A much needed International Day of the Girl

Girls are the most vulnerable to violence and their security cannot be treated as an afterthought, writes Picq.

School-related violence undermines girls' physical and psychological well-being, often causing them to drop out and hindering their educational achievement [EPA]

It costs US $292 to rape a child in Ecuador. That is the monthly pension a school director who sexually abused and impregnated a 12-year-old pupil was required to pay.

Sexual violence against girls often goes unpunished. The fact that in this case the accused is the father of a government minister accentuated judicial impunity. Defenders of the girl accuse the government of silencing the case (notably threatening the denouncers), whilst the government says the opposition is using the case to attack members of its cabinet.

Officials invoked presumed innocence until proven guilty, but lawyers contend that the penal code reverses the burden of proof in cases of child rape -and claim the government should rather presume innocent the 11 youth jailed without substantial proof in the Luluncoto case.

Beyond Ecuadorian politics, this case is symptomatic of the prevailing violence against girls worldwide. Today is the first observance of the UN International Day of the Girl Child. If we are serious about increasing freedom to promote development, we should advance girls’ rights. Governments are very efficient at protecting national security. It’s about time they protect the security of nationals: girls.

Glas Viejó: School director and rapist

For a year, Jorge Heriberto Glas Viejó sexually abused the 12-year-old daughter of a long-term domestic worker. The 77-year-old man sponsored the education of the child at the Hans Christian Andersen School, which he directed, and used his authority to regularly pull the girl out of classes to “take her to the doctor”, driving to a motel. 


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He never signed protocols, no teacher ever objected, and the mother never knew anything. The girl said that her rapist threatened to kill her mother if she talked and the abuse went on for months. It is only when she passed out in school that medical exams revealed she was pregnant.

A year-long criminal investigation ensued. Viejó was arrested on September 28, 2011. The accused admitted taking the girl from class, medical examination confirmed the child’s story, and although the law requires suspects of child rape to be kept until proven innocent, he was immediately released for “lack of flagrancy” (which would imply to catch the rapist in the act, which legally does not apply to a 12-year-old who is already pregnant).

He fled, unaccounted for since then. The all too common failure to punish violence against girls was amplified by the political power of the accused. Another prosecutor on the case, Diana Cueva Limones obstructed the criminal investigation, notably dismissing proof of DNA and attempting to revoke the charges.

As rapes often are, this case is embedded in power inequalities, socio-economic as well as political. First, Viejó raped the child of his subaltern, a low-income single-mother living in rudimental conditions. He abused a girl of lower social class whose education he sponsored in an institution he directed.

Second, the accused benefits from political authority as the father of the minister coordinating non-renewable resources and strategic sector, aggravating gender and class inequalities in access to justice.

Threats and economic pressure almost had the mother abandon the case. Fired from her job, with her two children expelled from school and a newborn to care for, the mother started peeling garlic to afford the $30 monthly rent.

The case would have gone unnoticed was it not for coverage by El Universo, the pariah newspaper of Ecuador, stirring up feminist networks and the pro-bono support from the Bar Association of Guayas. Pedro Granja, one of the five lawyers on the case, denounced the immobility of the criminal procedures starting a second lawsuit for the recognition of paternity and a pension.

The insecurity of being a girl

The Viejó case is, sadly, neither rare nor specific to Ecuador. According to UN Women, half of sexual assaults globally are committed against girls under 16. The World Health Organisation estimates that in 2002 alone, 150 million girls under the age of 18 suffered some form of sexual violence.

In the US, 83 per cent of girls experienced some form of sexual harassment in public schools, and Canadian statistics reveal that 64 per cent of all reported sexual assaults are against children.

Girls are sexually abused by school-principals, teachers and classmates. Medical research conducted by Human Rights Watch in South Africa found that almost 38 per cent of victims identified a schoolteacher or principal as their rapist. Schools are not exactly safe places for girls.

The pervasiveness of violence against girls led the United Nations to declare the International Day of the Girl. In the wake of the 2006 Secretary-General Study on Violence Against Children, the UN appointed a Special Representative on the issue, and in 2009 the International Girl Child Conferencein The Hague stressed the importance of gender inequalities among children. The failure to respond to violence against girls expresses the political tolerance vis-à-vis such crimes and international efforts are increasingly geared at changing social inertia. 

“In the US, 83 per cent of girls experienced some form of sexual harassment in public schools, and Canadian statistics reveal that 64 per cent of all reported sexual assaults are against children.”

School-related violence undermines girls’ physical and psychological well-being, often causing them to drop out and hindering their educational achievement. In the long run, violence against girls impacts women’s self-esteem, agency and empowerment into adulthood. 

Girls who drop out of school will be more vulnerable socio-economically and more likely to submit to domestic violence later in life. They will also be less likely to become political leaders. If we want more women running for elections, as Ecuadorian political parties do, we must make schools safer environments for girls. Women’s empowerment begins with girls’ empowerment.

Girls’ rights as high politics

Violence against girls is not small stuff to be brushed under the carpet, but a matter of high politics. It is indeed through the small stories that big ones come to light. In the case of Ecuador, this means the impunity in this individual case betrays a larger problem of access to justice. The opposition claims the Viejó case is symptomatic of a discretionary justice, where law is inaccessible to citizens and members of the government are untouchable.

Beyond Ecuador, this case shows the collective silence that permits rape. From school-teachers to police officers, people looked the other way. The management of the motel where Viejó drove so many times videotaped all his entrances – now evidence in the criminal prosecution – never denounced the pedophile during the year he used their rooms.

Even women were accomplices in the case, from the state prosecutor who obstructed the criminal investigation to the female ministers who did nothing to secure accountability (notably the Minister of Justice Johanna Pesantez). It takes a village to rape a woman. Viejó’s pedophilia was backed by the silent support of a large community.

Ultimately, the permissibility of sexual violence against girls showcases the validity of a government. How good are policies that exist in theory but fail to protect the rights of the most vulnerable in practice? The dismissal of violence against girls reveals priorities in defining security agendas.

Governments are very efficient when it comes to bringing to justice threats to its own interests – national security – whether it is Bradley Manning in the US or indigenous leaders fighting extractive industries in Peru. Ecuador’s government has had no difficulty in suing its political opposition, sentencing to jail indigenous leaders for defending water rights and journalists for inappropriate reporting. Girls’ rights, in contrast, run low on security agendas.

It is high politics to protect the rights of girls because it is the major form of violence taking place daily across the world. Girls are the most vulnerable to violence and their security cannot be treated as an afterthought. They are at the core of national security if we want to build safer, healthier and more creative societies. The alternative, staying silent, implies we will be nothing less than accomplices to Viejó.

Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.