Adolescent girls in crises deserve better emergency responses

17 DECEMBER 2019

Now is the time to make humanitarian action work for them, not against them, writes Plan International’s Anne-Sophie Lois.

Today, 37,000 people will be forced from their homes, fleeing conflict, violence and persecution. Yet those who escape insecurity at home and survive risky journeys often do not find the safety and security they are seeking, but face new dangers and challenges. Chronic funding shortfalls, over-burdened host countries, political resistance to admitting refugees and heightened anti-immigration sentiment is leaving millions of forced displaced people in an ongoing state of peril, threatening the future and livelihoods of a growing portion of the global population.

Recognising the challenges and shortcomings of the humanitarian system, UN member states took a significant step last year by adopting the Global Compact on Refugees, which calls upon states to develop long-term, sustainable solutions for refugees by helping to ease pressures on host countries, enhancing refugee self-reliance and expanding access to third-country solutions. This week, as part of the Global Compact, governments will gather in Geneva for the first ever Global Refugee Forum, where states have a historic opportunity to right the wrongs of the broken humanitarian system. It is also a moment to strengthen solidarity and stand with refugees.

Crises exacerbate gender inequality

Everybody caught up in war and other emergencies is vulnerable, but adolescent girls face specific and double perils by being female and young. Gender inequalities are multiplied many times over in humanitarian situations and adolescent girls face different risks than boys and adult women. They are at greater risk of sexual violence and exploitation; being denied an education; child marriage and early pregnancy and childbirth. Any of these can easily derail a girl’s future.

Refugee adolescent girls are much more than victims; they are resilient and resourceful members of their communities.

One of the reasons for this is current refugee responses tend to be gender-and-age neutral, thus the specific needs of adolescent girls are falling through the cracks in refugee responses; those needs are not addressed in measures aimed at children more broadly, nor are they addressed in those aimed at adult women. This is especially the case when it comes to having access to much needed sexual and reproductive health services. 

We have reason to be hopeful though that the Global Compact will change this as it contains progressive recommendations on the protection and empowerment of girls, in large part a result of Plan International’s and other organisations advocating for their inclusion. But the Global Compact will only lead to real change in the lives of refugee girls and women if governments and multilateral organizations at the Global Forum make strong pledges and follow through on their commitments. That is why Plan International is speaking out on behalf of adolescent girls and young women.

We are calling on all parties to make concrete commitments to address the unique challenges faced by adolescent girls in refugee situations, especially in the areas of education, health and protection:

  • Donors and host governments must ensure that girls have access to safe, inclusive and quality education. They must take steps to break down the economic and cultural barriers, including harmful social norms, that keep refugee girls out of school. This is critical for improving their immediate protection and wellbeing and for safeguarding their future prospects. 
  • Governments must increase funding for programmes and technical support to strengthen inclusive child protection systems that better protect girls. Adolescent girls are often overlooked in child protection responses, despite the fact that they face heightened risks.
  • Refugee communities know what they need and they must be consulted and included in the decision-making processes that impact their lives and future opportunities. This is especially true for young people and adolescent girls.

Plan International’s commitments on refugees

This is just a starting point, there is much more we can all do to make sure adolescent girls are safe, healthy, educated and empowered, regardless of their status. To strengthen our own accountability to children in crises, particularly adolescent girls, Plan International is committed to using an age, gender and diversity approach to improve refugee response and policies at the local, national, regional and international level. We are investing more resources into needs assessments in order to further integrate age and gender within our own refugee programming, especially in the areas of sexual and gender based violence responses and education. 

Refugee adolescent girls are much more than victims; they are resilient and resourceful members of their communities. Our research shows that in spite of the difficult circumstances they endure, they remain hopeful about their futures. They tell us that they want to go to school and they want more control over their lives particularly regarding the pursuit of livelihood opportunities and deciding when and whom they should marry. Their energy and optimism, their ability to envisage a better future, is, in itself, an indication of their strength. They deserve better.