“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 badly 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 their freedoms 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 interviewed 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: Experiences Of Risk And Resilience Across Three Humanitarian Settings. 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 worrying, and it should make all who hear about it pay close attention.
We must listen to girls in crisis
I will create peace in South Sudan. I will become a good professional. I will develop the nation
But who is listening? It’s so rare that anyone pays attention to girls in a crisis. Even humanitarian workers responsible for running programs designed for girls, rarely talk to girls themselves. Their needs too often go un-recognised and un-addressed. 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.
Don't keep letting these girls down
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 - the leaders of the UN system – must make it their priority to understand and address the specific experiences and needs of girls in crisis contexts.
The UN needs to listen to girls to understand what they need, protect them from rape and abuse, fund and provide schools in emergencies as a priority, and work with parents, communities and authorities to prevent the child marriage and teenage pregnancy that ruins so many lives. I was a UN official for most of my career. I believe deeply in what the UN stands for and know that it can be a great force for good in the world. Yet right now, the UN is failing girls in crisis.
Press play to watch the discussion at the UN launch of the Adolescent Girls in Crisis research: