New research by Plan International, Adolescent Girls in Crisis: Voices from the Lake Chad Basin, documents for the first time the intense and unrelenting fear that girls are living in and the multiple sources of their suffering.
From the threat of attacks and kidnap by armed insurgents to a fear of rape and sexual violence on the streets and in their homes, the research – based on surveys with 449 girls aged 10-19, as well as focus groups and interviews – makes it clear that violence has infiltrated and permeated almost every aspect of girls’ lives.
Girls speak out about abuse
“They married her out to the rapist,” – 17-year-old adolescent girl, Nigeria.
“I know victims as far as servants working with rich people are concerned. These girls are often raped by their master or their boyfriends so as to have money,” – 16-year-old adolescent girl, Cameroon.
The launch of the report coincides with the High Level Conference on the Lake Chad Region taking place in Berlin on September 3 and 4, where Plan International is calling on governments and donors to urgently prioritise funding that will protect girls caught up in the crisis from further harm and reach the most marginalised who are already in desperate need of assistance.
Girls face hidden risks
Hussaini Abdu – Plan International’s Country Director in Nigeria, said:
“The violence that girls in the Lake Chad Basin are experiencing is horrific. Not only are they at risk of kidnap and sexual harassment when they leave their homes, but they face the threat of beatings and mistreatment behind closed doors as well.
The impact that this crisis is having on girls’ lives is devastating.
"The situation is especially hard for girls who have become separated from their families. Many live and work as domestic servants in other households and several of the girls we spoke to in our research told us of other girls they know who are raped by their employers.
“Apart from what we found in our research, we also know that those kidnapped by Boko Haram are subject to forced marriage, rape and sexual slavery. Many conceive children as a result of this rape, becoming mothers when they are still just children themselves. For those who manage to escape – often with their children in tow – life is no better. They face stigma and rejection from their families and are unable to access services that have been designed to support survivors of gender-based violence.
“The impact that this crisis is having on girls’ lives is devastating. It is a basic human right to live free from violence. And a basic human right to be able to choose if, when and with whom to have children. Yet these rights – and many more – are being violated on a daily basis. This is unacceptable, and the international community must do more to address this.”
Support survivors of gender-based violence
Plan International is calling for humanitarian actors to urgently prioritise funding that will assist survivors of gender-based violence – particularly adolescent girls, who are one of the most vulnerable groups caught up in the crisis and one of the groups most in need of assistance
“A 13-year-old single mother who has escaped from Boko Haram will have vastly different needs from a six-year-old boy or girl – and equally different needs from a 42-year-old woman. Yet, these specific needs will likely be missed in a humanitarian response,” said Mr Abdu.
“Rejected by their families due to their association with Boko Haram – and with little help available – many girls in this situation have no other means of survival than to sell sex in exchange for food in order to support themselves and their children.
“We cannot let the brave survivors of these atrocities fall through the cracks. It is imperative that we take action to reach girls like these who are among the worst affected in this crisis.”
However, gender-based violence is not the only challenge facing adolescent girls. Based on the research findings, Plan International is urging the humanitarian community to address the needs of safety, education, food insecurity and access to sexual and reproductive health services for girls.
We must listen to girls needs
In the research, adolescent girls spoke strongly about the desire to get an education but explained that they often cannot continue into secondary school because they are needed for household chores or work at home.
“[My biggest achievement is] doing well in school and going to higher grades,” – 13-year-old adolescent girl, Cameroon.
Of all the girls surveyed, a third of those who are not currently attending school had in fact never attended school.
The crisis has multiplied and exacerbated the risks of all forms of violence and human rights violations against girls.
In addition, adolescent girls are being forced to leave school in order to get married. Many participants noted that early marriage had increased since the crisis, and the most common age at which girls are married off is 14-15 years old, coinciding with the end of primary education.
“Families are marrying their daughters off to help reduce the financial burden they are facing, but this harmful practice leads to a downward spiral of violence and abuse for girls,” said Abdu.
“The crisis has multiplied and exacerbated the risks of all forms of violence and human rights violations against girls. Their access to education is being severely curtailed, their hopes and dreams for the future are being destroyed. We must not let what they tell us about their lives fall on deaf ears. We must take action now to address their needs.”
The organisation is calling for targeted efforts to be made to address child, early and forced marriage in the region, as well as for steps to be taken to address the social norms and discrimination linked to age and gender, which are the root causes and drivers of human rights violations experienced by adolescent girls.