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Gender and Social Inclusion

Healing Invisible Wounds

If you've glanced at the headlines or scanned newspaper photos in recent months, then you've come across the visual consequences of crisis and forced displacement.

In Syria, millions of war-battered women and children trekking miles to seek refuge in neighboring countries. In Gaza, hundreds of civilians killed and homes destroyed. In the United States, thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America and arriving at the border. In the Central African Republic, scores of families leaving their homes to escape sectarian violence.

Less easily captured by media are the invisible wounds: the mental health consequences that these sights, sounds and moments have on displaced persons, particularly youth.

Pause and envision the 13-year-old Syrian girl who is forced to marry a 40-year-old man because her family is unable to support her. What does the separation from her mother, father and siblings, coupled with the unjust expectations of marriage, do to her psyche?

Pause and envision the 18-year-old Palestinian boy who has witnessed his family die in the bombing of a school. In his grief and loss, how does he stay grounded as he navigates between pressures to retaliate or to reconcile?

Pause and envision the young twins who fled Honduras without any adult supervision. What does the abuse, exploitation or coercion that boys and girls experience during the trek to the U.S., coupled with the poor treatment at detention facilities, instill within a young person?

Pause and envision the teenager in the Central African Republic – Muslim or Christian – who not only overhears their parents discuss human rights violations against their neighbors but then also witnesses their neighbors' homes burned, cattle stolen and women violated. What choices will he or she make after sectarian conflict has shaped their transition into adulthood?

These questions matter – for millions. As of 2013, minors account for 50 percent of people who have forcibly fled their homes because of conflict, natural disaster or persecution; this figure is the highest in a decade.

That the United Nations has chosen to the make “Mental Health Matters” its theme this International Youth Day (August 12) is a timely opportunity to raise the profile of displaced youth's mental health risks, as well as to highlight what humanitarians can do to support boys and girls with mental health conditions.

The mental health of youth who have been forcibly displaced is of particular concern because insecurity underpins their lives during a formative stage in their development. How insecurity affects male and female youth and how they experience displacement differs. And yet, the combined weight of socioeconomic adversity and exposure to violence in their countries of origin, layered by the realities of forced migration and resettlement into a new context, exposes every youth to several compounding risks that affect their physical, emotional, and social development.

Since exposure to violence is the strongest predictor of poor mental health outcomes, young girls are especially vulnerable. Consider that sexual violence against adolescent girls was reported in all 51 countries that have experienced conflict since 1986. Additionally, among the list of 30 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage, more than half are considered fragile or conflicted-affected states.

The Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) is partnering with several organizations and youth themselves to shine the spotlight on not only youth's needs and risk, but also on their capacities to overcome displacement's consequences.

In July 2014, for example, the WRC and the Youth and Adolescents in Emergencies Network hosted a session on Youth and Adolescents at the UN Refugee Agency's annual consultations with NGOs. At the session, youth themselves referenced the need for greater youth engagement in education and health. In front of practitioners and policymakers, youth expressed concerns about the stigma and discrimination that youth with mental health conditions face.

This International Youth Day, the Women's Refugee Commission calls upon humanitarian actors to review their programs and to ensure that each are inclusive of protocols and actions that support youth's mental health and psychosocial well-being. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) has issued relevant guidelines. The IASC Guidelines on Mental health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings offer essential advice on how to facilitate an integrated approach to address the most urgent mental health and psychosocial issues in emergency situations.

And you don't have to be a humanitarian worker to support mental health. Here is more information about the International Youth Day campaign, including the steps you can take to turn your social media platforms into amplifiers for youth, their mental health and their development.

Let's heal all wounds – visible and unseen.


Gender and Social Inclusion