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  • Adolescent Girls as Humanitarian Partners

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    For humanitarians to follow through on our promises to empower girls, they must become partners in the humanitarian process. This is what that looks like.

    Despite years of humanitarians acknowledging their potential and their needs, “girls’ engagement” in the field frequently means bringing some girls together, gathering them under a tree, asking them a few questions. If we don’t bridge the gap between rhetoric and practice, we risk making a lie of our commitment to girls and their rights. In practice, it is only by engaging adolescent girls as participants in the process of humanitarian aid that we can ensure their role isn’t tokenistic and that their priority concerns inform programming.

    By actively contributing to humanitarian work, displaced adolescent girls acquire skills and empowerment both within their communities and within the humanitarian systems.

    How do I know this works? Because I saw it happen.

    In a project with Save the Children in Egypt, the Women’s Refugee Commission recruited and trained Syrian girls to run our focus groups. This is what happened:

    Order. Accuracy. Purpose. These are such simple concepts that it’s easy to overlook their significance.  But in the oppressive idleness of displacement, the value of having order and purpose is immense.

    And this experience was not a fluke.

    Adolescent girls’ needs and vulnerabilities vary within in a camp, based not only on factors such as whether they are orphans or already married, but also upon how humanitarian sectors do (or do not) provide tailored services for them. I’m Here: Adolescent Girls in Emergencies, a recent report from the Women’s Refugee Commission, shows how to map the girls and their needs, enabling humanitarians to craft effective programs.

    So to engage Syrian adolescent girls, we recruited them to do the mapping. We trained them to use a mobile phone app for data collection and made provisions for their safety. Then the girls dispersed through the community and to determine where their peers lived, what assets they had, and what they needed.

    And this is what we heard from our new data collectors:

    There something even more important here than training in data collection: “I learned something so useful: being able to introduce the work and to understand why it’s important.” Understanding how humanitarian programs work, she and her peers will be better able to articulate their needs in ways that resonate with humanitarian actors and community leaders. They will be able to speak with their peers about what services exist, why they’re beneficial, and how to access them. These girls will use the skills they gained to become advocates for themselves, for other girls, and for their displaced community.

    As humanitarians, we throw around a lot of abstract words—agency, empowerment, capacity-building, societal change. In these girls’ voices, I heard what those words actually sound like.