DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Adolescent girls across Africa bear the brunt of suffering when natural disasters strike, as well as when their communities are plagued by armed conflict, a child's rights organisation said on Friday, highlighting how the hardships girls endure in male-dominated societies can spiral during crises.
UK-based Plan International blamed governments, aid workers and families in Africa for failing to protect adolescent girls from risks including child marriage and gender-based violence, as well as being pulled out of school - all of which are exacerbated in times of emergency.
In its report released on International Day of the Girl Child, Plan said that globally, women and children are 14 times more likely than men and boys to die in a disaster and that boys generally received preferential treatment over girls in rescue efforts.
The lack of support stems from the perception of adolescents as strong, resilient resources during crises, when in fact they are still vulnerable and do need help, the report said.
“Adolescent girls particularly have specific needs and face unique challenges due to their gender and age, which often make them most vulnerable in disaster situations,” Fadimata Alainchar, Plan country director in Mali, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Bamako.
Climate change, rapid urbanisation and environmental degradation are likely to result in a deterioration of the situation: worldwide, disasters have increased from 90 a year in the 1970s to almost 450 a year in the last decade, and 95 percent of deaths from these recent disasters were in the developing world, the report said.
GIRLS MAKE SACRIFICES
In West Africa, the biggest challenge facing young girls today is the ongoing Sahel food crisis - a result of a devastating cycle of droughts and floods, persistent insecurity and soaring food prices in the region.
In Niger and Burkina Faso, two of the countries where Plan conducted research, girls have fared the worst as families struggle to survive.
“In difficult situations, girls are the first to be taken out of schools so they can work to support the whole family. They are handed over to someone else for domestic work in return for bringing a plate of food home,” Alainchar said. “In worst case scenarios, the young girls are married off early to relieve pressure on the family or even prostituted for food.”
In Burkina Faso, 16-year-old Mimi was one of those girls forced to make sacrifices for the family.
“My parents decided to take me out of school four years ago to save money and send my brothers to school,” she was quoted as saying in the report. “I have to stay home because everyone’s hungry and there’s no money to send me to school.”
Despite knowing the challenges adolescent girls face during emergencies, aid agencies have failed to protect them.
According to the report, worldwide, only around half of aid workers interviewed by Plan say they are collating sex- and age-disaggregated data; only 41 percent have strategies to counter child marriage; and more than a third are not addressing key risks that lead to gender-based violence and sexual violence in camps and shelters.
ENSLAVED AND THEN SHAMED
In conflict-ridden countries, the trauma is often psychological as well as physical, said Alainchar, who comes from Timbuktu in northern Mali, a country plunged into conflict after Tuareg and Islamist separatists took over the north in March 2012.
“In the last 18 months in Mali, especially in the north, we have seen girls that have been sexually abused or forced to marry people. Those who became pregnant have been stigmatised by their own communities and have had to hide or run away. The trauma can have massive psychological impacts on young girls,” she said.
After being forcibly taken from her house and held captive for six months by armed insurgents who had taken control of Timbuktu in April 2012, 18-year-old Bouga found it difficult to ignore the stares and gossip amongst her peers.
“My only occupation, all the time I was held captive, was to prepare their meals, do their laundry and meet their demands for sex,” she said in the report. “[Once the kidnappers fled] I was free. However, I continued to live [with] the shame and stigma of what I endured - particularly in the form of hostile reactions I received from youths in the neighbourhood.”
Alainchar described the girl’s dilemma as the cycle of poverty, passed on for generations from mother to child: “Our adolescent girls are victims of conditions they have no been part of creating or managing.”
Education, she noted, is the solution.
“A girl who has completed her education is less likely to experience violence or early marriage, more likely to be literate, more likely to contribute to the family income and more likely to understand her rights and become a force for change.”