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Increasing Knowledge and Confidence During Crisis

 This post was authored by Sunita Palekar Joergensen of the International Rescue Committee, a member of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls.

Over one million Syrians have fled to Lebanon since the onset of the brutal civil war in 2011. With families struggling to deal with displacement, loss, and life in a new country, many members of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls (CAG) have been providing support to increase healing, continue educational services, and strengthen life skills and opportunities for women and girls.

According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, adolescent girls account for an increasing portion of displaced persons. They also face a unique set of risks, including sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), human trafficking, social isolation, and early marriage. Conflict and displacement severely disrupts access to education and for adolescents this disruption comes at a pivotal time when they should be receiving comprehensive education about their sexual and reproductive health.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), like several active CAG members, is dedicated to responding to the needs of women and girls in crisis settings. In Lebanon there is an increasing occurrence of early marriage and related psychological distress, as well as violence among Syrian women and girls and members of the host community. It has been indicated that this violence has increased as a result of displacement and conflict, while early marriage is perceived as a form of protection and financial security for adolescent girls and their families. Through assessments and on-going activities, adolescent girls express being exposed to verbal and sexual harassment and that they constantly fear sexual violence, physical assault, and abduction. Adolescent girls also describe experiencing isolation and restrictions on their movements, partially due to fears of what could happen to them. As a result, girls have suggested that they may not tell their parents if they experienced violence as they are afraid of having their movement restricted even further.

Responding to the expressed needs of adolescent girls in Lebanon requires specialized interventions.  Through courses that use the International Rescue Committee’s My Safety, My Wellbeing life-skills curriculum, adolescent girls have the opportunity to discuss critical issues, including key health topics. The aim is to equip girls with the knowledge and skills they need to help reduce, prevent, and respond to gender-based violence, as well as increase their confidence and build social assets. The courses also enable adolescent girls to develop positive coping mechanisms and establish a secure network of friends and supporters that they can draw upon if they encounter violence.

For many adolescent girls in emergencies, sessions like these are the first time they openly discuss issues such as puberty and menstruation. Following one session run by the IRC, a girl said, “this topic was kind of embarrassing…especially that some haven’t been even informed about the changes and puberty.” However, all the girls in the program stated that the information was very beneficial and important; they suggested things that could make them feel more comfortable with the discussions and were interested in discovering more about themselves and their bodies. One girl highlighted the value of such knowledge when she said, “I really needed [this] information, we must know [it] even if we haven’t been through puberty yet so that we don’t panic and consider this as a very normal process of growing up.”

Adolescent girls living in conflict settings need dedicated activities and programs that meet their specific needs. The IRC and other CAG members know that continuing to increase access to information, particularly about reproductive health, is an essential element of these activities. By increasing information and knowledge, adolescent girls are empowered. And by increasing their self-confidence girls will be better able to navigate a conflicted world. As one adolescent participant stated, “These sessions have [raised] our self-awareness, we even feel proud of ourselves, [and are] walking out with trust and confidence.”

The IRC Adolescent Girls Initiative in Lebanon has been supported by ECHO, SIDA, UNICEF, UNHCR, BPRM, and Anonymous Private Donors.