Years ago, while visiting a community health clinic in sub-Saharan Africa, I saw a sign made from a torn and sun-bleached piece of construction paper, right at the entrance: “In God We Trust, All Others Bring Data.”
It made me smile. But it also made me take pause and think about something we say at my organization, something that could have hung right underneath the poignant — even if raggedy — poster.
It’s a statement that guides Together for Girls, not only because it informs what we do and how we work, but because it brings us to the heart of the problem we are trying to solve.
So it was with great delight that last week, we watched Côte d’Ivoire release its VACS.
The VACS is a Violence Against Children and Youth Survey Report, revealing new data about the state of violence against children throughout the country, but also, pointing to critical facts that were previously unknown:
In Côte d’Ivoire, one in five girls and one in ten boys experience sexual violence before the age of 18.
Twenty-five percent of 18- to 24-year-olds who experience sexual violence in childhood have ideated suicide.
Seven percent of girls and young women who experienced pressured or physically forced sex reported a resultant pregnancy.
These figures can appear startling. One child that experiences sexual violence is too many and in Côte d’Ivoire, both girls and boys experience unacceptable high rates of it. But here’s what’s remarkable: Côte d’Ivoire is not an outlier. Global estimates show that 120 million (or one in 10) girls under the age of 20 have experienced some form of forced sexual contact. For boys, the available data is not as robust, but estimates show that anywhere from three to 17 percent of all boys experience sexual violence in some form.
Much like in other places, sexual violence against children in Côte d’Ivoire often takes place in the perpetrator or respondent’s home. Perpetrators of sexual violence are also often known to the child or adolescent, be they intimate partners, family members, friends, or classmates. And only a small percentage of all girls and boys who experience sexual violence get the support services they need to rebuild and recover. In Côte d’Ivoire, that number is three percent.
But what is also universal about sexual violence against children are the tools that can be applied to prevent it. Whether in high- or low-income countries, whether on a broad scale or within communities and households, there exist strategies — distilled from the best evidence we have — to prevent and respond to sexual violence against children.
Whether it’s challenging norms and values through community mobilization programs, or adopting policies and practices to prevent sexual violence in schools, or teaching parents about how to discuss safe dating with their kids, or empowering and self-defense training for children, there are evidenced-based interventions that are proven to help keep our kids safe.
In the last few months, we’ve seen science around the world become somewhat politicized. COVID-19’s effects have made countries as distant as China and Brazil, the United States and India, New Zealand and Spain, face small (and in some cases large) tugs of war on how to best beat the pandemic. We’ve also seen data be made blurry.
But data, like the sign in that small community health clinic said, does not serve faith. It reveals what is certain. Science does not hide mysteries. It uncovers them. If we are ever going to solve sexual violence against children, we must face the truth, and do what we know is proven to help. Because if the lessons of Côte d’Ivoire show us that sexual violence against children is still too prevalent, they also show us that a world without sexual violence continues to be possible.