In double jeopardy: adolescent girls and disasters

Disasters, Emergencies, Gender, Humanitarian

On the International Day of the Girl Child Tess Dico-Young welcomes the findings from a new report by Plan International on the need to better address the needs of adolescent girls in humanitarian response.

In 2009, following the devastation of Cyclone Aila in Bangladesh, Oxfam WASH staff noticed that  women and girls were not bathing regularly due to lack of privacy on the embankments. They also were suffering from skin and eye infections caused by using contaminated pond water for bathing.  After consulting the women and girls, a hand pump and a screened enclosure was provided for bathing and the pond was cleaned by the families as part of a ‘cash for work’ scheme.

Humanitarian programmes often aim to reach the most vulnerable of those affected, including children and women, but a new report by Plan International shows that one of the most vulnerable groups – teenage girls – is often missed in these interventions. In part this is because they fall between the two recognised and targeted categories of women and children.

“Short-term coping strategies can impact on a girl’s wellbeing, education and health for the rest of her life”

Such an oversight is shocking, particularly because adolescent girls are some of the most affected by unsafe environments and negative actions taken by families desperate to survive. These include child and forced marriage, pulling children out of school, and transactional sex for food or money, all of which exacerbate pre-existing discrimination and human rights violations for girls. What’s more – the effects of these short-term coping strategies can last well beyond the end of an
emergency, impacting on a girl’s wellbeing, education and health for the rest of her life and preventing her from realising her basic human rights.

The early emergency response context is highly complex. Humanitarian agencies are faced with the “tyranny of the urgent” which can result in the qualitative dimension – such as gender sensitive programme design – being pushed down the agenda. Under the pressure to act urgently, humanitarian agencies can be forced to deliver a “one size fits all” model that limits women’s ability to manage these needs on their own. This is even more problematic in view of the fact
that pre-existing gender inequalities are exacerbated during a crisis with women and girls struggling to meet their basic needs under extreme conditions.

Girls being taught in a tent in the grounds of Hashim-e Barat High School for Girls, Afghanistan. Credit: Louise Hancock/OxfamRapid onset emergencies often do not allow women and girls to even pick up an extra pair of clothes before having to leave home. Displacement in large camps with new groups of people most often without any screened facilities for
sanitation affecting the safety and the personal health of women and girls.

Plan’s ‘Because I am a Girl’ report highlights the voices of adolescent girls in emergencies, arguing that listening to their perspectives and engaging them as actors in disaster risk reduction and humanitarian responses will help ensure that their rights and their needs are met in disasters. When asked what they want and need in a response, girls consistently prioritise education
and protection
, yet humanitarian actors can find it hard to secure the necessary funding  for this kind of work  and on average receive less than half the funding requested.

We are pleased to see that Plan’s report recommendations are aligned to Oxfam’s existing principles.

Plan’s report recommendations

  1. Consulting adolescent girls in all stages and all sectors related to disaster preparedness and response, to actively promote their dignity and empowerment. Again, recalling our experience from the Oxfam WASH intervention following Cyclone Aila, we recognised here that young and adolescent girls were extremely vulnerable to various forms of violence in the emergency situation and worked towards providing suitably designed toilets for boys and girls promoting safety, privacy and dignity.
  2. Training and mobilising women to work in emergency response teams. Oxfam’s 2004 Tsunami response in India ensured they do not decrease women’s status and empowerment: non-traditional skills training by some NGOs, such as training in masonry, hand pump repairing, and running a courier business, have on the one hand, challenged the norms of gender division in tasks in labour and service markets, and on the other, raised their esteem in the eyes of both their husbands, children, and the community at large.
  3. Providing targeted services for adolescent girls in the core areas of education, protection and sexual and reproductive health. Following Cylcone Aila, Oxfam and Save the Children worked together to provide each child friendly space and school with a toilet with separate sections for girls and boys, with a bucket for hand washing inside each. The girl’s toilet had a privacy screen as well as a slab for washing menstrual cloth. Hand pumps were installed outside to provide water. All school latrines were of the “off-set type,” with latrine
    superstructures located away from the latrine pits and connected by a plastic pipe for increased safety and ease of maintenance.

  4. Including funding for protection against gender-based violence in the first phase of emergency response. It is important to ask women and girls how they think their protection could be enhanced. When we asked this question in Haiti in 2010, as part of Oxfam’s earthquake response, women requested ‘night pots’ as they were afraid of using latrines at night. As part of Oxfam’s response to the 2004 tsunami, solar powered torches were provided in Aceh, so that women and children could move around the camp at night in greater security
  5. Collecting sex and age disaggregated data and other social inclusion factors where relevant, to show the needs of adolescent girls and inform programme planning. Oxfam partner organisations responding to flooding in Mexico in 2010, collected, analysed and reported data disaggregated by sex, age and indigeneity, the latter being an identity factor relevant to the power dynamics of that context.

Now is an excellent time to review humanitarian and development practice in order to meet the needs of this vulnerable group. The Millennium Development Goals and the Hyogo Framework for Action are both set to be reformulated in the run-up to 2015. And even though guidelines and standards exist to ensure adolescent girls are reached, they are rarely met or implemented. 

As a humanitarian and development community, we need to put gender equality inalienably at the centre of our practice.

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Main picture:  Cousins Rebecca and Mariam in Satkhira Bangladesh June 2009, one week after Cyclone Aila. Credit: Mahmud/Oxfam

Do you have experience on gender sensitive programming in emergencies? Share your views in the comments below.

Author: Tess Dico Young
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.