Protecting girls from violence in the criminal justice system

Still today, millions of girls continue to suffer the detrimental impact of physical, mental and sexual violence in the home, at school, in the community, in institutional care and in justice institutions. Evidence from some countries show that amongst the girls involved in prostitution and drug abuse, 80-90 percent have been exposed to sexual abuse and/or other forms of violence in their homes.

Sadly, these same girls are also often at risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system. Due to their young age and gender, girls are at double disadvantage: on the one hand, they are criminalized for offences that are not foreseen for adults, such as status offences; on the other hand, they may risk being criminalized for offences based on gender norms, such as moral crimes and strict dress codes that do not apply to boys.

Girls are detained for minor offences and often in inhuman conditions, where they risk sexual violence, torture, rape, harassment, and invasive body searches and other humiliating treatment by police and detention staff. In some countries, girls are may be subject to the death penalty and other inhuman sentencing, such as stoning, flogging and amputation.

In many parts of the world, the criminal justice system is used as a substitute to non-existent or weak child protection systems. Still too often, girls exposed to violence endure punishment rather than the protection they are entitled to.

When girls commit a crime, it is often as a result of exploitation, coercion and manipulation by adults, sometimes by older boyfriends and also by family members. In many countries, traumatized girls who are victims of trafficking end up being arrested and incarcerated for prostitution. During my missions to detention centers in different countries, I have also met countless girls who have experienced coercion into the selling of drugs. One girl told me that when she was arrested (for possession of drugs), she did not understand what was planted in her hands.

Girls are a minority in the criminal justice system, but due to their particular vulnerability, they require special protection and gender- and age sensitive responses to their rehabilitation and reintegration.

Across regions, there is a general lack of alternative non-custodial options and community-based programs tailored to girls’ needs. Consequently, we are witnessing a worrying increase in the population of girls and women in detention.

The international community has developed and agreed upon a sound human rights framework for preventing and addressing all forms of violence against girls in the criminal justice system. However, the gap between international standards and current practice around the world is wide and needs urgent attention.

In its twenty-third session in May 2014, the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice adopted important standards to address these pressing concerns: the new UN Model Strategies and Practical Measures on the Elimination of Violence against Children in the Field of Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

The Model Strategies bring together, in an integrated and child centered approach, the richness of relevant UN standards previously adopted, including the Model Strategies and Practical Measures on the Elimination of Violence against Women in the field of Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, which address discrimination and the specific vulnerabilities of women.

The Model Strategies take into consideration the complementary roles of the justice system on the one hand, and the child protection, social welfare, health and education sectors on the other, in creating a protective environment and in preventing and responding to violence against children. They will enable criminal justice institutions to strengthen their efforts to protect children from violence, and to increase their diligence in investigating, convicting and promoting the rehabilitation of perpetrators of violence against children.

The Model Strategies aim to ensure that every child is protected from all forms of violence without discrimination of any kind, and that all strategies and measures to prevent and respond to violence against children are designed and implemented with a gender perspective.

The distinctive needs of girls and their vulnerability to gender-based violence are taken into account. In this regard, States are urged to eliminate the risk of all forms of harassment, violence and discrimination against girls; to ensure that the special needs and vulnerabilities of girls are given due attention in decision-making processes and the dignity of girls is respected and protected during personal searches; to implement alternative screening methods to replace strip searches and invasive body searches in order to avoid the harmful psychological and possible physical impact of such searches; and to adopt and implement clear policies and regulations on the conduct of staff aimed at providing maximum protection for girls deprived of their liberty from any physical or verbal violence, abuse or sexual harassment.

It is anticipated that the new Model Strategies will be adopted by the General Assembly in October 2014. I am confident that this new and significant tool will help to bridge the gap between international standards and practice, and to ensure that freedom from violence is a reality for all girls and boys around the world.

Marta Santos Pais
New York, 15 July 2014