Girls’ rights in the Sahel under profound threat

11 July 2023

A new report by Plan International finds girls living in the central Sahel region of Africa face impossible choices, deciding between their education, personal safety and access to food.

Amidst the largest global food crisis in recent history almost 850,000 people face starvation in seven countries, including Mali and Burkina Faso – two of the three countries which, along with Niger, make up the central Sahel. 

A combination of conflict, poverty, and the impacts of climate change on natural resources, agriculture, livelihoods, and the availability and affordability of food are putting girls in a situation where they must make inconceivable choices.

The report ‘Impossible Choices, Unheard Voices’ illustrates how the crisis interacts with, and even worsens pre-existing inequalities, making life for girls in the Sahel more dangerous than ever.

Families resort to negative coping strategies

In desperation, girls and their families adopt negative coping strategies, including family separation (leaving girls to look after siblings), girls dropping out of school, being married off early, sexual exploitation and child labour. This puts girls at further risk of sexual violence and rape.

According to Plan International, these impossible choices are forced on girls, and choices forced by circumstances are not choices at all. Their right to develop equally, or at all, is under extreme threat.

“In the central Sahel, girls are telling us there are very few spaces where they feel truly safe – and that they face heightened risks of violence in their homes, schools, the community, and refugee camps. To avoid violence in the home, they sometimes have to leave their homes and communities and find safer spaces. Those girls who stay in their homes must weigh up the risks when leaving their house on how safe it is outside to go to school, access health clinics or continue their income generating activities. These needs mean that often they are willing to face such risks. They are put in an impossible position where one vital need must be traded off against another.” 

Marie-Noël Maffon, Central Sahel Response Programme Manager for Plan International.

Girls in Gourma-Rharous, Mali, said that, due to armed conflict, they were afraid to leave their homes to buy and sell food, collect firewood, or visit parents in nearby villages.

Similarly, in Mali and Burkina Faso, 45% and 34% of girls, respectively, said that they work to earn money but that the crisis has reduced their ability to trade and earn.

Vital household tasks such as collecting water and firewood often fall to girls and women, but due to conflict, destruction of water pumps and drought, they now often must walk much further. As a result, they are at heightened risk of violence, including by armed groups.

Risk of violence increasing

In the words of a girl from Burkina Faso, “Rapes are on the increase because we are left to our own devices and there is no one to help us displaced people; yes, it is the internally displaced people who are most affected, especially women and girls. They are raped, beaten and injured.”

The crisis in the central Sahel started in 2011 when an outbreak of violence spread across the region, and has been exacerbated by intercommunal tensions, population displacement, rising global food prices and the climate crisis. In 2021, Mali experienced its most severe lack of rain in five years. 

In early 2023, roughly 2.78 million internally displaced people were recorded in the region.  In 2021, 78% of refugees and asylum seekers in the region at large were women and children.

Hunger and drought exacerbate issues for girls

Girls have long been vulnerable to gender-based violence (GBV) where social norms cement gender inequality and the institutions to protect them are weak. Law enforcement and judiciaries have been ineffective, with most rape cases going unreported or handled informally in Mali and Burkina Faso. The additional stress of conflict, hunger and drought aggravate these factors escalating the overall risk of GBV.

Conflict has led to school closures, exacerbating rates of child marriage. Girls are married off for dowry, to reduce the number of mouths to feed in the home, or as means to protect girls from pregnancy outside of marriage and to shield them from violence due to conflict. Mali had one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world in 2019.

The study is released ahead of Women Deliver, the world’s largest convening on gender equality and the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women, which takes place in Kigali, Rwanda between 17th – 20th July. A delegation of youth supported by Plan International will be advocating for the rights of girls in crisis around the world.

Ahead of the summit, Plan International is calling for girls to be meaningfully engaged and given the ability to influence the decisions which shape their lives, ensuring they, challenge the gender norms which discriminate against girls, recognise their specific vulnerabilities and protect their rights.