Issue 75 - Article 11

Raising the visibility of IDPs: a case study of gender- and age-specific vulnerabilities among Ethiopian IDP adolescents

May 31, 2019
Nicola Jones, Workneh Yadete and Kate Pincock

Over 1.39 million people were displaced in Ethiopia in 2018 – more than anywhere else globally during the same period. See Many were displaced along the Oromia and Somali regional border, where tensions over the allocation of pasture and water resources are thought to have contributed to a sudden escalation of ethnic violence in late 2017 and over the first half of 2018. Since the violence began, however, there has been major political transformation in the country, spearheaded by new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. A new regional president has been appointed in Somali region, and a Ministry of Peace has been established in part to raise the visibility of the problems facing internally displaced people (IDPs), including the need for humanitarian assistance and the heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence. As of January 2019, 3.19 million people were internally displaced in Ethiopia, with 30% in acute need. Most of IDPs and returnees are in Oromia (47%), Somali (32%) and Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s (SNNP) (13%) regions (according to the OCHA Ethiopia Humanitarian Needs Overview 2019).

This article draws on findings from Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) see longitudinal research study in Ethiopia to explore the gender- and age-specific vulnerabilities adolescents affected by internal displacement experience, and to identify entry-points for strengthening programming, monitoring and evaluation. The research draws on qualitative research with young people and their families displaced from Somali region in the last quarter of 2017, and now living in East Hararghe Zone in Oromia region.

Adolescent-specific vulnerabilities

Globally, it is estimated that half of those displaced by conflict are under 18 years of age. E. Ferris and R. Winthrop, Education and Displacement: Assessing Conditions for Refugees and Internally Displaced People Affected by Conflict (Washington DC: Brookings Institute, 2011). Much of the literature stereotypes youth, with young women framed as ‘at risk’ and young men ‘a risk to others’ in ways that have problematic implications for programming with young IDPs. R. Evans, C. Lo Forte and E. McAslan Fraser, UNHCR’s Engagement with Displaced Youth: A Global Review (Geneva: UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service, 2013). Our findings highlighted that there were highly varied experiences among adolescent girls and boys, with young people both as targets and perpetrators of violence during the initial displacement, and involved in different ways in the armed defence of their communities.

During the initial violence in Somali region, adolescent boys reported facing serious physical threats. As one 17-year-old boy from Community I in East Haraghe noted: ‘There was ethnic conflict between Oromo and Somali. We were displaced because we are Oromo. They took all the property we had. We faced serious physical attack, many were killed’. An 18-year- old girl displaced from the same community highlighted that adolescent boys were often specifically targeted: ‘They kept younger and stronger boys together. They took ten of them out. They took them to an open latrine pit. They forced them to walk through it one by one. When they refused to do so, they threw them into it with their face down and killed them one by one’.

Adolescent IDPs in Batu, East Shewa, Ethiopia. © NathalieBertrams/GAGE 2019.

A 13-year-old boy emphasised that the violence often involved peer-to-peer attacks: ‘I was so shocked when I observed that the adolescent boys from one ethnic group attacked their peers from another ethnic group. They attacked them with stones … These adolescents were beaten brutally’.

Violence has also directly impacted adolescents in the host community. Organised groups of adolescent boys and young men, locally called ‘qeerroos’, were reported to be playing a central role in protecting the community in the absence of broader state-provided security. As a female local government leader noted: ‘Young individuals are trying to protect the community going to the border, though they do not have guns. They put their life at risk of death to protect the community. You do not get the kebele [community] administrator or youth in the community … The government brings the military to the border, but they have not stopped the fight’.

While violence was a central theme in adolescents’ and caregivers’ accounts of their experiences during displacement, limited access to livelihoods, social protection and education were also repeatedly underscored as major challenges. This resonates with UNHCR’s findings on its engagement with displaced youth, where many described their lives as in a ‘state of limbo’. Evans et al., UNHCR’s Engagement with Displaced Youth A year on from their displacement, adolescents in affected communities in East Hararghe complained that they were still in temporary shelter and had been given very limited support. As one 13-year-old boy noted: ‘We still live in the shelter. Many of the displaced people also live in [a] similar way. This is because of shortage of money to construct the houses. The government gives us only food grain but not money’. Older adolescent boys participating in a focus group discussion highlighted similar concerns.

Some have been compelled to engage in paid work within the host community, often on exploitative terms. One 16-year-old boy noted that ‘Adolescents in the host communities are working on their own farmlands, while we are becoming their servants just for the sake of earning some money. Most of us don’t have our farmland, even if we have a farmland, we don’t have oxen to plough the lands. That is why we become paid labourers and servants of better-off people. We have little opportunity to work and improve our livelihoods’. For some, meeting economic needs was coming at the cost of school attendance. While school can help to promote young people’s psychosocial wellbeing, leading to improved resilience and post-conflict stabilisation and recovery Ferris, E. and Winthrop, R. Education and Displacement: Assessing Conditions for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons Affected by Conflict, 2010 (  and UNHCR’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement OCHA, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (New York: United Nations: 2001). underscore that national authorities have a responsibility to ensure free compulsory primary education is available to internally displaced children, a number of respondents in our research highlighted that there was inadequate support to make schooling a reality for the most vulnerable. One 17-year-old boy explained: ‘We sacrifice our schooling for income-generating work’. Another noted: ‘I dropped out from grade 8 due to the violence in Somali region. After I came back here [Community I], I restarted my education but I dropped out again due to lack of support from government’.

Gender-specific vulnerabilities

Evidence suggests that displaced women and girls may be further marginalised as a result of pre-existing gendered inequalities, including heightened risk of gender-based violence. C. Cazabat, Sex Matters: A Gender Perspective on Internal Displacement (Geneva: IDMC, 2019). A number of factors contribute to these risks, including human rights violations during displacement, minority status, lack of access to water, food or fuel, lack of social support and extreme poverty. R. Asgary, E. Emery and M. Wong, ‘Systematic Review of Prevention and Management Strategies for the Consequences of Gender-based Violence in Refugee Settings’, International Health, 5, 2. Our findings suggest that sexual violence against young women and girls was widespread during displacement. As an NGO key informant from Community I in East Hararghe emphasised: ‘We did an assessment among the displaced that live in [neighbouring districts]. We observed a lot of abuses there against females who have been raped by many males … A girl who was 11 years old raped by many males, after the rape they cut her breast and sex organ with a sharp object. She has been getting treatment at the hospital’. In a similar vein, a social worker from the same community noted that, in some cases, girls and women had been subject to sexual torture: ‘[They] committed a very huge crime on our girls and women in the region. After having sex many times they inserted battery to her genital organ. There are females whose breast was cut. I have seen many women whose breasts were cut’.

Participants in a community mapping exercise highlighted the heightened risks that adolescent married girls faced: ‘There was an Oromo girl who was married to a Somali man. She was pregnant. He removed the child and burned it and sent her away. He did this because she was going to take the child back with her’. Girls involved in domestic work and without family members to help them escape were especially vulnerable. See also Asgary, Emery and Wong, ‘Systematic Review’. A 16- year-old girl from Community I explained: ‘While I was working in their house, the lady of the house came to kill me. Then I hid myself and left the house. Even I didn’t take my materials when I left. I asked her for my salary but she refused me. Then I closed her door from the outside because she prepared a knife to stab me’. Similarly, a 15-year-old girl recalled her experience as follows: ‘I left because of the war. I heard that she called her daughter and discussed to harm. They slaughtered people in front of me. For example, if you have “sayiba” [house maid] you tell each other to slaughter her’.

Implications for programming

Overall, our findings from Ethiopia point to a number of priority actions for programming to better support adolescent IDPs and address their gender- and age-specific vulnerabilities.

First, it is critical for the international community to advocate for and monitor the extent to which IDPs are provided with adequate support, including social assistance to cover food, shelter, access to healthcare and education-related costs for IDPs in camps as well as in host communities. This is especially important given that, unlike refugee populations, for whom there are clear mandates and lines of accountability, in the case of IDPs a ‘cluster approach’ has been implemented in which various humanitarian actors, including the UN, governments, ICRC and NGOs come together to address gaps rather than to deliver a coherent and comprehensive action plan.

Second, this same cluster of humanitarian agencies needs to ensure that the specific age- and gender-related needs of adolescent IDPs, including those identified in the UNHCR Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement,  OCHA, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. are adequately addressed. This includes support for adolescents to return to education, given that schooling can help to promote young people’s psychosocial wellbeing, contributing to improved resilience and post-conflict stabilisation and recovery. For older, out- of-school adolescents, providing credit services and business skills training can also be critical in promoting economic independence for young people from IDP communities, and mitigating their vulnerability to exploitative labour practices.

Third, given widespread experiences of violence it is also vital to ensure that survivors of physical and sexual violence have access to adolescent-sensitive healthcare, and where possible counselling to overcome the trauma. In so doing, however, it is essential to move beyond reductive framings of gender (e.g. females as ‘victims’ and males as ‘perpetrators’ of violence), and to provide responses that are context-sensitive. It is also important that programme interventions include an awareness- raising component in order to help address issues of exclusion and stigma towards IDPs in host communities. Such efforts could be pursued under the umbrella of broader efforts to advocate for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help deal with the trauma and loss suffered by IDPs and over time to promote social cohesion. In such a process it will be critical to ensure that adolescent girls’ and boys’ voices and perspectives are also reflected, rather than subsumed under those of adults, so as to better tailor programming and services to young people’s diverse needs.

Nicola Jones is GAGE Director and a Principal Research Fellow in Gender, Equality and Social Inclusion at ODI. Workneh Yadete is GAGE Ethiopia Qualitative Research Lead and Research Uptake and Impact Coordinator. Kate Pincock is a GAGE researcher.


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