Issue 60 - Article 13

Adolescent girls in emergencies: a neglected priority

February 12, 2014
Jean Casey and Kelly Hawrylyshyn
A girl makes her way through windswept Mentao refugee camp near Djibo, Burkina Faso

As part of the primary research for the State of the World’s Girls 2013 report, The full report, entitled In Double Jeopardy: Adolescent Girls and Disasters, is available at  Plan conducted an online survey of humanitarian practitioners and decision-makers. The purpose of the survey was to provide an indication of what is actually happening in humanitarian response settings, with specific reference to adolescent girls. Respondents were asked to express their opinions of present practice and how it might be improved. The survey findings provide an illuminating insight into how response interventions are failing adolescent girls affected by disasters. They also provide an opportunity for practitioners to share practical suggestions for how different sectors can better address these failings. The survey questions were framed around the Sphere Project’s minimum standards and a set of good practice actions devised by an internal working group specialising in adolescent girls in emergency response settings. The Sphere Project, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, 2011.

The survey had a total of 318 respondents, 71% female and 29% male. The majority of the respondents, 61%, came from international NGOs and 22% from UN agencies. Of the 54% of respondents who indicated they had undergone gender training, two-thirds were women and one-third men. Participants’ gender training had direct implications for how they responded to the survey: those who had completed gender training gave more genderaware responses than those who had not undergone training. Geographical coverage was worldwide, with many respondents specialising in more than one region and representing all the targeted clusters (WASH, Protection, Shelter, Health and Education).

WASH cluster responses

Although WASH interventions receive the highest proportion of humanitarian funding, Global Humanitarian Assistance, Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2013,  key protection risks that lead to increased exposure to GBV and sexual violence in IDP camps and shelters are not being adequately addressed. Only 16% of respondents said that lighting to and from shower blocks in IDP camps and shelters was in place, and for latrines it was 21%. Provision of locks for latrines and showers is not the norm according to 60% and 78% of respondents respectively. Given that women and girls, particularly when menstruating, often use facilities after dark for more privacy and to avoid embarrassment, the lack of prioritisation of lighting and locks as part of these emergency services can greatly increase the risk of gender-based violence in unsafe humanitarian settings.

Protection: GBV-focused cluster responses

The survey found that the participation of women in needs assessment teams varied considerably. For example, under the child protection cluster a third of respondents said that usually there were no women in their post-disaster assessment teams. According to respondents in the camp management cluster, more than half of assessment teams lack female representation, despite the fact that the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) protection standards stipulate that assessment teams should have equal numbers of men and women. The small number of women in needs assessment teams correlates strongly with high rates of gender-blind humanitarian response programmes. Male domination of the humanitarian sector is being tackled through interventions such as proactive female recruitment and investing in building the capacity of local staff, but the challenge remains.

Considering the high incidence of sexual assault, violation and rape of adolescent girls in camp settings, UNHCR, Action against Sexual and Gender Based Violence: An Updated Strategy, UNHCR Division of International Protection, 2011,  the findings regarding the provision of humanitarian services to address GBV in emergencies are alarming. Only roughly onethird of survey respondents claimed that their emergency contraception and post-service protection response met World Health Organisation (WHO) standards. This figure rose to 41% among those who had undergone gender training. Responses to the survey illustrate the exposure of adolescent girls in humanitarian settings: only 39% of interventions prioritised the provision of safe spaces for girls, and half of GBV interventions are not targeting men.

We also asked respondents to indicate which of a number of actions had been implemented in recent emergencies to address the specific risk of one particular form of GBV, child marriage, in the aftermath of disasters. These included gathering evidence, monitoring increased incidence of child marriage, initiating strategies to prevent it and consultation with adolescent girls. Out of a total of 208 responses, 41% indicated that some strategies to address child marriage had been part of the emergency response, while 38% indicated that it had not been considered at all. The responses highlight a lack of general awareness of how to tackle the issue, despite growing evidence of an increase in child marriage. Weathering the Storm: Adolescent Girls and Climate Change, Plan, 2011.  As child marriage is not currently addressed in the IASC GBV guidelines, IASC, Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings, 2005.  there is a lack of clarity around its cluster responsibility, and it tends to fall between the Child Protection and GBV clusters.

Camp Management responses

Sex and age disaggregation is a core standard in responding to the needs of vulnerable people in Sphere, and in the IASC Guidelines. Yet around half of the 232 respondents said that they are not collating this data in humanitarian settings. Minimum standards also stipulate that women and girls should be consulted, but less than half of respondents reported gender equity in their needs assessment teams. This has a direct implication for women and girls reporting incidents or fears of GBV or sexual assaults. Similarly, the survey results indicate that group consultations with adolescent girls are uncommon, despite the specification in the Sphere standards (Core Standard 1) that the affected population ‘should be engaged in a meaningful consultation process regarding decisions that affect their lives, without creating additional risks. This is one way of assisting them to assert their rights’.

Education responses

Education was highlighted as a key intervention protecting girls in emergency situations. Although 72% of respondents said that their response operations ensure equal access for girls and boys to education, only 34% stated that security measures were in place to safeguard education services in emergencies from GBV risks. The provision of a safe learning environment for displaced girls and boys needs to address GBV risks in regard to access routes, content and messaging of education services, and the monitoring of teachers’ performance and behaviour, as well as that of students. Going to school, or taking part in less formal learning spaces, means that adolescent girls can access information about health, protection and rights. This information in turn can help them better negotiate the situation they find themselves in and equip them to pursue better outcomes for their lives.

Overall, the survey findings indicate that, although guidelines and minimum standards are in place, in response situations they are not being followed. This is to the detriment of the people they are designed to protect – particularly adolescent girls, who remain largely invisible in response interventions.


Commitments made at the High level Summit on Violence Against Women and Girls in Emergencies, See  hosted by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in November 2013, are a welcome step towards ensuring that the humanitarian sector stops making bad situations worse for adolescent girls. Positive changes in practice by leading humanitarian donors (ECHO, the UN Consolidated Appeal and DFID, among others), making use of the Gender Marker The IASC Gender Marker codes, on a 0–2 scale, whether a humanitarian project is designed well enough to ensure that women/girls and men/boys will benefit equally from it, or that it will advance gender equality in another way. If the project has the potential to contribute to gender equality, the marker predicts whether the results are likely to be limited or significant. Since 2012, the Gender Marker has been required in all CAPs and in selected ERFs and CHFs.  in funding decisions, are long overdue. Research carried out by Plan demonstrates that many humanitarian practitioners agree that protecting women and girls from violence, including sexual exploitation and abuse, sexual assault, forced marriage and trafficking, remains a neglected priority in life-saving responses. We all know that guidelines to address GBV in humanitarian settings exist – and are being ignored – and that more and more adolescent girls and women are exposed to GBV risks. While many do not dispute that women and girls’ safety, protection and dignity should not be compromised in emergency settings, when they are most vulnerable, the question remains: will the humanitarian community as a whole commit its financial resources, operational staff and management to put the five steps above into practice?

Jean Casey is Lead Researcher and Project Coordinator for the State of the World’s Girls 2013 report. Kelly Hawrylyshyn is Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Resilience Advisor at Plan UK.


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