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Adolescent girls – where do they go ‘missing’ in emergencies?

Posted by Katie Tong, Adolescent Girls in Emergencies Specialist at Plan International

17 July 2012: They could well be invisible.  Instead they are there crying out for attention but are not heard.

During emergencies adolescent girls are part of that group of people that get the wrong kinds of attention. They face heightened risks of sexual violence, early marriage, unwanted pregnancies, and are forced or coerced into transactional sex – that is using sex that is given in exchange for payment for food, rent or other bills.

As an aid worker I have seen firsthand the devastating impact that the lack of attention and care on reproductive health can have on crisis-affected women, especially adolescent girls.

In Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, community and health workers reported a dramatic increase in the number of unwanted teen pregnancies.  There are numerous health problems that arise from teen pregnancies because the girls’ reproductive systems are just not mature enough for child birth.

We know from the harsh and cruel reality of history that a girl under 15 is 5 times as likely to die in childbirth as a woman over 20 while a girl aged 15-19 is twice as likely.

The difference between life and death

During disasters, ensuring life-line support such as food, water, health and psychosocial care and information is key- such support make a life and death difference. Specific people have specific needs - for example, children need  protection and education. Providing family planning options in emergency settings is also key, as is, of course, preventing and responding to the incidences of gender-based violence which typically increases during the chaos created by an emergency.

Every disaster also provides its own opportunities, for example, in Pakistan, after the floods in 2010, government lady health workers took advantage of the chaos. The emergency created an opportunity because in emergency shelters were large numbers of girls in one location – a captive audience that they would previously had to travel many miles from village to village to find.

They took advantage of the situation to raise the level of awareness of the displaced women and give them access to family planning options.

During my visit to Pakistan to support Plan’s humanitarian assistance to flood victims in 2011, one lady health worker told me that less than 10% of women and married girls who came to the camp had any knowledge of modern family planning methods. Over the course of 2 months she held daily information sessions, reaching 25 to 30 women a day out of whom up to 10 women a day took up a new form of family planning.

Choice not chance

At the just ended London Summit on Family Planning co-hosted by the UNFPA, there was a pledge to provide an extra 120 million women in the poorest countries with contraception giving them the option to have children by choice and not by chance. This is a good move.

Regrettably, the plight of adolescent girls in emergencies and child marriage did not receive adequate attention at the summit. Regrettable because about 10 million girls are forced or coerced into early marriage each year – that’s more than 27,000 per day.

I hope that philanthropists such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and donors such as the UK Department for International Development would pay adequate attention to this vulnerable group.

Plan International works in 58,000 communities across the world and the plight of adolescent girls in emergencies is one of our emerging priorities.

Read more about our work in Emergencies

Jul 17, 2012 10:05 AM