Adolescent Girls: Catalysts of Change

Sabin Muzaffar speaks to Holly G Atkinson and Judith Bruce about the force behind their collaborative work “Adolescent Girls, Human Rights and the Expanding Climate Emergency.”

The impact of climate change on gender can hardly be ignored.

Realizing the stakes, countries, NGOs and scientists the world over are now coming together in not only putting an emphasis on adapting to the impact of climate change but also in striving to develop solutions to the issue of climate change.

More recently, there have been concerted efforts in adopting a more gender-sensitive approach to solution-finding. Researchers still believe that such action plans have yet to focus on an essentially vulnerable group, i.e. adolescent girls.

In a groundbreaking article titled “Adolescent Girls, Human Rights and the Expanding Climate Emergency”, writers Holly G Atkinson and Judith Bruce comment, “Among the billions of people at increased risk are adolescents (10- to 19-year-olds), who account for 1 in 5 people in the world, or about 1.2 billion. The vast majority – 90 percent – of adolescents live in developing countries (including China), and approximately 510 million of this group are girls. The poorest adolescent girls living in the poorest communities – roughly more than 200 million girls living in households in the bottom two wealth quintiles – are at special risk for being deleteriously affected by climate change. Nonetheless, adolescent girls are not currently a specifically targeted, high-risk group in humanitarian relief efforts during emergencies, nor are they specifically engaged as a population whose involvement could advance national adaptation plans to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

The article also reveals that “Although all suffer in humanitarian emergencies, there are important differences in the experience by sex and age. A study of data from 141 countries over the period from 1981 to 2002 found that women and girls have relatively higher mortality rates than men and boys in natural disasters in societies where women have few socioeconomic rights and their economic status compared with men is lower. The bigger the disaster (as approximated by the number of deaths relative to population size), the larger the effect is on the observed gender gap in life expectancy (which includes both the immediate effects of the disaster and its subsequent impacts). For example, 65 percent of those who died in Ache Province, Indonesia, in the 2004 tsunami were female. These ‘excess’ female deaths have been attributed to the exacerbation of previously existing patterns of discrimination/devaluation that render women and girls more vulnerable than men and boys, including disparities in access to information and economic resources; social norms and roles, which restrict females’ physical mobility and limit their personal freedom of choice before, during, and after disasters; as well as resource shortages and the temporary breakdown of social order.”

The poorest adolescent girls living in the poorest communities – roughly more than 200 million girls living in households in the bottom two wealth quintiles – are at special risk for being deleteriously affected by climate change. Nonetheless, adolescent girls are not currently a specifically targeted, high-risk group in humanitarian relief efforts during emergencies, nor are they specifically engaged as a population whose involvement could advance national adaptation plans to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The article goes on to say that “In armed conflicts, women and children are disproportionately targeted and constitute the majority of victims. Gender-based violence, including sexual violence, increases as well. A 2015 report of the Secretary General of the UN Security Council on conflict-related sexual violence, which focuses on 19 country situations, covers 13 conflict settings, five post-conflict countries and one additional situation of concern… for which credible information is available, highlighted that in 2014, sexual violence against adolescent girls continued to be a disturbing trend.”

Talking exclusively to Ananke, Senior Associate and Policy Analyst of the Population Council, Judith Bruce explains, “We have two broad conditions in the world, which are then exacerbated by anything that brings scarcity. We have girls in emergencies where you have one bubble that is climate change and the other is conflict. You have the seasonal flooding such as those in Bangladesh, then you have natural disasters; for instance, earthquakes, as well as infectious health emergencies such as the slow version of HIV and the fast version of Ebola. All these, in effect, result in scarcity. The scarcity is mediated mainly at the household level.”

Further, she says, “Girls in emergencies have a differential role compared to their male counterparts. Families need girls to quickly transition into being an adult in order to perform adult responsibilities.” In such situations, a girl’s sexuality as well as her labor are assumed advantages. “A girl’s labor, sexuality and fertility are all put in one box, and when an economic exchange in terms of a child marriage and dowry does happen, there is no benefit for the girl. She has been traded off, and is only a trading item!” says Judith.

Elaborating some more, she says, “I have been to Sierra Leone recently and from what I have seen about 75 percent of the girls will become single mothers. In countries like Liberia, this has been happening for a long time. The difference is that women who came before them had direct access to land so may be it wasn’t an equitable situation compared to the males, but population growth and the unequal control of natural resources now has driven these females to find alternative modes (of getting by].”

It is certainly not untrue to claim that humanitarian crises, be it a conflict or a natural disaster, have paved way for an alternative market based on sexual trade and economy. It is important to note that women have a disproportionate share of responsibilities of both young and old dependents. “Females have less access to the modern economy so they are likely to depend more on sexual exchanges than they did in the past,” Judith discloses.

Different forms of crises generate different types of responses. Instead of considering adolescent girls an asset and extra helping hand, the common mindset is short term. “People don’t have a long reach model of economic exchange whereby instead of thinking of each girl as an extra hand and an asset, she is traded off as a child bride and thought of as an additional mouth to feed. When you have a crisis, you begin exploring your options even if they are not viable in the long term. You start making short-term decisions. Right now, we have drug cartels in South America who are switching from drugs to human trafficking because females are a ‘renewable’ resource.”

In countries like Liberia, this has been happening for a long time. The difference is that women who came before them had direct access to land so may be it wasn’t an equitable situation compared to the males, but population growth and the unequal control of natural resources now has driven these females to find alternative modes (of getting by].”

Delving deep into the issue impact of humanitarian crises on girls, Judith points out, “There are many reasons for child marriages – the key driver is the economic trade which is primarily based on sexual exchange while among other reasons is also a family’s honor and fear of losing it in times of crises through acts of violence including rape, etc.; considering the already very narrow position of the family reputation: they don’t have money, food or a place to live. So now we are dealing with a sexual marriage market and the labor market where the family is poised to earn more through a sexual trade-off as opposed to selling vegetables or handmade clothes.”

Girls in Emergencies Collaborative (GIE)

In a bid to help raise awareness about the plight of adolescent girls especially in humanitarian crises regions, an international non-profit NGO, The Population Council, brought together visionaries and formed the “Girls in Emergencies Collaborative” two years ago.

According to the entity, it is a “group representing several major emergency response organizations that focuses on the adolescent girl because evidence reveals that she not only faces a multiplicity of risks during a crisis, but also because she remains invisible, unprotected, and unengaged, particularly in the crucial first 45 days of a crisis.”

A representative of the group, and speaking exclusively with Ananke alongside Judith, is Holly G Atkinson, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine in Mount Sinai Hospital USA. She says, “The Population Council [an NGO that conducts biomedical, social science, and public health research; helping build research capacities in developing countries] has been instrumental in bringing together a group of individuals into a part of the humanitarian community two years ago in December. Called the ‘Girls in Emergencies Collaborative’, we had our first meeting about girls in areas of emergency.”

In Holly’s opinion, there is a lot of rhetoric around the well-being of girls, particularly in humanitarian emergencies but “it is becoming an empty brand. There is a lot of talk about it but not much is being done on the ground, or such initiatives are lower than the data warrants. So we want to address this issue surrounding adolescent girls primarily those in humanitarian crises where their basic human rights are being violated.”

In December 2015, the GIE met to determine their milestones, achievements and a new action plan.  “In December, we talked about how far we have come, where we have to go and what needs to be done on the ground. The two-page statement agenda [titled Statement And Action Agenda From the Girls in Emergencies Collaborative, an expert consensus document published previously) is really the bottom-line of what we have been working on for girls in humanitarian crises areas,” reveals Holly. “What is stunning, comparing the 10 years between 1980 and 1990 to the last 10 years between 2000 and 2010, 80 percent have been climate-related events. And what the data suggests is that adolescent girls are a particularly high risk group. Although they are not considered or targeted as such – data shows that they are not only at a high risk but are also under-engaged.”

Pinpointing the root cause of this vicious circle of abject poverty and crises, she further adds, “Adolescent girls face enormous challenges in the realization of their rights because the barriers they face are embedded in the social systems which are deeply discriminatory and systematically exploit them. So we see that emergency situations intensify girls’ precarious positions. And we can call on the data provided to say that girls have a higher mortality rate in emergency situations, and fall victim to discriminatory practices such as child marriage, which also trigger gender-based violence, and their education suffers in proportion with boys. And what this is, unfortunately, is a perfect storm of human rights violations that girls are facing.”

Talking about the Statement and Action Agenda of the Collaborative, Holly explains, “In our paper, the hypothesis is that adolescent girls, especially in humanitarian crises, are being used as credit cards, irrespective of the fact that they are part of our future. Their fertility and sexuality, in particular, are expendable to their families and the community that depends upon them. So we are trying to bring this issue into the forefront. But we also want people to understand that these girls have tremendous untapped potential.”

Based on research and data, the group has developed a strategy that will not only create a support system but will also engage girls in relief and recovery processes. The actions include:

  • To identify and gather critical information about girls in the earliest days of an emergency when risks may be at the highest;
  • To develop specific and visible mechanisms that connect girls to basic human needs services and logistical support;
  • To engage girls in the relief and recovery process.

What the GIE clearly aims to achieve is to identify, geographically, where an emergency arises or a human rights violation occurs, and then develop preemptive ways to counter such situations.

In this respect, technology, specifically big data, data science and mobility can also play a big role to determine where violations and crises occur. “Technology can really offer a lot in terms of developing a social policy,” agrees Holly. “Data science and big data can make visible the invisible in global health. You imbibe big data to create a systems approach and an innovative social policy to really bring about a change.”

Tapping into adolescent girls’ potential has many benefits, though it is critical to protect these assets initially through identification, intervention and later deployment and working through crises.

GIE strives to engage girls in tasks, which they are able to own, enabling positive results. In their article, both Holly and Judith narrated the example of Sierra Leone Adolescent Girls Network that rolled out to 240 girls clubs stocked with solar-powered lanterns (which also charge phones and computers) to light meetings and “study halls” and incubate small green businesses. In Burkina Faso, girl-managed collective gardens provide essential nutrients for both their own use and serve as an adjunct source of income.

Data science and big data can make visible the invisible in global health. You imbibe big data to create a systems approach and an innovative social policy to really bring about a change.

“We were able to help them occupy newer space in the modern economy, where clean technology was leveraged. Such examples show us that it really is a win-win situation – we can introduce new tech while also presenting new kinds of work. But we need to support these girls who do not even want an incentive as most of them come together just to be with other girls of the same age,” concludes Judith.

Indeed, it is a changed scenario as far as a gender-sensitive approach to humanitarian crises and climate change is concerned. As Holly puts it, “We now see women calling for more gender sensitive participation. The gender action plan has yet to really focus on adolescent girls in the poorest, high risk regions of the world. But the upstart of this is that we have found tremendous potential in adolescent girls which is largely untapped and unrealized. And if we were to develop their capacity to take social and economic action, which are appropriate for their age as a recovery process, it will, in effect, be for the overall good of their families and the community.”

Judith Bruce pictured on the right, Holly G Atkinson is on the left.

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