Remarks by Her Majesty the Queen of the Belgians at ICRW’s ‘Girls in Crisis’ Event

Article Date

06 March 2015

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

“Girls in Crisis: Protecting the Rights and Well-being of Adolescent Girls Impacted by Conflict and Civil Unrest”.

International Center for Research on Women, Washington DC, 6 March 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted that the Embassy of Belgium in Washington DC is hosting this important conference. It is vital to protect the rights and well-being of adolescent girls all over the world. It is even more essential to protect those whose health, education and human rights are impacted by conflict and civil unrest. Belgium attaches great importance to the promotion and protection of women’s and girls’ rights as universal human rights.

I accepted to lend my voice to today’s debate because adolescent girls in conflict, and even in post-conflict situations, are especially vulnerable. We must not turn a blind eye. As an honorary member of the ICRW Leadership Council, I want to work with you to find ways to support adolescent girls, to reduce the threats to their well-being and to improve their prospects.

Girls are at risk in conflicts in many places in the world. The phenomenon is not new. Girls are increasingly targets of violence and exploitation; more so even than boys.  

Sexual violence in particular has been used throughout history as a weapon of war. The incidence of such attacks increases when conflicts or crises displace adolescent girls from their homes. To make matters worse, families and communities may consider that violated girls are a dishonor to their families. The consequence is often rejection and expulsion from their homes and villages.

Furthermore, conflict and displacement have always caused disruption to education. The result is that girls’ prospects for the future are reduced. With little or no education, we know that they are less able to defend themselves, even within the family. They are more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. And as adults they are less likely to be able to generate their own income.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Just look at the headlines from the media outlets every day. There are many violent conflicts around the world, as well as several so-called “forgotten emergencies”. Emergencies to which the international community pays hardly any attention anymore.  It is obvious that conflict and civil unrest continue to have a profound and devastating effect on whole populations. Yet the nature of warfare is changing. It has become more difficult to protect women and girls. The intensity of the crimes against them is increasing, and the nature of the perpetrators is changing. There are more non-state antagonists.

According to recent human rights reports , such non-state armed groups are active in more than 30 countries in the world. Around one out of five countries. While they commit unspeakable acts of violence on whole populations, adolescent girls are often targeted for particularly heinous crimes.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram terrorizes entire regions of the country. Amongst other violations, it has kidnapped large groups of adolescent girls from their schools and villages. Few have escaped. Most have undoubtedly been forcibly married off or reduced to slavery.   Very young girls are even used as human bombs.

In Syria and Northern Iraq,  as well, adolescent girls are subjected not only to the terrors of conflict, but to the misogynistic dogma and sexual violence of Islamic State.

After years of conflict, going to school is still not a guaranteed right for Afghan girls and young women. Indeed, school attendance can itself still be very risky.  

In Central Africa, there are regular reports of girls and women being raped, in a conflict that has already lasted two decades.   

In other regions of the world where peace prevails, including in Europe, we must remain vigilant to exploitation, trafficking and violence against girls and young women.  

Post-conflict, too, adolescent girls continue to suffer. Where schools and hospitals have been destroyed, there will be little or no education, and medical care will be inadequate. Medical care that is so essential to deal with the consequences of sexual violence: physical and psychological damage, early pregnancy and forced marriage. Scars these girls will bear forever. 

Safeguarding the physical and moral integrity of girls in conflict areas, and ensuring that they have a decent education is vitally important for the girls themselves. 

On a wider scale, however, we also know that it is a pre-condition for the sustainable development of their communities and even countries. They will be adults one day. And, as such, they should be able to assume worthwhile and productive roles in their communities.  They will be the mothers of the next generation too.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our purpose here today is to examine the current situation of adolescent girls impacted by conflict and civil unrest from a variety of critical perspectives. By looking at how girls are affected and how we can improve their lives, we can increase their well-being. Importantly, we can also help raise awareness of this difficult challenge among the international community and the wider public.

Several organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, are already doing very valuable work in this area. Nonetheless, further research on the political, sociological and psychological aspects of this issue is needed to better understand the long-term consequences of conflict on young lives. The more knowledge we have, the better equipped we will be to develop the programs and policies necessary to address the challenges faced by girls in conflict.

We can also draw inspiration from international instruments like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women,  and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security , and subsequent resolutions. Resolution 1325 which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, urges increased participation of women and the incorporation of gender perspectives in all UN peace and security efforts. Likewise, it calls on all parties to conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence in situations of armed conflict.

This Symposium gives us the opportunity to enlarge our knowledge base, to frame policy recommendations, and to articulate pathways forward for collective and institutional action. ICRW and its partners want to mobilize stakeholders to take action. We must also equip them with a roadmap, offering guidance on how to protect and empower adolescent girls impacted by conflict and civil unrest.

Today though, while we acknowledge that girls are specifically vulnerable in crisis situations, we should also acknowledge that they are not just victims. Girls can be empowered to resist, to fight back without recourse to violence. They can be empowered to heal and grow.

So I want to pay tribute to all the survivors who have had the strength to continue: to take charge of their own lives, to seek conciliation, and to become powerful advocates. Women can play an important role in restoring peace and building a stronger society for tomorrow.  Their voices should be heard.  We should support them.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my sincere hope that our work today will enable us to fill the gaps in our knowledge, to move forward and take more effective action. If we are successful, we can achieve our collective vision of a more peaceful, sustainable future; a future where no girls fall through the gaps; a future where girls are free to live their lives without fear of violence; a future where they feel empowered and supported to lead happy and healthy lives; a future where they themselves can empower the next generation of women and girls.

I thank you for being part of this inspiring conversation.