A missed opportunity for empowerment: treating refugee girls as victims

by Sarah Costa/Women’s Refugee Commission | Women's Refugee Commission
Friday, 6 March 2015 19:26 GMT

A Kurdish refugee woman from the Syrian town of Kobani walk along tents at a refugee camp in the border town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province January 31, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We must shift our mindset from one that asks “How do we provide emergency aid to victims?” to “How do we empower people to rebuild their lives?”

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama just announced Let Girls Learn, which will consolidate efforts by the U.S. government to educate and empower girls abroad. I think the Obamas are on the right track and I look forward to tracking the success of this initiative. In the humanitarian community, we’ve been struggling with the best way to give girls tools and opportunities.

Despite the fact that adolescent girls typically have begun to take on adult responsibilities – indeed some of them already are mothers themselves – they often lack the knowledge, skills and networks to help them navigate the world. Gender inequity becomes more pronounced in adolescence. Girls are less likely than boys to attend secondary school and are far more likely to be socially isolated.

In conflict and disaster, when adolescent girls are forced to flee their homes, sometimes without their families, their vulnerability significantly increases. They lack the life experience to help them handle forced displacement at the same time they are targeted for sexual and gender-based violence at much higher rates.

While the development sector has recognized the benefit to communities when girls are empowered, girls become all but invisible in displacement, left out of the design and implementation of humanitarian assistance programs. Even programming for women does not address the specific needs of girls.

We will forever be in crisis mode if we allow humanitarian actors to provide for basic needs without addressing the protection concerns of girls.

To  start, gender must to be taken into account at the beginning of a crisis because we will not go back later to fix the lights or put locks on the latrines. The money will have been spent.

We know that adolescent girls possess great potential to transform their families and communities, as well as their own lives. Rather than approaching them as the most vulnerable victims, we should design programs that empower them and build their resilience.

Displacement is a terrible situation but we can at least use it to provide girls with opportunities that they would not have had access to in their home communities. 

While mainstream humanitarian programs should maximize the participation of girls and be designed to reduce or mitigate risks they might face, there should also be targeted programs specifically for girls.

School is the best place for such programs. When formal education is not available, safe or accessible, establishing safe spaces is one of the most effective ways to reach adolescent girls. With the guidance of mentors and free from the threat of violence, girls can support each other, develop confidence, build social networks and learn to develop financial and human capital. 

Such asset-based programming simultaneously reduces adolescent girls’ vulnerabilities and increases their access to opportunities. Financial literacy and skills development prepare them for the livelihoods that can allow them, as adults, to more than just survive.

Most adolescent girls who become displaced will become adults wherever they land, so we have a responsibility to provide them with safety and the tools to become self-reliant. 

We must shift our mindset from one that asks “How do we provide emergency aid to victims?” to “How do we empower people to rebuild their lives after they’ve been forced to start over?”

For this to work, everyone in the humanitarian sector must work differently. We need to make adolescent girls visible. We need to get it right from the start – ensuring that everything we do further protects and empowers adolescent girls. If we do right by girls, they’ll be the women leaders we need.

Sarah Costa is the executive director of the Women’s Refugee Commission, which works to improve the lives and protect the rights of women and children displaced by conflict and crisis.