Girls in crisis: Where do they go?

Valerie Amos, United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator and Nigel Chapman, chief executive officer of Plan International. Photo by: Benedikt von Loebell / World Economic Forum and Plan

Joint post with Valerie Amos, United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator

During an emergency, we often see young children on our screens, and men, and women too. But teenage girls may be invisible.

Men take part in search and rescue, unload aid convoys, and speak out on behalf of their families and communities. Girls are hidden from view, prevented from interacting with others, kept busy with household tasks and caring for younger siblings.

An emergency or crisis creates enormous stress, shakes up the family structure and raises new financial demands. Teenage girls can bear the brunt of this disruption. They may be forced into early marriage or transactional sex, in exchange for money. They are at higher risk of sexual abuse and attack. They may end up ill or pregnant, out of school, their life chances drastically reduced.

For too long, the particular needs of girls in crisis situations have been ignored and their views have not been heard. But research over the past two decades has shown that girls hold the key to solving some of the most intractable and complex problems faced by developing societies, particularly in countries in the midst of a prolonged humanitarian crisis.

Girls are both uniquely vulnerable and uniquely powerful. They may lack the most basic skills to cope with a crisis, like the ability to swim, or even run, or to get the information they need and to express their opinions. But they have the power to transform not only their own lives, but also those of their families and communities. If they stay in school and understand how to protect their rights and choose what to do with their bodies, they earn more, they marry later, they have healthier children and become leaders, entrepreneurs and advocates.

When a crisis hits, too often, we still follow a “one-size-fits all” approach, instead of putting in place programs that address issues specific to women and girls. We must change this.

First, humanitarian workers, agencies and organizations have a responsibility to understand and meet the differing needs of women, girls, boys and men.

Second, donors and humanitarian agencies must give greater importance to the programs that help girls the most: education, protection and gender empowerment projects. These traditionally low-priority areas must become part of our core business.

Third, young people need to be included from the start in programs to reduce risks. Adolescents — both boys and girls — should help to identify risks and decide how they can be prevented or mitigated. Only then will their views be heard and their opinions valued in the chaos of crisis response. There is plenty of evidence, some of it detailed in a new report entitled “Double Jeopardy: Adolescent Girls and Disasters” of the ways girls show resilience, resourcefulness and creativity in disaster risk reduction and in responding to a crisis. We are glad that they are resourceful and resilient but they shouldn’t have to be. They should be able to depend on all of us for support, understanding and action.

We have all seen the potential power of girls and young women. The reaction to the attack last year on the Pakistani schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, shows how important it is that a girl can read, learn, and make her own decisions. It is up to everyone working in the humanitarian and development sectors to make sure that we are listening to girls like Malala and helping them to reach their true, transformative potential.

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About the author

  • Nigel chapman profile

    Nigel Chapman

    Nigel Chapman is the chief executive officer of Plan International. Prior to Plan, he held various senior positions in news and current affairs with the BBC, spanning more than 30 years. He was the director of the BBC World Service and was the first director of BBC Online. He also served as the chair of BCC World Service Trust, the service's charitable arm, which uses communications and new technologies to aid development in some of the world's poorest countries.