How Your Company Can End Violence Against Girls

As we celebrate International Day of the Girl this week, Together for Girls founder Gary Cohen explains why businesses hold the power to stop the cycle of violence against children.

10.09.14 3:15 PM ET

HIV. Unintended pregnancy. Maternal mortality. Alcohol and drug abuse. Depression. Suicide. These are the well documented outcomes of sexual violence against girls.

While perpetrators of violence against girls often remain free, the girls who are victimized are left to face a wide range of long-term consequences. In most cases, girls are too afraid or ashamed to come forward and seek help, and as a result, are more likely to be afflicted with infectious diseases and other health issues, drop out of school and struggle with poverty.

As we celebrate International Day of the Girl this week—which focuses on empowering girls to end the cycle of violence—it’s time to stand with girls and invest in stopping violence against them.

Adolescent girls are one of the most vulnerable populations in the world. National-level surveys in sub-Saharan Africa have found that one in three girls experience sexual violence as a child and more than half experience physical violence.

This is a problem where every sector, including governments and NGOs, need to work together on the solutions. As an executive vice president at BD (Becton, Dickinson and Co.) and founder of Together for Girls, a public-private partnership that brings together five UN agencies led by UNICEF, the U.S. government and the private sector to stop violence against children—particularly sexual violence against girls—I see opportunities where the private sector can have an important impact by helping to change social norms around this issue.

Businesses have a significant influence on the lives of their employees and the well-being of communities they operate within. In areas such as employee health, companies have taken great interest in promoting wellness among their employees for their well-being and to help control rising healthcare costs. Companies are also intolerant of violence in the workplace because it undermines workforce stability and hampers productivity. Based on these established areas of corporate interest, companies could also help to embed standards of behavior that discourage violence among their workforces and in their communities.

Large, multi-national enterprises can also exercise this influence globally. If corporate leaders establish policies that clearly discourage violence not only in the workplace but in the community at large, with the prospect of offenders losing their employment, it will have a discernible impact. Companies also have significant influence over governments and can encourage enforcement of laws against violence and rape. Further, companies can influence culture by establishing programs and standards that encourage girls to stay in school and to embark on careers that help them to achieve their life potential.

Just as there are clear upsides to these types of proactive efforts in the corporate sector, there are downsides to not doing so. Over the past several months the revelations of violent behavior by U.S. football players and the initial lack of intervention by the NFL has undermined the reputation of league. The NFL is now requiring violence prevention education and training for all players and staff. This is a real-world example of how violent behavior outside of the workplace can have damaging impacts on the continuity of business operations.

Certain industries are in a unique position to embed these principles into their core business activities. For example, more than 1,300 businesses have signed on to the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism. One of six commitments in the Code includes training employees to identify guests that are potentially engaging in the commercial sexual exploitation of girls. Some businesses are also promising to never market their products in a way that portrays children in a sexual manner. Others are working to ensure that their company policies and procedures do not impede their employees’ ability to provide safe care for their children.

An investment in creating a non-violent world for adolescent girls will have many positive impacts. When girls are protected from violence and abuse, and are afforded the opportunity for education, they contribute back to their countries in higher proportions than boys and increase overall economic growth. Madeleine Albright's Women Empowered study shows that a country will experience 0.3 percent faster economic growth when an additional 1% of girls are kept in school, while another study cited by The Girl Effect reported that girls who are protected and educated return 90 percent of their earned income to their families and communities, compared with boys who return between 30 and 40 percent.

In fact, a new report released by the ChildFund Alliance last month found that the total costs of physical, psychological and sexual violence against children are up to $7 trillion or 8 percent of the global Gross Domestic Product. This is greater than the GDPs of Australia, Canada, India and Mexico combined. The report also showed that the cost of preventing violence is far less expensive than the cost of inaction.

Commerce thrives within stable societies. Violence is poison that destroys the health and economic strength of communities. The private sector can exert its influence to establish standards of behavior that are conducive to girls’ development and condemn violent behavior in the workplace and the community. This is a largely untapped opportunity that will yield positive returns both in human and financial terms.

Gary Cohen is executive vice president at BD (Becton, Dickinson and Co.) and the founder of Together for Girls. Together for Girls is a global public-private partnership dedicated to ending violence against children, with a focus on sexual violence against girls. Together for Girls generates comprehensive data on the magnitude and consequences of this public health and human rights issue, mobilizing countries to lead a response and inform solutions that are evidence-based. The partnership includes five UN agencies led by UNICEF, the U.S. government and the private sector.