Adolescent girls face severe threats in crisis and conflict – and we must listen to them

Despite the prevalence of security threats facing adolescent girls in conflict and crisis contexts, write Katrina Lee-Koo and Eleanor Gordon, they are rarely engaged in efforts to identify or address these threats. This enables the continuation of high levels of violence against them, and compromises peace-building efforts

Adolescent girls can experience conflict and crises in unique and sometimes disproportionate ways. They face challenges posed by child, early and forced marriage (CEFM); access to education, sexual and reproductive health rights; and sexual and gender-based violence. Issues that target and impact adolescent girls do so in ways that are distinct from other groups.

Global and normative frameworks are beginning to recognise this. The Women, Peace and Security agenda and the Youth, Peace and Security agenda are among the frameworks that acknowledge the need to meaningfully consider age and gender in attempts to protect civilians and build inclusive peace after conflict. This work, and the attending scholarship, does much to promote the value of inclusive peace.

Issues that target and impact adolescent girls do so in ways that are distinct from other groups

Yet adolescent girls often fall between ‘women and girls’ and ‘children and adults’ in terms of humanitarian programming and in scholarship. Both sectors largely fail to recognise or address the specific needs of adolescent girls. Both also often ignore their potential role in broader peacebuilding and crisis recovery.

Security threats faced by adolescent girls

Our research engaged adolescent girls (aged 10–19) in four complex and protracted crises. These crisis contexts involved armed conflict, mass displacement and/or humanitarian and environmental crises. They spanned seven countries: the 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).

Age and gender intersect to create unique experiences of insecurity. This includes various forms of physical violence such as domestic violence, sexual violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, harassment and threats, and CEFM.

Often, this exposure to threats increases adolescent girls’ vulnerability to other threats. These threats penetrate every aspect of their lives – their homes, their schools, and the public spaces they frequent.

In terms of broader structural violence, their age and gender make adolescent girls especially likely to suffer certain problems; food insecurity, inability to access adequate healthcare or education, the burden of housework and other forms of care work. This is most pronounced where families in crisis contexts struggle to find resources to feed and sustain themselves. It is often girls who go without food or leave school to fulfil household or care tasks, or get married.

Early and forced marriage is often considered an appropriate response to economic insecurity and physical threat. It offers girls a form of protection and results in one less mouth to feed (or a bride price). But it renders the girl more vulnerable to a wide range of threats, including those associated with early childbirth, domestic violence, and economic insecurity. It also curtails opportunities for her to engage in public and political life, including peacebuilding. Consequently, the harm of early marriage is not just to herself but to her family and broader community.

Lack of inclusion in threat response

Despite the severity and prevalence of these unique experiences of insecurity, adolescent girls are rarely consulted or taken seriously by external actors engaged in designing or delivering programmes to respond to the needs of communities in these crisis contexts. This even applies to programmes explicitly designed to respond to the needs of adolescent girls.

Even programmes explicitly designed to benefit adolescent girls often fail to take them seriously

This is especially surprising given the growing recognition in policy and scholarship that responses to security challenges are more effective when they are inclusive of the diversity of beneficiaries and responsive to their specific needs. Tokenistic, one-off or superficial engagement does not suffice. But when programmes meaningfully and actively engage those whose security needs they seek to address, they are more likely to be successful. This becomes especially critical when certain groups may have the most pronounced security needs or may face unique security threats.

Inclusive approaches acknowledge that those who experience insecurity are experts on their own experiences. Such approaches also recognise the value of context-specific knowledge, ownership of programmes and their outcomes, and the empowerment and confidence that inclusion and ownership can bring. Critically, inclusion also has the potential to advance transformational change. It does this by ensuring that access to decision-making is more equitably distributed between the secure and the insecure.

A missed opportunity

Lack of inclusion compromises the likelihood of effectively addressing the serious security threats that adolescent girls in crisis contexts face. There is, simultaneously, a missed opportunity to use the skills, experiences and capacities that adolescent girls often possess. These can be invaluable in efforts to build peace, security and sustainable development.

Passion, selflessness, and hope stand out in adolescent girls' perspectives

Many adolescent girls in these contexts adhere to values that are often in short supply but critical to peacebuilding and crisis response endeavours. Throughout our research, adolescent girls repeatedly articulated a commitment to others, often even at the expense of themselves; a pride in helping others (such as by teaching family members to read and write); an eagerness to contribute to building a better society (and a passion for realising the opportunities education can bring in this regard); and a sense of optimism, even in the direst of circumstances.

Despite the brutality and excesses of violence and other forms of insecurity facing adolescent girls in conflict and crisis contexts, it is this commitment, passion, selflessness and hope that stands out from the research we have conducted. If harnessed, it could prove critical to recovery for the affected countries, communities and individuals.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Katrina Lee-Koo Katrina Lee-Koo Associate Professor of International Relations, Monash University More by this author
photograph of Eleanor Gordon Eleanor Gordon Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Monash University More by this author

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