In honour of International Women's Day, CEO of IJM Canada, Anu George Canjanathoppil shares what barriers and biases keep women and girls from reporting acts of violence committed against them.
Over the course of the last decade with IJM, Anu has worked extensively to strengthen justice systems around the world. She oversaw the training of more than 17,000 police, government officials, and NGOs, among others, on the rescue and rehabilitation of individuals trapped in slavery and bringing criminals to justice. Her leadership resulted in 10,000 individuals being rescued from forced labour slavery in South Asia.
"Are you sure you’re up for the challenges of your job? Maybe you’d be better off focusing on your husband and children right now.”
Living and working as a female leader in South Asia, I’ve always known gender bias to be real. But I didn’t expect to hear something like this in Canada. And yet, as a female CEO, who also happens to be a wife and mother, I’ve heard this in Canada, too. Gender biases are as real in Canada as they are across the world.
At International Justice Mission (IJM), we see firsthand how gender biases present themselves much more dangerously for the majority world. 71% of those trapped in forced labour slavery today are women and girls.1 Women and girls are at greater risk of experiencing violent abuse and exploitation - especially in countries where violent crimes often go undetected and unpunished. Why? Because of biases that block women and girls from accessing justice.
What keeps women and girls from reporting such violence?
Leading teams on the frontlines in South Asia, I witnessed this reality all too often. Women and girls are the most vulnerable to violence - but also the least likely to report it.2 Girls are particularly vulnerable to violent crime, with 50% of all sexual assaults being committed against girls under the age of 16.3 These are girls who become women, who become mothers – mothers who would do anything to prevent their children from experiencing the same violence they did.
What then keeps women and girls from reporting such violence? Gender biases that see women and girls as unworthy of protection, as commodities for use and abuse. Biases that keep women and girls silent out of fear of further harm to themselves, or to the people they love. And biased justice systems which prioritize protecting the perpetrator instead of the survivor.
This is the reality that our IJM teams around the world work relentlessly to change – especially our Latin America teams that focus on ending violence against women and children - in the home and outside.
Breaking the silence to create change
One of the most fundamental ways we can tackle bias is by boldly speaking out against it. And one of the bravest voices I have heard is Paola*, a survivor and leader in efforts to ensure justice for women and girls from Bolivia. We want to warn you that Paola's story contains both rape and violence toward a child. IJM started working with Paola 13 years ago when at just 7 years old, she was violently raped in her home by a relative who was looking after her and her siblings. “I remember that day. I was crying. I was sad and I was feeling bad,” Paola shared with the IJM Bolivia team.
Paola’s mom knew something was wrong, so she kept asking. “What happened?” Paola told her she had cut herself on a rock at school; she was not telling the truth because she was terrified by the threats made by the perpetrator. “I had a lot of fear because right after what happened, he told me I shouldn’t tell anyone, because if I did, he was going to kill my mom. I was very afraid. I was young. I was afraid for my siblings, too.”
After discovering the horror of what had happened, Paola’s mother reported the crime and was referred to IJM by a government official. Paola says, “they told her about IJM because she did not have the resources we needed to continue with the case.”
The power of partnership and perseverance
For 13 years, IJM Bolivia walked alongside Paola and her family, providing critical medical care, therapy support, and legal representation in court. The long walk to justice and restoration began in Paola’s hospital room. As she recovered from emergency surgery to repair injuries caused by the rape, Paola bravely recounted her experience of violence to the police so they could start investigating her case.
IJM’s team assigned a lawyer to her case and created a therapy plan to help Paola heal. While our legal team represented Paola in court, the therapy helped her cope with her trauma, and prepared her to testify in court – a vital step in securing strong convictions. Almost three years after her mother reported the crime, the court sentenced Paola’s abuser to 23 years in prison!
Our holistic approach honours the survivor and works to bring the perpetrator to justice. But while Paola experienced justice and healing, there are thousands of women and girls who need advocates and expertise like IJM’s in order to transform justice systems to break the bias.
A study done in collaboration with the Magistrate Council of Bolivia (which oversees all the country’s judges) highlighted that only 7% of reported cases reach a sentencing. We must change this. Strong sentences are a key deterrent of violence, showing criminals that impunity will not be tolerated, and showing communities that their governments value justice and safety for all their citizens.
Championing the survivor-led movement
For justice and healing to be the norm, we must shift the individual attitudes and the systemic challenges that keep women and girls vulnerable to violence. And this is what IJM does every day on the frontlines, in Bolivia, and in 13 other countries around the world.
Now aged 21, Paola is a member of IJM Bolivia’s Proyecto Fenix (Project Phoenix), a survivor-led movement where she is using her voice, strength and courage to advocate for change and demand protection for other children.
“Based on our experiences we want to change the way people think and talk about topics like sexual abuse, violence, and also talk about how you can help others. We want to talk with children and with parents about ways to prevent [sexual violence] and also about how the judicial system can intervene.”
For survivors like Paola, days like International Women’s Day are more than an observance – they are an urgent call to action. Will you join with Paola this International Women’s Day and pledge to stand with us to end violence against women and girls? Your voice added to thousands more creates a powerful movement towards a future where all women and girls are equally safe, protected and free to thrive in their communities. Your message of encouragement will be delivered to Paola and the other women of Project Phoenix.
Please, sign the pledge – and send Paola and other survivors a message to say you’re standing with them – today.
Anu George Canjanathoppil
CEO of IJM Canada