Adolescent Girls in Protracted Crises: Promoting Inclusion and Advancing Peace

In protracted conflicts and crises, adolescent girls experience physical and sexual gender-based violence — as well as structural violence — in a manner that can be substantially different from women and boys, and unique to their demographic.  Unsurprisingly, these experiences of violence often beget further insecurity, rendering girls more vulnerable across a range of issues.

In a new article, Eleanor Gordon and Katrina Lee-Koo report the findings of their research with adolescent girls aged between 10 and 19, and their communities across four protracted crisis contexts: Lake Chad Basin (Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon), South Sudan and Uganda, as well as crises facing displaced communities in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh and Beirut, Lebanon. In their article, they reveal the breadth and complexity of the security threats facing adolescent girls in protracted crisis contexts, highlighting the roles that the intersection of age and gender has in shaping girls’ experiences of violence. 

Adolescent girls spoke of their exposure to a broad spectrum of violence, across all aspects of their lives. This included physical violence, conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, harassment and threats, and early and forced marriage. They reported experiencing this violence in their homes, at school, in public spaces and in transit. In many cases the ways in which this violence manifested and the impact it had upon their lives was unique from women and adolescent boys. For example, the increase — in all four crisis contexts — or early and forced marriage is a form of violence uniquely experienced by adolescent girls. While the triggers were slightly different in each context (and included issues such as the family’s economic insecurity, concerns about girls’ physical insecurity, experiences of sexual violence and pre-existing local customs), in all contexts both their age, and their gender made them vulnerable.

Alternatively, girls reported that in issues that might impact all members of the community — such as food insecurity, limited access to healthcare, and changes in access to education and patterns of paid and unpaid labour — it manifests uniquely for adolescent girls. For example, in South Sudan girls reported being more likely to be taken out of school to contribute unpaid labour in the home; in Cox’s Bazar there was little support among adult populations to educate girls beyond primary school. Again, these patterns of behaviour draw upon attitudes to girls that are based upon their age and gender. 

With the experiences of crisis were quite unique for adolescent girls, our research revealed that their voices and experiences rarely inform programmes aimed at improving the security and well-being of people caught in these crisis contexts. The consequences of this are that girls’ security concerns are not adequately addressed.  This reality is in sharp contrast to policy guidance and research in the peacebuilding and humanitarian response sectors which underscore the importance of inclusion to the development of responsive and, ultimately, effective programming. We found that the ‘inclusivity norm’ has skipped over adolescent girls. We argue that it is the combination of the complexity and specificity of adolescent girls’ experiences of violence in crisis contexts, coupled with marginalisation of adolescent girls in responses to such violence, that so significantly compromises their security.

We argue that in order to address the security needs of adolescent girls, programmes need to be informed by their lived experiences as the girls themselves articulate them. Adolescent girls are experts in their own lives – capable of identifying the threats to their security, in some cases navigating them, but also conveying what their needs and priorities are.  Importantly, their agenda can be different from those set by their parents, community representatives or external actors.  This advances the case that adolescent girls need to be meaningfully included in programme development, implementation and evaluation, and have the ability to influence decisions and affect change.  

There are undeniably barriers to including adolescent girls in crisis response programming. These include security, logistical, financial, linguistic, cultural and attitudinal barriers. Furthermore, measures need to be taken to ensure inclusion doesn’t further compromise the security of girls or expose them to further threat. Furthermore, it needs to be recognised that adolescent girls are not a homogenous group and it is, therefore, important to avoid tokenistic engagement. Instead, we promote genuine partnerships with adolescent girls that include diverse groups. 

While these challenges have stymied inclusive and responsive programming, we argue that they are not insurmountable. Overcoming these challenges will, however, require recognition from external actors and communities that violence against adolescent girls is not just a threat to the girls themselves but also a threat to the overall fabric of peace, and that adolescent girls are well-placed to inform approaches to addressing the threats that face them. Such an approach will capitalise upon the knowledge and skills that adolescent girls have developed, and employ their will and capacity to inform effective ways of addressing insecurity.

Eleanor Gordon and Katrina Lee-Koo work at the School of Social Sciences at Monash University, Australia. They are the authors of “Addressing the security needs of adolescent girls in protracted crises: Inclusive, responsive, and effective?”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

Deconstructing Scholarship on Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria

08/09/11- Mogadishu, Somalia – AMISOM Troops stand in Mogadishu stadium, the former al-Shabaab headquarters.

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis argues that scholars should develop a better understanding of insurgency groups in Africa, such as Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, including their origins and the state functions they provide.

Insurgent groups in Africa are to a greater extent attracting the attention of a new generation of scholars who are bent on deconstructing the previous misunderstandings of the activities of the insurgent movements. As they increase their local and regional operations, African insurgent groups remain resistant and resilient and frustrated in all military attempts to defeat them.

Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria are the two most crucial and critical insurgent groups in Africa. Because they do not constrain and confine them to insurgent activities, it is important to reconsider their other activities to move beyond the preoccupation of only exploring the aspect of their terror attacks.

Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram undertake more than insurgent activities. As a result, there is no serious scholar who can confidently call them as “terrorist organisations,” because for them terrorism is not an end, but a means to an end. They use terror attacks as a strategy (albeit evil) in a tactic toolbox than an essence of an organisational ultimate policy (see, for example: https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/horn-sahel-and-rift/).

When examining Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, a new generation of Africanist scholars began to use the terms such as “extremist movements” or “extremist organisations”; “insurgent movements” or “insurgent organisations”; “Islamist movements” or “Islamist organisations”; “militant movements” or “militant organisations”; “radical movements” or “radical organisations” rather than making sentimental descriptions such as “terrorists.”

The new reconsideration and reconceptualisation of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram has been obliged by the very fact that, in opposition to the Western-supported secular governments of Somalia and Nigeria, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have adopted state systems and structures on the basis of parallel Islamic governments (obviously with their own strict scriptural interpretation) in the areas under their control. 

The state-like rules of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram provide more than social and security services that the governments of Somalia and Nigeria have failed to provide to the local population. Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have achieved to capture and continue to rule peripheral societies where the failed state of Somalia and the fragile state of Nigeria cannot reach and as such where the provision of security is non-exist.

Despite their position as parallel governments, the ways in which Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are often emotionally vilified is something that blinds and blocks us (as scholars studying those insurgencies in Africa) to present the everyday reality exist in the areas under their control. With the label of ‘terrorist organisations’, observers can hardly adventure into the other aspects of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.

However, it is thus quite difficult to overlook the fact that both Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram began as popular movements providing alternative governments to local populations, even though their approach and engagement had fundamental differences, because Boko Haram started as a social movement offering social services to marginalised communities in northern Nigeria, while Al-Shabaab started as a jihadist network right from the beginning.

Al-Shabaab was born out of the brutal Ethiopian invasion of southern Somalia in the winter of 2006, an invasion approved by the United States and allowed by the United Kingdom and the rest of the West. In the beginning, Al-Shabaab was not separate from the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) which emerged in the summer of 2006, but its founders behaved and pretended they were ruling a separate entity. Yet, Al-Shabaab could not exist without the legitimacy it had enjoyed under the shadow of the UIC.

In Somalia, scholars studying Al-Shabaab do not squabble about their research findings of Al-Shabaab. Whilst they backbite each other behind the backdoor privately, scholars tend to avoid disputing each other publicly. In contrast to Nigeria, scholars studying Boko Haram are arguing over the emergence and existence of Boko Haram to the extent that ideological positions in the form of left wing and right wing exist in the scholarship on Boko Haram, also including personal insults in the discussion.

Overall, nonetheless, there is a burgeoning scholarship on Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, but most of this scholarship is concerned more with Boko Haram than with Al-Shabaab. Academic and non-academic books have been published about these insurgent movements, even though more on Boko Haram than Al-Shabaab. Astonishingly, the third largest African insurgent movement Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) has not been attracted a book of its own.

Arguably, Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa and the highest oil-producing state in Africa and as such is much more important than Somalia, the most failed state in the whole world, but is not Al-Shabaab, the only insurgent movement in the world currently controlling a large swathes of territory, more important than Boko Haram, which is only concentrated in small parts of northern Nigeria?

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis is a Somali academic specialising in Somali history and politics at the University of Oxford. He is a research fellow at the CRP, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is the author of “Building peace from the margins in Somalia: The case for political settlement with Al-Shabaab“, Contemporary Security Policy, 39(4), pp. 512-536.