It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way: Let’s Do Better for Displaced Girls
By Sarah Costa, Executive Director, Women’s Refugee Commission
Despite the emergent spotlight on gender by humanitarian actors, much more needs to be done to challenge the pervasive gender inequalities that affect so many women and adolescent girls who’ve been displaced by conflict or crisis.
This was on my mind a few weeks ago when, as part of a Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) delegation, I met with women from Central America and from as far away as Cameroon in West Africa. They had fled unimaginable violence and were in migrant shelters and detention centers on both sides of the US/Mexico border. They shared their harrowing stories of rape, abuse, and exploitation along the route.
Some told me they had waited for weeks or months in dangerous conditions before being able to even approach a border crossing point to ask for asylum. Others had been detained in prison-like conditions for months, with limited access to information about their families and limited access to lawyers to help them navigate the unwieldy US immigration system.
Soon after my return from the border, I was part of a robust discussion on gender and immigration at the Women Moving Millions annual summit. We talked about how humanitarian policies can compound the dangers and erect barriers to protection for displaced women and their families.
We also talked about how it doesn’t have to be this way.
Safe, legal, and humane alternatives exist. Policies and programs must respect migrants’ and asylum seekers’ rights and comply with the law.
It’s not just women and girls fleeing violence who are at risk. Last month, I spoke alongside Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at a Feminist Forum on Climate Change. We discussed how climate change is not gender neutral; it exacerbates existing gender inequalities and discrimination, which makes women and girls more vulnerable to its effects.
For example, during drought, women and girls must often travel farther to collect water, which puts them at risk of sexual assault. Women and girls who haven’t learned to read will be less likely to access information in an emergency. And they are more likely to die in a disaster because, in many societies, they don’t gain lifesaving skills, such as learning to swim.
On International Day of the Girl, it’s incumbent upon us to remember that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Girls face many challenges, but they are resilient
Too many displaced girls lack access to education, skills-building opportunities, and economic resources that would protect them from risks like GBV, child marriage, and early motherhood. Such challenges prevent them from reaching their full potential, to the detriment of not only themselves, but their communities and the wider world.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. Displaced girls are resilient. I’ve met many of them, and they are truly inspiring. If they’re afforded the opportunities they deserve — and that are their right — they will not only survive, they will thrive.
And there are things we can do to make this a reality.
Putting girls at the center of humanitarian response
Displaced girls are so often overlooked that simply framing solutions with girls at the center makes a tremendous difference.
To better respond to adolescent girls’ unique needs and capacities, WRC worked with humanitarian organizations to gain a deeper understanding of how girls experience crises and to inform tailored and girl-focused humanitarian programs and services.
We talk directly with girls to learn what works and what doesn’t, then we partner with local organizations to design unique projects to meet girls’ needs and to protect their rights. We work with communities to ensure that girls are empowered with what they need to succeed, and are also supported to achieve their full potential.
We know that investing in programs and services like these help advance gender equality — for girls as well as women — and that they can work in even the most complex settings. We just need to make a commitment to make this critical investment.
Making safe spaces for women and girls
Based on our field research, we know that safe spaces for women and girls in humanitarian settings are essential to helping displaced women and girls rebuild their lives. Safe spaces, which are off limits to men and boys, offer a range of programs and services, including sexual and reproductive health care, gender-based violence prevention and care, psychological counseling, and skills training.
They afford women and girls opportunities that were often unavailable to them before fleeing their homes. When families understand that the spaces truly are safe, they may let their daughters attend activities where they can get critical information and access services, as well as meet their peers.
In Cox’s Bazar, home to almost one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, WRC talked with women who’d met in safe spaces in the camp and created women-led organizations, including one that is seeking justice for the women in their community through the International Criminal Court.
Access to lifesaving reproductive health care
During conflict and crises, health services and support systems are often unavailable, resulting in unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and dangerous pregnancy complications. In fact, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for displaced adolescent girls.
For 30 years, WRC has been at the forefront of efforts to make sure that essential lifesaving reproductive health care services are available at the very beginning of a conflict or crisis and throughout the longer-term humanitarian response. These services are designed to prevent and respond to sexual violence; prevent excess maternal and newborn death and disease; and reduce HIV transmission.
Climate change and natural disasters
As I mentioned above, women and girls are more vulnerable than boys and men to the effects of climate change and natural disasters. For example, 90 percent of those killed in a cyclone in Bangladesh and 80 percent of those who died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami were women and girls.
We need to make sure that displaced women are part of emergency preparedness initiatives and decision-making affecting their communities. Only when women and girls participate at national and community levels can they help devise effective risk mitigation strategies and climate change solutions that build stronger and more resilient communities.
It’s clear that we have a way to go to get it right for displaced girls. We’ve made some good progress, but there is unfinished business. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and prioritize gender equality across humanitarian settings, including by raising the paltry amount of humanitarian funding allocated to gender equality programming.
We know what to do. Why are we waiting?