Enduring the “storm and stress” of adolescence: we need smarter humanitarian interventions to improve the lives of displaced girls

Thursday, 31 July 2014 14:08 GMT

The Women's Refugee Commission spoke with displaced adolescent girls, who told us stories and drew maps to explain what they do every day, who they interact with and where they feel safe at day and at night.

Image Caption and Rights Information

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

Adolescent girls are neither women nor children, yet they carry the burdens of both during conflicts and crises. A new report from the Women’s Refugee Commission calls for more targeted programs to help them to survive and thrive

Adolescence is a deeply testing, transformative and frequently traumatic period in our lives. The choices and experiences we face between the ages of 10 and 19 as we make the critical transition from childhood to adulthood will fundamentally shape our direction for years to come.

The poet E. E. Cummings said of adolescence, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” Yet in most countries, just being young and female presents many more obstacles to realizing your true potential than merely summoning the courage to make good choices.

From unequal gender roles within families and communities and lack of economic opportunities to poor access to education, resources and services, adolescent girls face significant disadvantages compared to boys. For half of the 1.5 billion adolescents in the world, persistent inequality means that, as a girl, you are more likely than a boy to be denied the chance to attend school.

You are also far more likely to be socially isolated, marginalized from male-dominated public life and less likely to meet potential mentors and role models to help you along the way. You are more likely to be a victim of sexual assault; in fact, 50 percent of all sexual assaults happening to girls aged 15 and younger. What’s more, you might face complications from early pregnancy and childbirth – a leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 in low- and middle-income countries.

When crisis or conflict hit and people are displaced, these inequalities and vulnerabilities are exacerbated. The institutions, systems, social norms and community cohesion that can help to support girls’ development, protect them from violence and uphold their human rights are severely undermined.

Research by the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) and others shows that being torn away from the home, family or community as a result of conflict or disaster puts girls at higher risk of gender-based violence (GBV), trafficking, coercive or transactional sex, early marriage or being drafted into armed combat.

Indeed, a 1999 survey of sex workers in Sierra Leone found that 37 percent were children, with 80 percent being unaccompanied and displaced from the civil war. A study in Rwanda put the average age for marriage for a girl before the 1994 genocide at between 20 and 25, but in the refugee camps during and after the genocide, it was 15. More recently, humanitarian workers in Syria have reported a rise in early marriage, with underage girls being married off to older, often foreign, men.

Yet despite the life-threatening risks facing adolescent girls, a new WRC report published today shows that most humanitarian responses fail to adequately target their needs – either in mainstream programs or in separate interventions.

Having long promoted economic opportunities for displaced women as a way of reducing their exposure to violence, WRC’s researchers worked on a three-year global advocacy project called the Protecting and Empowering Displaced Adolescent Girls Initiative to find ways to equip adolescent girls with skills and resources to transition safely to adulthood and into dignified livelihoods.

In pilot programs in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda, we tested promising approaches in adolescent girls’ programming – exploring alternative means of empowerment to increase protection through establishing safe spaces, where displaced girls can build confidence and gain crucial skills for their future.

The resulting report, Strong Girls, Powerful Women, calls on humanitarian organizations working in crisis-affected areas to strengthen their programs to include girls as primary beneficiaries. In reality, programs directed at youth or women are mostly attended by male youth and adult males or older women respectively, so we need to level the playing field for girls by centering interventions on them alone.

The creation of safe spaces to bring girls together outside of the public spaces dominated by men and boys are crucial too, in providing a portal for delivering services and building girls’ social networks, knowledge and skills. And since we know that those who are most in need are least likely to access services and programs, including married girls, girls who are heads of households and girls with disabilities, smart outreach is also essential.

In addition, our research found that girls and communities mutually benefit from mentorship and leadership models. Strong networks of girl leaders improve the status of females: as a female participant at Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania told us, “Being a mentor helped me to build social standing among the community.” WRC is calling for these networks to be built more regularly into programs.

Humanitarian responders should also integrate programs with economic strengthening activities, such as financial literacy and vocational skills training, to increase a girl’s economic prospects. As women and girls reinvest an estimated 90% of their income into their families and communities, the wider benefits of such an approach are clear.

Finally, we must recognize the power of involving men and boys in programs as partners for changing gender norms. Engaging men and boys with an explicit focus on transforming unequal relations holds great potential for positive outcomes.

A male refugee community leader involved in a safe space project in Tanzania, for example, observed that “girls had no hope for the future beyond doing house chores, getting married, taking care of children... but now they are starting to think about their life ahead and plan.”

The WRC shares his view that adolescent girls in humanitarian settings should not just be seen as a vulnerable group needing protection, but as one which possesses enormous capacity to become a source of transformation and innovation within their families and societies.