South Sudan’s first female president is living in a refugee camp. She is a teenager with a dream—and a daily routine that doesn’t include the camp’s makeshift school. Instead, she is responsible for household duties. She walks long distances to collect firewood. She stays home to care for her older sister, who has an intellectual disability.
Yet from this hardened path, she nurtures aspiration. Like the adolescent girls in our own lives—our daughters, nieces, and granddaughters—her dream is strong. In a calm, confident voice, she shares it with me:
Ayen wants to be the president of South Sudan.
Any young person’s chance of becoming a nation’s leader is admittedly slim, and the odds are uniquely stacked against Ayen. But probability is not destiny. And the theme of this year’s Day of the Girl Child sets us firmly in the right direction: Empowering Adolescent Girls: Ending the Cycle of Violence. By putting power, knowledge, and assets in girls’ hands, we can collectively tilt the balance in Ayen’s favor—and in the favor of millions of girls like her.
That’s why the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) has placed girls at the center of a collaborative effort. This effort spans countries and continents. It seeks solutions for before, during, and after crises. In the acute phases of an emergency, girls’ needs must be incorporated in programs across sectors—but as situations stabilize, girls need their own targeted programs. This far-reaching effort has a simple goal: discover the best ways to provide girls with the resources they need to become powerful women.
Empowerment before the emergency.
The WRC has tested effective ways to partner with local communities even before crises strike, building their resilience against future disasters. Fostering communities’ resilience requires the meaningful participation of all community members. We must make sure that girls benefit from, and are engaged in, community disaster risk reduction. These initiatives must take their perspectives into consideration, and also include them in decision-making.
Empowerment at the onset.
In the days and weeks immediately after a crisis, girls are particularly at risk. But humanitarian workers cannot help them if they don’t know where they are and what threats they’re facing. Ensuring that girls are immediately identified and that they can access critical services is the imperative behind the new I’m Here Approach, developed by the WRC. This adaptable series of steps and mobile-based tools is currently being piloted by the WRC and our operational partners.
The I’m Here Approach immediately highlights girls’ input in emergency response. It quickly produces actionable information so that each humanitarian sector can more effectively respond to girls’ unique needs and protection risks. It also lays the groundwork for evidence-based programs to protect and empower girls in the months and years after a crisis.
Empowerment in protracted humanitarian settings.
If Ayen could accomplish what we so often consider normal for adolescent girls in our families, then she would be less likely to experience nearly all forms of violence, including child marriage. She is more likely to avoid unwanted pregnancy and to acquire skills for future employment. So how do you equip a refugee girl, whose life and community has been upended by crisis, with these skills?
Led by the WRC, ongoing pilot programs are identifying the most critical skills and assets and finding the best ways to provide them. Mentorship. Financial literacy and vocational skills. Friendship networks. Programs tailored to accommodate girls' diverse backgrounds—accessible and appropriate for girls who may be in school, out-of-school, orphans, heads of households, as well as those who may be married and parenting. And, critically, girls need to access these programs through dedicated safe spaces.
It’s insufficient to simply ask Ayen for her input, to merely build a classroom, or just to provide a space for her to interact with her peers. Refugee girls must be able to benefit from information, services and skills-building opportunities that are purposefully tailored to maximize their potential — whether or not that’s in a formal classroom.
Girls must also be enabled to determine for themselves what social networks, knowledge and skills they need to fulfill their aspirations. That’s why our Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health project starts with discovering which information and services very young adolescents are demanding. Later phases are planned to incorporate these needs into program models that blend health, education, livelihoods and more.
The WRC’s research maps out how humanitarian sectors and programs can accommodate the wide diversity of girls’ routines and responsibilities, their capacities and limitations. Our Safe Access to Fuel and Energy (SAFE) Initiative recognizes that the burden of energy falls disproportionately on women and girls—and it helps build their access to fuel that doesn’t compromise their health or their safety. Well-intentioned but poorly designed livelihoods program can actually endanger women and girls—so the WRC’s reports show how humanitarian actors can ensure they do good and do no harm. Our reports demonstrate specific ways to ensure that Ayen’s sister, and all refugees with disabilities, are included in the design and delivery of humanitarian initiatives.
On the International Day of the Girl Child, humanitarian organizations are redoubling their resolve to help girls—and the WRC is renewing our promise to find the best ways to do just that.
Not every girl has Ayen’s challenges, her aspirations or her abilities. But each girl has her own capacities and dreams that must be taken seriously. Because all girls—whether they live next door or in the middle of a civil war—have a right to live free from violence, to access services that build their strength, and to achieve their full potential.
Ayen for President.