This opinion piece was written by Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, the CEO of Plan International, a global girls’ rights organisation active in over 70 countries. It appears in our gender equality newsfeed.
Everybody caught up in war, famine, flood or any other emergency has their lives torn apart — but none more so than adolescent girls. Girls in crisis suffer some of the most horrific crimes and human rights violations in the world. Yet it is rare that communities, governments or humanitarian agencies pay any attention to their specific needs.
No humanitarian response can be effective if it ignores the voices and needs of one of the largest groups of those affected by such crises. The international community and humanitarian agencies must radically change the way humanitarian aid is designed and delivered to incorporate the unique risks girls face because of their age and gender.
Girls caught up in crises worldwide need assistance that works for them, and they need it now.
Humanitarian work ignores girls’ needs
“Life is difficult: we live in fear”. These are the words of a 14-year-old girl Plan International spoke to in the Lake Chad Basin, in Africa. This fear is very real, as 7 in 10 girls living in crisis will experience violence including physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
This tragic shared experience is terrible enough, yet it also leads to girls’ lives in crisis being heavily restricted. “I cannot go outside. I have always to stay in the house and in this heat,” an 18-year-old Rohingya girl in Bangladesh told one of our teams.
This is what happens when girls’ fears, and the fears of their protective parents and communities, combine to close-down the freedoms that are already constrained by war, displacement and gender discrimination.
The deep trauma many girls experience in a crisis can often prove to be too much. One in four of the girls Plan International surveyed in South Sudan had considered ending their own lives.
These are just some of the voices and experiences of girls shared in our urgent new report, Adolescent Girls in Crisis. These girls are living in the Lake Chad Basin, the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and in South Sudan — three of the most severe humanitarian crises on the planet. What girls in these places have told us is deeply troubling, and it should make all who hear about it pay close attention.
Girls have hopes for the future and dreams which have survived all that they have been through
But who is listening? It’s so rare that anyone pays attention to girls in a crisis. Their needs too often go unrecognised and unaddressed. Even humanitarian workers responsible for running programmes designed for girls, rarely talk to girls themselves.
That’s why, alongside living with fear and frustration, so many girls find it very hard to stay healthy in humanitarian settings. Poor programming, a lack of information and restricted access to services — including sexual and reproductive health services — are the norm, with early and unwanted pregnancy an all too common and dangerous fate for girls. Some 60 per cent of all maternal deaths occur in crisis affected countries.
Girls’ education suffers as well. Too often in crisis settings there are no schools for girls to go to, girls are afraid to go to them, or they have missed so much education that they cannot catch up. Often their education is not prioritised by their families and communities, and even if it is, the cost can far exceed the reach of parents living in extreme poverty. Girls also find themselves married off before school starts as families struggle to cope. Child marriage rates increase rapidly in times of crisis.
Empower girls to lead change
Girls have hopes for the future and dreams which have survived all that they have been through. They believe in the possibility of change and in their own ability to contribute to it. “I will create peace in South Sudan. I will become a good professional. I will develop the nation” said one teenage girl.
The world can’t keep letting these girls down. Those with the power to change how humanitarian responses are designed, funded and run must make it their priority to understand and address the specific experiences and needs of girls in crisis contexts.
We are calling on the international community to take urgent action to ensure that girls are protected and given every opportunity to take part in decision making in all aspects of humanitarian response.
We need to listen to girls to understand what they need, work with stakeholders to prevent rape and abuse, fund and provide schools in emergencies as a priority, and work with parents, communities and authorities to address child marriage and teenage pregnancy, which ruins so many lives. Because right now, we are failing girls in crisis. — Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen
Plan International’s full report on Adolescent Girls in Crisis can be found here.
(Picture credit: Plan International)