The COVID-19 pandemic is creating new dangers for girls and women – particularly those who are refugees or internally displaced.
Experience tells us that adolescent girls are most affected by any crisis: they often live in fear of experiencing violence, lack freedom of movement and have limited access to school, friends and health care. Girls have limited control and power over their lives and are less likely to meet their needs during a crisis compared to boys.
However, evidence shows that adolescents are still invisible in global efforts to stop the spread the virus. In this pandemic response, as in so many other crises, there is too little attention to the lives and rights of girls and young women, particularly those who are displaced or living in vulnerable communities.
New toolkit for girls' empowerment in crisis settings
At Plan International we are committed to change this and improve humanitarian action with and for adolescents. Our new Adolescent Programming Toolkit provides an innovative framework for adolescent programming and girls’ empowerment in crisis settings.
The toolkit was created following research in the Lake Chad basin (Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria), South Sudan, Bangladesh and Lebanon for the Adolescent Girls in Crisis research report series. We spoke directly to over 1,400 adolescent girls living in humanitarian settings. This month, we launch our latest study voicing the experiences of over 400 adolescents in the Sahel region. Their recommendations, along with our own programme evidence and experience, tell us we should do four main things when responding to crises and disasters:
1. Empower adolescents to help themselves and their communities
Our global humanitarian operations show the important role that adolescents and youth can play in responding to crisis. They often have great capacities and aspirations to support their communities recover from crisis.
During the 2014 the Ebola response, youth groups were trained to mobilise community action and run local radio programmes to disseminating key messages. In that same year in the Philippines, adolescents acted as media reporters after Super Typhoon Haiyan and after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal adolescents joined “mobile” response teams to support vulnerable children and families in remote areas.
More recently, youth educators in conflict-affected Northeast Nigeria are teaching their peers how they can stay safe from violence. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, adolescents took part in needs assessments in Jordan and Lebanon provided their needs, priorities and recommendations to shape the services provided by aid agencies.
2. Support girls and engage with boys and men to tackle gender inequality
Pervasive gender inequality and discrimination lead girls to face heightened risks of violence, teenage pregnancy and sexual exploitation.
Targeted outreach should be undertaken to reach ‘invisible’ adolescent girls in their homes.
In many crises, family poverty forces many girls into sexual exploitation. In Southern Africa and the Sahel region, a sharp rise in child marriages were recorded during recurring droughts. The same patterns can be seen right now as the COVID-19 pandemic is reaching its peak in many of the world’s crisis-affected countries.
These significant gendered risks with life-long, devastating consequences call for urgent support to protect adolescent girls. Targeted outreach should be undertaken to reach ‘invisible’ adolescent girls in their homes and tailored protection, health, educational and psychosocial support should be provided to girls during the crisis.
3. Respond to the full range of adolescents’ needs and priorities
Emergencies and crises have impacts in every area of a young person’s life. Timely action, along with support from many sectors and actors is urgently needed to stop major risks and promote adolescents’ survival and well-being. The Adolescent Programming Toolkit provides an approach using a range of education, protection, psychosocial, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and economic empowerment interventions, tailored to the needs and capacities of adolescents, with special attention to girls.
At Plan International, our Coping with COVID-19 life skills programme provides short support sessions to adolescents, parents and caregivers to provide immediate relief and link them to protection, mental health and reproductive health services during the pandemic.
4. Work at all levels of society to achieve change with and for adolescents.
Families and communities play an important role in supporting adolescents as they are often the first responders to a crisis. In Ethiopia, South Sudanese family networks have provided care and protection to refugee adolescents who lost their parents during the civil war. In Niger, Plan International works with services providers to ensure that adolescents who visit a clinic or other service, are supported in a way that suits their age and needs.
It is also important to engage with other humanitarian actors and decision-makers. In CAR, Cameroon, Bangladesh and many other countries, Plan International has led local advocacy and coordination efforts to improve the protection and development of adolescents and girls in crisis settings.
It is also important to work with governments. In previous crises we have seen how unfavourable policies and government restrictions may worsen the situation for adolescent girls. In post-Ebola Sierra Leone, girls who got pregnant during the crisis were not welcomed back to school when they reopened, leaving thousands of girls vulnerable and unprepared for their future. This “girl-ban” was only lifted earlier this year, after years of advocacy by child rights agencies and activists in Sierra Leone .
Act now to prevent long-term consequences
We must act now to prevent the longer-term consequences of the current COVID-19 crisis. In promoting these priorities, we hope that Plan International and other humanitarian actors become better at meeting the needs of all adolescents affected by crisis, particularly adolescent girls, and become more accountable towards young people in humanitarian action during all emergencies.
And across all this work, we must influence governments, decision-makers and community leaders to support vulnerable children and invest in the future of adolescent girls before, during and after crises. The new Adolescent Programming Toolkit can help achieve these goals.