Among the hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking safety in Europe, adolescent girls are all but invisible. We know they are there, but current policy discussions and relief efforts do not include them. This is not new.
In humanitarian response, adolescent girls, if they are considered at all, are usually lumped together either with women or with children, despite their unique needs and experiences that differ vastly from those of women or children. Adolescent girls are at heightened risk of abuse, exploitation, poverty, and discrimination. When they are displaced or resettled, they face threats that compromise their bodies, their rights, and their development.
As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, aid groups, and various governments are calling on world leaders to offer safe haven to more Syrian refugees, it’s essential that they include this vulnerable group. Members of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls (CAG), a global consortium of organizations working and advocating for girls worldwide, are calling for and are working to create immediate interventions to protect displaced adolescent girls.
Young, Female, and Displaced: Intersecting Vulnerabilities
Because they are young and female, adolescent girls are often easily exploited. Because they are displaced, the community and family structures that normally protect them are either absent or weak. As a result, many displaced adolescent girls experience rape, trafficking, sexual harassment and other forms of violence and abuse.
Many girls who are in the resettlement process face greater abuse, poverty, and discrimination than in their country of origin. Take Inaam*, a 16-year-old married girl who fled from Syria to Lebanon with her husband and baby last year. Inaam was shot in Syria, and is now unable to walk. She relies on her husband to get around and is isolated inside her home. She feels alone and insulted because people make fun of her and take advantage of her. Girls like Inaam are among the thousands who are migrating to Europe in hopes of a better life. Some of these girls are unaccompanied, others may be married and parenting while still children themselves. All have little knowledge, limited skills, and few support networks to help them cope through flight, displacement, and eventual resettlement.
Livelihoods and Education: Tools for Survival
Adolescent girls are more likely to be out of school while displaced. Thus, resettlement must focus on keeping girls safe, but the process should concurrently prioritize introducing girls to a holistic set of educational opportunities, including schooling and access to support and resources. Older adolescents should have access to safe livelihoods so that they do not resort to selling their bodies to provide for themselves and their families.
According to the Women’s World Banking, combining economic programs with social or life skills education support increases financial decision-making ability and results in greater access to employment. Program evidence from agencies like BRAC, the Population Council, and Aflatoun also indicate that when girls are involved in a program that combines social and financial education, their lives and health improve considerably. Such programs, which combine education, health, financial literacy, and livelihood training while building supportive peer networks among girls, open opportunities for girls to not only survive but thrive.
Legal frameworks, policy makers, civil society organizations and humanitarian actors must make special considerations when working with displaced adolescent girls. Inaction may result in preventable acts of violence and exploitation against them and missed opportunities to support their healthy development. Doing more for Inaam and girls like her requires making a concerted effort to “see” them, to listen to them and to safely address their priority concerns by building on their capacities and carefully engaging other influential persons in their lives.
As Warsan Shire, a prominent refugee poet and educator, poignantly states in her poem “Home”: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” For girls—no matter which waters they navigate—the danger is always present, and we must do all we can to keep them safe.
*Name has been changed to protect her identity.
The above photo was taken by Russel Watkins of the Department for International Development.