Bringing girls in crisis out from the shadows

International Day of the Girl is a day of celebration. But girls can be some of the hardest-to-reach people in the world – especially amid a humanitarian crisis. That’s why the best way to celebrate, say Amy Spindler of Mercy Corps and Omar Robles of Women’s Refugee Commission, is by actively finding the millions of displaced and overlooked adolescent girls worldwide.

Two years ago, when Hana* was 11, she was a playful, light-hearted student. Before she and her family fled Syria, she was attending secondary school in a country that boasted a pre-war enrolment rate of 98 per cent for girls. She had her future ahead of her.

Now at 13, Hana lives in a bustling border town in Turkey. She’s more reserved and increasingly isolated from friends. Hana lives with her uncles now, and because they don’t have time to walk her to and from school, she’s not allowed to go.

Displacement shouldn’t limit the potential or deflate the aspirations of the 250,000 adolescent girls like Hana who have fled Syria. Hana and her peers deserve a better story – it’s their right and our responsibility.

Reaching girls like Hana

We must start by being more proactive. It takes effort to reach Hana and others like her.

Girls under 18 account for one in five marriages among female Syrian refugees.

Crises don’t create the social and gender norms that reinforce women’s subordinate roles. This dynamic was already established and travels with girls. Girls like Hana are sometimes expected to become the family housekeeper: cooking, cleaning and taking care of siblings. Some are forced into risky behaviour to earn money. Without friends or an education, their worlds shrink and their futures become more desolate.

Some girls are forced to marry and are expected to have children while still just children themselves. Today, girls under 18 account for one in five marriages among female Syrian refugees. Rather than protect girls from poverty and sexual violence, child marriage further isolates them.

If anything, flight intensifies the challenges when well-meaning family members – like Hana’s uncles – isolate girls within their homes, shielding them from real threats, but also from programmes that could benefit them.

To truly assist girls in displacement, we need to approach emergencies as opportunities and ensure that these girls get the information, resources and relationships to overcome the crisis and to realise their potential. With humanitarian responses increasingly taking place outside the confines of camps, in cities where they can be easily overlooked, intention becomes critical.

When we identify the most isolated and vulnerable girls we can more effectively meet their needs and catalyse change in their lives.

Shining a light on girls

Mercy Corps and the Women’s Refugee Commission are field-testing straightforward steps to rapidly identify and reach adolescent girls in emergency settings, using mobile technology to map available services within a defined geographic area.

In Turkey, we applied our new approach to visit 1,317 households in just five days. Of these households, 43 per cent answered our questions and, from them, we found that 96 per cent of the girls who are not in school are Syrian. The majority of them live far from community resources, and there are a limited number of public spaces where adolescent girls can safely gather.

This challenges us to rethink how we reach those most isolated.

Passive operations largely reach the girls who already have the self-esteem to take advantage of available programmes. We must be more responsive and accessible to alladolescent girls within a community.

When we do this, we’ll do more than make good on our promise to protect girls’ rights: we’ll catalyse the potential within Hana and her peers to overcome displacement.

Recently, Hana has been making new friends and attending classes supported by Mercy Corps. And she says her mother and grandmother have promised that she will not be married until after she turns 18.

We’re striving to make Hana’s story the norm – not by 2030, but today, the International Day of the Girl. It’s our responsibility.

*Name has been changed to protect her identity

Amy Spindler is an adolescent girl and youth advisor at Mercy Corps. Omar Robles is a senior programme officer for adolescents in emergencies at Women's Refugee Commission.