Sexual violence is an act of coercing a person, into sexual activity or sexual communication, despite the lack of her or his consent. Young people are victims as well as perpetrators of different forms of violence: sexual assault, dating violence, harassment, rape, unwanted sexting, forced exposure through social media and many more.
Sexual violence rates among young people in Europe are significant, and mostly young girls are victims. According to data provided by the WHO, almost 50% of sexual assaults are committed against young girls. The reason for this situation is that the basis of sexual violence lies is gender stereotypes and gender-based violence. Unfortunately, gender stereotypes seem to prevail in societal attitudes, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, where I am from, where patriarchal systems and violence towards women seems to be strongly legitimized and victims are stigmatized. Sexual violence is also common towards LGBTQ youth, who face double stigma when it comes to being a victim of sexual violence. Gender stereotypes are here interrelated with homophobic and transphobic attitudes. What results is the harmful conviction that violence towards people because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity is justified. The stigma and discrimination these young people experience based on their gender also causes young LGBTQ victims of sexual violence to be among the least likely to report their experience and look for help.
Experience of sexual violence is dangerous for adolescent development. It may hinder their full participation in society and their ability to create healthy intimate relationships. It is a violation of their sexual rights, including: the right to health, the right to live free from violence, the right to sexual freedom and sexual autonomy, safety and bodily integrity, which are included in the Universal Declaration of Sexual Rights, and include or crossover with rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among other agreements. Sexual violence is also dangerous for well-being and youth sexual and reproductive health as it may bring consequences such as infection of STIs, HIV, and unintended pregnancy.
There are two indispensable steps that need to be undertaken in order to prevent sexual violence and protect young people. First is implementation of compulsory, non-discriminatory comprehensive sexuality education programmes in schools and informal settings. The CSE programmes, based on evidence, must cover the topics of gender stereotypes, consent and human rights, communication, creating healthy relationships, and provide young people with information to help shape their attitudes and develop the skills necessary for preventing sexual violence, or intervening where they are witnesses to sexual violence or coercion. The second step is creating youth-friendly health services for young survivors of sexual violence, where they can receive immediate help and support. This would require training for service providers and law enforcement, to ensure services are not stigmatizing to victims, meet their needs, and uphold their rights. There is also a huge need for work with young people at risk, as this area is vastly neglected.
Decision-makers on the national and European level should recognize sexual violence among youth as a burning issue that must be adequately addressed. To implement laws which will fully protect adolescents from sexual violence, young people should be engaged in developing the policies which will ultimately impact their lives. We, young people, face sexual violence and it affects our present and future and we must be involved in actions combatting it to ensure that our rights are realized.