Girl walking through debris

Typhoon Haiyan: girls now face threats to their safety

Two months on from the typhoon in the Philippines, Plan International’s work demonstrates why disaster responses must reflect the specific dangers girls in emergencies face.

Typhoon Haiyan turned millions of lives upside down and caused widespread chaos in the Philippines. But that's just the start - two months on and 3.2 million girls and women now face additional risks of violence, sexual exploitation, trafficking and rape in the wake of the disaster. That's why it's essential development organisations tailor their work for girls' unique needs.

Why girls are uniquely vulnerable

"It is a plain and simple truth that disasters reinforce, perpetuate and increase gender inequality," wrote Margareta Wahlstrom, the UN secretary-general's special representative for disaster risk reduction.

  • During periods of emergency, adolescent girls are especially vulnerable and need more than shelter, food, clean water and sanitation. They need specific aid tailored to the increased risks of child trafficking, sexual violence and threats to their safety.
  • "In previous emergencies in the Philippines, we've seen an increase in trafficking. People have used negative coping mechanisms to deal with the poverty that they're faced with once their assets have been wiped out," says Plan UK's head of advocacy and campaigns, Kerry Smith.

These negative coping mechanisms surface as people try to survive in a new environment. Emergencies exacerbate the challenges girls face, threatening their safety, health, education and ultimately, their future. The Plan team have therefore organised aid that will serve girls in the long term, as well as provide for their immediate needs.

Long-term investment in girls

Natural disasters cannot be predicted, but the response to them can be planned. Plan has designed its response in the Philippines with adolescent girls in mind and included them in planning from the start, resulting in effective, efficient and appropriate relief.

Working with girls is the way to make long-term improvements that will last. For years, Plan has been speaking to girls in the Philippines about their lives, their hopes for the future and what's holding them back. This meant that when Typhoon Haiyan hit, it had a strong understanding of, and a connection with, the millions of girls affected.

Plan knew that girls in the Philippines faced daily challenges including risk of trafficking and a lack of access to healthcare and education, and has been working with them to deal with these issues for years. Because of this, relationships with local authorities and a strong programme to combat child trafficking already existed in the areas most badly affected by the typhoon.

Engaging in this way makes all the difference. "It is that work done before - that preparedness in risk reduction, in working on issues of gender inequality and violence continuously - that helps address girls in such dark situations," adds Kerry.

Effective, locally appropriate aid for girls

Plan's previous work in the Philippines demonstrates the need for long-term investment to ensure that girls have the support they need before, during and after a disaster. Activities have included distributing leaflets about trafficking, re-establishing child protection services as quickly as possible, setting up safe spaces and making sure that toilets are placed in the right positions.

Appropriate social support is about knowing the girls, as Kerry explains: "There's a lot you can learn just by talking to girls about what they need and how they respond. We've had our adviser on adolescent girls in emergencies looking at our referral pathways for health services, in particular sexual and reproductive health services."

Through these specialist advisers, Plan has been providing extra care, such as private toilets in evacuation centres to ensure that girls are not at risk of infection or violence.

Planning for girls on a global scale

The approach Plan has taken aligns perfectly with principle number 5 of the Girl Declaration about planning global development solutions with even the most marginalised girls from the very beginning of a process.

"What's useful is that the Girl Declaration talks about the need for adolescent girls - in emergencies, in disaster settings - to be thought about," says Kerry. "We need to ensure we're supporting the most marginalised girls through one of the most vulnerable periods of their life cycles and make sure we're doing this prior to emergency situations as well as during them."

According to Kerry, planning for girls at the beginning means that they won't be left unprotected at the end. "By engaging now, by making people aware that this is one of those key moments where risk will increase, hopefully we will see in a few months that what you would expect to be a 10 per cent rise in trafficking doesn't happen."

Long-term solutions for girls in emergencies

What happens to a girl during times of disaster is directly related to wider attitudes to girls and it's those attitudes that need to change. By helping communities understand that girls have a rightful place on the development agenda, there is a proven opportunity to keep girls safer during natural disasters and emergencies.

Download Plan International's In Double Jeopardy: Adolescent Girls and Disasters to find out more