06/13/2016 12:00 EDT | Updated 06/14/2017 05:12 EDT

We Must Exercise Our Power To Stand With Girls

The recent and tragic gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Rio de Janeiro by 33 men compels Canada to take a stand on girls' and women's rights. One of the ways we can do this is to send a signal to Brazil by questioning whether or not Canada should be participating in the Summer Olympics in Rio.

The case for taking a stand is strong given that Brazil is plagued by significant gender inequalities that cannot be ignored. To explain, a 2013 nationwide survey by Brazil's Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) found that 58.5 per cent of Brazilians think "if women knew how to behave, there would be fewer rapes."

The same survey also confirmed that there is a deep-rooted belief in Brazil that women who wear provocative clothing or behave inappropriately are responsible for sexual violence. Furthermore, these attitudes are tied to a misguided sense of masculinity -- machismo, where men are the superior sex who have the right to dominate women in every way.


A sexual abuse prevention workshop taking place in Codó, Brazil (Photo: Plan / Katrijn Van Giel)

Brazilians' perspectives are probably shocking to Canadians. But Canada is not immune to a flourishing rape culture and the normalization of violence against women. We were outraged by online photos of the alleged gang rape that led to Rehtaeh Parsons' suicide, as well as the acquittal of Jian Ghomeshi after he was tried on one count of choking and four counts of sexual assault.

The tales of Parsons and Ghomeshi weigh heavily on Canada's collective consciousness. But a little more than 10 days since its first reporting, we have repressed the story of the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl by 33 men in Brazil. Media coverage has dwindled and our attention has focused elsewhere. We must remain engaged, because there are approximately 120 million girls worldwide (slightly more than one in 10) who have experienced forced intercourse, or other forced sexual acts, at some point in their lives.


A girl at a Plan International supported shelter for young girls who have suffered violence or sexual abuse, Nicaragua (Photo: Miguel Vargas/Plan staff)

I know this fact all too well as the President and CEO of Plan International Canada. And my team, as well as my colleagues from other Plan national offices, see it every day on the ground, in over 50 countries. For example, rape cases are often ignored and convictions are rarely made. According to Nicaragua's Institute of Legal Medicine, of the 6,069 cases of sexual violence reported in 2013, a staggering 88 per cent were of young girls, mostly teenagers. This explains why sexual violence is one of the major contributing factors to the high rate of teenage pregnancies in Nicaragua, and why Nicaragua has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America.

Plan International Nicaragua has been working with community members in the North Caribbean Coast of Autonomous Region (RACCN) to address the root causes of sexual violence against women and girls, as well as improve access to justice in collaboration with local authorities.


Girls at shelter for girls who have suffered violence or sexual abuse in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, Nicaragua (Photo: Miguel Vargas/Plan staff)

What this work illustrates is that where there is power -- such as a patriarchal force that objectifies and brutalizes girls and women, and touts them as deserving of any sort of malicious treatment, including rape -- there is also resistance. And in this resistance those who are vulnerable become empowered.

Plan International Canada hopes to raise awareness of Canadians' role in girls' empowerment through our upcoming campaign. It challenges Canadians to recognize that when we rally behind girls, we help empower them to achieve their full potential. And in return, girls will inspire others to implement real change in the world.


Adolescent girls at event to mark the National Day Against Sexual Abuse and Exploration of Children and Adolescents in Brazil (Photo: Plan International)

I am calling on all Canadians to empower girls because we live in a globally connected world where rape and other forms of gender-based violence are pervasive. Canadians must realize that we are only as strong as our most vulnerable and that girls are among the most vulnerable population in the world.

I believe that Canadians are also duty-bound to take a stand behind girls and amplify their rallying cries. And with this responsibility I think that we should be asking ourselves if sending Canadian athletes to a place where girls' and women's rights hang in a perilous balance is acceptable; if buying merchandise and products from corporate sponsors of the Games is appropriate; and if we should even be watching the Olympics in Brazil at all.

We only have power when we exercise it. Thus, Canada and every single Canadian must stand with girls everywhere or else we are all complicit in the gang rape of a 16-year-old Brazilian girl.

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