Migrant girls risk trafficking, kidnapping, extortion

14 March 2023

Migrant girls in Central America's Northern Triangle and Mexico risk trafficking, kidnapping and extortion as they search for safety.

Miriam* is a 14-year-old Honduran teenager who is currently in Mexico with her mother and younger brother.
Miriam* is a 14-year-old Honduran teenager who is currently in Mexico with her mother and younger brother.

Gender-based violence is driving adolescent girls from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico to embark on journeys along one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes, according to Plan International’s report “Adolescent Girls in Crisis: Experiences of Migration in Central America and Mexico.

Plan International’s study, produced with the support of the European Union’s Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) and other partners, shines a light on the lives of migrant girls in these four countries, many of whom have made the dangerous journey northwards in search of better life opportunities.

The report found that sexual and gender-based violence was seen as a common reason for migration by one in five (19.1%) adolescent girls. Social violence was cited by a further 11,7% of the adolescent girls interviewed.

Dangerous journeys place girls at risk

Central America is one of the poorest and most volatile regions in the world. 7.9 million migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean are under 18 years of age, and girls and adolescents represent 20% of all women who migrate.

The dangerous journeys which many are forced to take to find safety, however, often place girls and young women at risk of further violence, exposing them to risks such as trafficking, kidnapping or extortion.

“Day after day, girls and young women face threats that put their lives at risk when migrating in Central America. In these contexts, we are working to protect adolescent girls and their families, and to prevent gender-based violence and other risks, while helping girls to continue their education,” said Debora Cobar, Plan International’s Regional Executive Director for the Americas and the Caribbean.

“The report reveals that adolescent girls in the Northern Triangle of Central America and Mexico face serious violence and discrimination on a daily basis. Violence and lack of opportunities force them to abandon their education and push them to flee, and to make dangerous journeys that place them at risk of further violence,” said Concha López, National Director of Plan International Spain.

Lack of employment and barriers to education, main reasons for migration

For adolescent girls, violence in family, community and educational environments, lack of economic employment and training opportunities are the main reasons for leaving their home or country. Lack of employment is cited by 45.7% of adolescent girls as a reason for migrating, followed by difficulties accessing education (11.7%) and insecurity (7.4%).

“Sometimes people migrate due to violence, because they are suffering abuse in their homes or communities. Here we see a closed door, we see no opportunities in our country,” explains an 18-year-old girl interviewed in El Salvador.

“My father was violent, he hit us a lot all the time and even abused us, my sister and me, that’s why we came here, so that it wouldn’t happen again, we left with my other siblings and my aunt and here we feel better, calmer,” said a teenage girl from Honduras interviewed in Mexico.

According to testimonies, girls are often resorting to heartbreaking strategies to reduce the risk of sexual violence and reprisals from organized criminal groups, including dressing as men: “My mother had to dress me as a man almost all the way to prevent anything from happening to me. When we have to go out to do some paperwork, I feel unsafe,” said a 15-year-old Venezuelan girl interviewed in Mexico.

Migration disrupts the education of girls and adolescents, compromising their future

Migration also frequently disrupts girls’ education opportunities, limiting their opportunities for the future. Bureaucratic difficulties affect access for female students who migrate. Although 59.6% consider school to be a safe place, one out of every three feels that it is unsafe due to physical, emotional, sexual and psychological violence.

Other factors that lead migrant girls to drop out of school include gender-based violence, reported by 22% of those surveyed; forced marriages, which affect 20% of young women between the ages of 20 and 24 in the region; early pregnancies; caregiving responsibilities and the need to prioritise work to generate income.

Plan International’s recommendations

Plan International is urging governments, donors and international, organisations to work together to guarantee the rights and improve the living conditions of adolescent migrant and internally displaced adolescent girls in Central America and Mexico, especially with regard to education and protection.

As part of its response to the migration crisis in Central America, Plan International, together with other local organisations, has been running two projects in the Triangle of Central America and Mexico: “Protected Steps” and “Protected Path”. These aim to promote access to education and safe environments for children and adolescents affected by spirals of violence, forced displacement and unsafe migration.