Syrian refugee girls in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon. Photo by: REUTERS / Aziz Taher

CANBERRA — A new report released by Plan International Australia ahead of World Refugee Day brings to light the issues faced by adolescent girls in refugee settings in Lebanon.

The report, “Adolescent Girls in Crisis: Voices from Beirut,” reveals that girls between the ages of 10-19 living in refugee communities in this region face gender-based violence and rising child marriage — which parents are supporting less for cultural reasons, but in a bid to protect their daughters.

“Parents are dropping their daughters out of school, keeping them home or marrying them off early in a bid to keep them safe — none of which are in the best interest of the girls in the long term but in this context I can understand how girls world feel that they need to do this to protect their children,” Susanne Legena, CEO at Plan International Australia, explained to Devex.

Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world — including 1.5 million refugees who have fled conflict in Syria as well as Palestinian families who have been in Lebanon since 1949. In this context, surveys and interviews were conducted with 400 adolescent girls as well as community leaders in and around Beirut, finding that the primary concern of girls across all nationality groups was gender-based violence — including sexual harassment and fear of kidnapping and rape.

More than two-thirds of girls said they felt unsafe traveling around the city alone during the day, jumping to 87% feeling unsafe at night.

And the fear of violence was seeing school attendance drop when girls reach the age of 15 — from 80% attendance of girls aged 10-14 to just 39% of 15-19 year-olds with 10% of girls surveyed reported being married or engaged as a protective measure against violence.

The Beirut study is the fourth in a series of reports from Plan and Monash University’s Gender, Peace and Security Research Centre looking at adolescent girls in crisis context, with past reports looking at the Lake Chad Basin, South Sudan, and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

“These reports give space to a voice that is so often not heard,” Legena said. “And there is a sense from the series that adolescent girls are vulnerable because of their age and gender. And they have particular concerns that need to be met in a humanitarian context that are largely overlooked.”

The challenges of the research

The research engaged a local team of experts to get an intersectional mix of girls for the study, employed local data collectors, and had an advisory group provide feedback on the scope, tools, and questions that are asked.

The ethics were critical due to the vulnerability of the girls involved in the study.

“The key principles are ‘child protection’ and ‘do no harm,’” lead researcher Katrina Lee-Koo explained to Devex. “We weren’t sure that if we asked girls questions and it triggered trauma or distress, that we would be able to provide them with the proper support … If girls spoke to us it might create a backlash in the community. In our other studies, we had strong infrastructure around those things, but here we avoided one-on-one interviews to ensure safety.”

In Beirut, there was also high intercommunal tension — and focus groups were divided into nationalities as well as old and new refugees to ensure this did not create risk or impact results.

There are also challenges for the researchers — particularly in Beirut where some of the potential study sights had been identified by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as being unsafe for Australians.

But researchers felt it was necessary to bring to light this vulnerable group to understand the impact it has for recovery from crisis.

“We have data across four very different sites, so we are bringing it together to discuss the patterns and what is unique,” Lee-Koo explained. “We have enough to look at where the sector is doing well and where it could do better, and the extent to how it has considered this group of girls.”

The big issue, Lee-Koo explained, is in first recognizing that adolescent girls have very unique needs and its importance in transitioning to adulthood.

“They’re different from women, they’re different from children, and they’re different from youths. Often, when we think about adolescent girls, they get lumped on women and girls and get overlooked. But they have unique needs and perspectives that we don’t hear or don’t consider a priority to fund.”

Changes in the humanitarian context

“We have tended to think of these humanitarian contexts as short term but they’re not — they’re prolonged and protracted,” Legena said. “Your entire adolescence may be in these contexts, so we have to think as part of a humanitarian response on how we are keeping kids at school and creating normalcy.”

Throughout the four studies, Lee-Koo said desire for education was strong among the adolescent girls surveyed, and was important for the safety as well as the future of these communities.

“Education is the most significant protective and coping mechanism girls have against the other challenges in their lives,” she said. “It is a protection against early marriage, violence, and creates opportunities for the future.”

But thinking short-term in a humanitarian setting was downplaying the focus on education and in the need to invest in supporting adolescent girls in their range of needs — including creating positive relationships between the sexes, enabling access to information on sexual and reproductive health, and letting teenage girls be teenage girls.

The report also highlights the isolation and loneliness in refugee camps, Legena said. “I think about teenage girls everywhere and how the friendships they have is a natural part of childhood and development in adolescence. This part of the natural development is being curtailed, but the desire to connect remains.”

The reports were already seeing Plan change their own practices in humanitarian settings, to better support adolescent girls, but according to Legena, the entire system needs to change to give girls the hope they deserve.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.