Study Shows It’s Not Easy to Protect Girls from Sexual Violence


For nearly 10 months in 2016, the International Rescue Committee implemented weekly meetings with girls, ages 13 and 14, in rural Liberia to impact schooling, sexual and reproductive health (SRH), gender attitudes, psychosocial well-being, and life skills outcomes. 

The program’s main goal was to reduce rates of sexual violence in the girls’ lives. Unfortunately, the program did not achieve that goal. A new study from Professor Elizabeth Kelvin, of CUNY’s Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, and colleagues, explains where the 39-week program in Nimba County fell short, and what it did right. 

In Liberia, adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation, according to TIME. Their access to education is limited, and they are susceptible to child marriage and pregnancy, according to UNICEF

The Girl Empower mentorship program “aimed to equip adolescent girls with the skills to make healthy, strategic life choices and to stay safe from sexual abuse.” Local trained women mentors, aged 20 to 35, met with 65 groups of five to 20 young girls in “safe spaces” chosen by their communities, the paper states. Girls also each got their own cash box, savings account, and cash payments for participating. 

“The Girl Empower program was not successful in attaining its primary goal, which was to reduce the incidence of sexual violence experienced by adolescent females,” the authors wrote.

However, the results suggest that in order to see a reduction in sexual violence, interventions must also include the communities in which the girls live. 

The authors continued: “As the program did not increase the protective factors surrounding adolescent girls — the social network of program beneficiaries was not affected, nor were the caregivers’ gender attitudes or their aspirations for the girl children — it is perhaps not surprising that the incidence of sexual violence experienced by program beneficiaries did not decline.”

Though the program did not have the desired effect regarding sexual violence, Girl Empower did lead to lasting improvements in their gender attitudes, life skills, and sexual and reproductive health. The improvements were sustained 12 months after the program ended.

“The study showed that Girl Empower could equip adolescent females with important life skills, positively influence their gender attitudes, and, perhaps most importantly, improve their sexual and reproductive health,” the researchers concluded. 

It is also important, however, to identify how programs like Girl Empower can be modified or enhanced to reduce the sexual abuse of adolescent girls, the rates of which are unacceptably high, especially in conflict and post-conflict settings like the one studied here.”

Beyond SUM

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Elizabeth Kelvin ( Interim Assistant Dean for Curriculum Innovation and Implementation Associate Professor, Epidemiology and Biostatistics) | Profile 1