On International Women’s Day, Don’t Forget Unaccompanied Girls

March 8, 2018

Each year on International Women’s Day, which is observed on March 8, activists across the globe call for accelerating progress toward gender parity. The campaign theme of International Women’s Day 2018 is Press for Progress, which the collaborators have explained is fueled in part by movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp and others that focus on ending sexual violence, assault, and harassment against women through the sharing of women’s experiences. Among the many who have come forward to share and call attention to the need for change are celebrities and political figures who have the media access and credibility to make their voices heard.


But not everyone is privileged with that same platform. This International Women’s Day, let’s recognize the sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) that harms unaccompanied migrant girls at heartbreaking rates and the bravery it takes for these girls to share their stories. SGBV refers to any sexual act or attempted sexual act carried out without consent, and any form of violence, including physical, sexual, and emotional harm or threats of such harm, against a person based on their sex, gender, or sexual orientation. In Central America, rates of SGBV are extremely high. In El Salvador in 2017, a woman was murdered every 18 hours and 46 minutes,  and in Guatemala, an average of 62 women are murdered every month. Honduras has the highest femicide rate in the world; a woman is murdered every 16 hours. It’s also important to remember that these three countries are very small, comparable to small or mid-sized U.S. states.


With the percentage of unaccompanied girls in U.S. immigration custody hovering around 33 percent of all unaccompanied children (a 10 percent increase from 2012), we must be conscious of the fact that many of these young women have fled SGBV at home.


Last year, KIND released a study on SGBV among unaccompanied migrant girls. The KIND study includes stories from girls who have fled SGBV in their home countries. These girls bravely shared their stories of sexual abuse in the home (perpetrated by family members including step-fathers, grandfathers, and uncles), intimate partner violence, gang-based SGBV, and human trafficking. In some cases, children tried to flee one form of SGBV only to find themselves in an equally dangerous situation. LGBTI children were especially vulnerable to these ongoing cycles of violence and exploitation due to discrimination and lack of support.


The KIND study participants who experienced SGBV in their countries of origin reported that SGBV and fear of SGBV, combined with a lack of options for seeking protection in their home countries, led them to flee in search of safety. Yet, this is not the narrative we commonly hear about migrant youth entering the United States. Instead, we hear about how these kids are coming here to take advantage of so-called “loopholes” in the immigration system and don’t deserve our protection. Such statements make assumptions about unaccompanied children, like the girls in the KIND study, without listening to their stories: an assumption that goes against the entire spirit of movements like #MeToo. This narrative fails to recognize the struggles unaccompanied children like SGBV survivors have undergone and the bravery it takes to escape those situations. It ignores the fact that girls fleeing violence deserve safety and protection and often qualify for refugee protection under our laws. Moreover, this language erases the voices of SGBV survivors themselves, who have joined together with other unaccompanied children to declare themselves #NotALoophole.


On this International Women’s Day, I encourage everyone to amplify the voices of these unaccompanied girls, by raising awareness of SGBV facing migrant children, by listening to and sharing their stories, and by advocating for their continued protection.


Brenna Gautam is a second year law student at Georgetown. She is participating in the Federal Legislation Clinic, which is working with KIND on their advocacy efforts on behalf of unaccompanied children in the immigration system.