create pathways into the juvenile justice system. Girls in the juvenile justice system report experiencing childhood sexual abuse at alarmingly high rates—rates as high as 80%.
Childhood sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of delinquency in girls. Put simply, girls in the juvenile justice system often find themselves there as a result of being sexually victimized as children. Among the most common offenses for which girls are arrested are running away, substance abuse, and prostitution. But oftentimes, girls are running away from abusive home environments or foster care placements. When they abuse substances, it is a coping strategy. And in many states, when girls fall victim to human traffickers who profit off of their sexual abuse, the girls themselves are arrested for prostitution.
Research demonstrates that girls are sometimes arrested “for their own protection.” But detaining girls leaves them vulnerable to more sexual victimization. Once inside juvenile facilities, girls are disproportionately vulnerable to experiencing sexual violence: girls are ten to fifteen percent of the population in state and local facilities, and twenty-six percent of the victims of sexual victimization in juvenile facilities.
Both the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) include important protections to ensure that children do not become unnecessarily involved in the delinquency system, and that once involved, they are protected from additional sexual violence. In order to protect girls, we must ensure that that the JJDPA is reauthorized, and that PREA is effectively implemented.
But legislation can only be one piece of our efforts. If we are to realize a world where all girls are safe from sexual violence, then we must always remember our most vulnerable, our marginalized girls who all too often fall through the cracks.