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.