One year since the start of the Rohingya crisis, close to 1 million people are now living in what has become the world’s largest refugee camp outside Cox’s Bazar. This situation is hard for everyone, but for adolescent girls it is especially so.
Many witnessed and experienced extreme violence when they fled Myanmar and are still processing their displacement and the immense suffering it brought along. Although they no longer fear persecution, their challenges are far from over. It is impossible for the vast majority of girls to access the support services they so desperately need.
Unable to access services
Earlier this year, when we launched our Adolescent Girls in Crisis report, we highlighted the unique challenges that girls living in the camps are facing. What girls told us was that they know some services are provided in the camps, but that many cannot access them because community members and their parents do not let them leave their shelters.
We must now act on what girls have told us.
Cultural attitudes and practices as well as concerns about violence and sexual harassment in the camps mean that many girls are forced to spend almost 24 hours of every day inside their swelteringly hot shelters.
They are unable to access medical services and psychological support to help them overcome what they went through in Myanmar. Unable to attend the limited number of learning centres where educational support is being provided. And unable to find a space where their voices can be heard and their agency recognised.
Girls know what they need
But this is vitally important. Girls told us that they want to be involved in decisions that affect their lives and, as we mark the 1 year anniversary, we need to make sure we hear what they are telling us, and that we learn from them.
All the girls we spoke to in our research had a very clear idea about what would help them most as they navigate their way through this crisis. They focus on their agency, the need for comprehensive quality education, their future dreams, and how important friendship is.
There is a strong desire among them to go to school. Vocational training and the desire to set up small businesses were common themes, which shows that there is a wealth of untapped potential in the camps. Older girls have strong business minds and are entrepreneurs in the making. But their current circumstances mean they may never get the chance to achieve their dreams.
Friendships are crucial
Through the child-friendly spaces and education programmes that we are delivering in the camp, we have created opportunities for girls to learn, feel safe and thrive. But there are far too few programmes like these. Our research has shown that girls with strong peer networks are doing far better than those without, but funding for such activities is massively under resourced despite the clear evidence of the impact it has on girls’ wellbeing and safety.
When they get together, they do things that girls everywhere in the world do: they trade clothes, do each other’s make up, pray together, eat together, play, giggle and share. They also act as a welcoming committee for new arrivals, taking it upon themselves to befriend new girls and help them settle in. Their ability to interact, share and learn with others plays a key role in building resilience and helping them regain a sense of normality. They support each other and build networks that we must not underestimate the value of. Friendship is vital in a humanitarian crisis.
It’s time to listen to girls
It isn’t surprising that no one is listening to what girls have to say though. This happens not just in humanitarian crises. Girls are marginalised and discriminated against across the world. But as we enter the second year of this crisis this needs to change, we need to ensure that when designing programmes for girls, we ask them what they want, and how they want to be involved.
The Government of Bangladesh has shown enormous generosity and humanity in opening their border to the Rohingya people over the past year. But now, the government and wider humanitarian community must look to the futures and long-term needs of Rohingya refugees.
We know what girls’ needs are, because we’ve asked them. We must now act on what girls have told us.