No Girl Left Behind: It’s Time to Step Up for Girls’ Rights in Crises

by Sarah Costa | | Women's Refugee Commission
Thursday, 10 October 2013 22:31 GMT

Photo by Gerald Martone/IRC

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

October 11 is the second annual International Day of the Girl Child. This year’s theme is Innovating for Girls’ Education. At events worldwide, key stakeholders are gathering to highlight the role innovation plays in advancing girls’ education and empowerment.

The fulfillment of girls’ right to education is a binding obligation and a moral imperative in all contexts, including when people are affected by war or natural disasters. Peace and stability are not pre-conditions for girls’ rights.

At the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) we are working to ensure that girls who are affected by crisis and displacement realize their right to an education. This includes the 15.7 million young girls of primary school age whose schooling is upended by displacement, as well as the 10.8 million out-of-school adolescent girls who live in conflict-affected countries—girls who, because of their age and sex, are at heightened risk of sexual violence, abuse and exploitation, early pregnancy, forced marriage and forced labor.

Efforts to support and empower adolescent girls in development contexts have gained traction over the last decade. However, in humanitarian contexts, girls’ unique needs are still largely overlooked, although they are among the most vulnerable populations. We’re working with our partners to change this.

The WRC’s innovative  work on adolescent girls builds on the evidence and learning from development contexts, and tests promising approaches to ensure that humanitarian programs are effective in responding to the needs of displaced girls. At the Kobe Refugee Camp in Ethiopia, for example, we are partnering with the International Medical Corps and with adolescent girls themselves to increase school attendance. A pilot program is providing girls with reliable access to “girl-friendly spaces” where girls can come together to form homework clubs and receive skills training in computer and  financial literacy, build self-esteem, and learn about rights, health and safety. In these safe spaces, young girls not only receive in-kind support, such as donations of school supplies so they can go to school, but also benefit from a social network of peers and mentors who encourage their development during this critical stage in their lives.

Other factors affect girls’ ability to go to school. Early pregnancy is a common reason that girls drop out of school. Thus, girls’ right to education also should encompass access to age-appropriate information about their sexual and reproductive health. Access to reproductive health education and services—including prevention of and response to sexual assault and exploitation, as well as access to services that can prevent unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and unsafe abortion—is critical for adolescent girls in crisis-affected settings, as shown in a recent assessment we carried out with partner agencies.

The 2013 Because I Am a Girl report In Double Jeopardy: Adolescent Girls and Disasters, released this week, emphasizes these points among many others. This report will do much to increase global attention for girls’ rights and needs. At the WRC, our mission is to translate this global attention and evidence into actions, changing how the humanitarian community responds in a crisis.

In order to achieve better outcomes in education, the humanitarian community must renew its commitment to ensure access to primary and secondary education for all displaced girls. This means intentionally targeting those adolescent girls who are all too often marginalized and overlooked: married girls, adolescent mothers, orphaned girls and girls with disabilities.

At the WRC, we are using applied research to help humanitarian actors rethink and resolve pressing challenges, including how to effectively maximize the limited resources available while creating sustainable and just programs. We know that when girls are engaged and empowered, it has a transformative effect on their well-being and that of their peers, families and communities.

Girls deserve no less.