Adolescent Sexual Violence: A Silent, Global Epidemic That Needs Our Attention

In recent months, it’s been nearly impossible to escape news about sexual violence and harassment in workplaces. While this public reckoning with the reality of sexual violence and misconduct at work is long overdue, it is important to remember that sexual violence frequently happens at home or in other informal social settings. People experience sexual violence across ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and geographies. Sexual violence is often referred to as a “silent epidemic” and this is especially true among adolescents and young adults.

A new report from Know Violence, supported in part by AJWS, presents research on adolescent sexual violence around the globe. About 30 to 40 percent of adolescent girls experience sexual violence before the age of 15—and in certain regions, up to 20 percent of adolescent boys face sexual violence by the age of 19. And the World Health Organization estimates that one in five women experiences sexual abuse as a child. Sexual violence sometimes fuels child, early and forced marriage—and an early, unwanted marriage can increase young women’s risk for experiencing sexual violence from their own husbands.

The Need for More Global Research

We’re at a pivotal moment for focusing research, programs and resources to combat sexual violence during adolescence. We need more targeted data collection efforts about this topic—in terms of prevalence, predictors and successful interventions. Only 40 countries have data on sexual violence against adolescent girls. Even less is known about sexual violence experienced by boys, in part due to under reporting. Very few studies focus on understanding perpetration of sexual violence, and there is almost no evidence about how to prevent sexual violence.

Research is crucial because it can help elucidate the causes and consequences of sexual violence, along with the best prevention responses. For example, the Violence Against Children Survey datasets are a great start to increasing our understanding of—and ability to respond to—violence against youth.

What Global Research Says About Prevention

There is programmatic work to prevent sexual violence—though limited—but more rigorous evaluation and documentation of best practices are needed. The World Health Organization has showcased media campaigns to prevent sexual violence in Africa, and school-based dating violence interventions have shown success in high-income countries. Community-based interventions to foster gender-equitable attitudes have also been shown to prevent sexual violence.

A report commissioned by AJWS in India found that efforts to collectivize girls might help prevent sexual violence through a multi-step process: educating girls about issues such as harassment, domestic violence and sexuality; facilitating conversations aimed at developing girls’ sense of self and negotiation skills; and supporting girls to undertake political action, such as community campaigns against sexual harassment. Some collectives in India also work with young men to deconstruct the social norms that link masculinity with violence.

Comprehensive sexuality education, both in and out of schools, is also an important tool for preventing violence. There is inherent value in increasing young people’s understanding of their bodies, sexuality and reproduction, so that they can exercise agency and autonomy over their own lives—but these gains will undoubtedly reduce sexual violence and early marriage, as well.

We are at a critical moment for changing how the world responds to sexual violence. It is imperative that the voices of adolescent girls and boys be a part of this moment, and that we understand how to reduce sexual violence as it occurs in many settings and situations—at work and at home, and within marriage and many other kinds of relationships.