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A Priceless Investment: Protecting and Empowering Adolescent Refugee Girls

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This year's International Women's Day theme is "Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures." On this day, we think of the many adolescent girls and other young women we have met in countries torn apart by armed conflict who somehow, against the most staggering odds, are working to create better lives for themselves.

These young women are generally quite clear about what they need to succeed -- education, health care, stability and a promise for a brighter future. Betty, a 17-year-old girl who lived in a displaced persons camp in northern Uganda, spoke for many when she said, "A generation without education is doomed. We need assurance, we need to be heard and to participate, we need a future."

Adolescent girls like Betty should have the right to a safe and productive future. Apart from the obvious personal importance to each and every affected girl, there is increasing evidence that investing in girls is a positive "force multiplier" effect for their families and for their communities. When girls grow up in stable environments, enjoy quality health care, attend school and learn the skills required for safe and productive work, they will thrive. And when girls thrive, they can be uniquely powerful agents for stability, prosperity and peace. The ripple effect extends into their children's generation and beyond. Empowerment means that cycles of marginalization and poverty can be broken.

Right now, the deck is unforgivably stacked against girls displaced by conflict. Education is a crucial example. Almost one-quarter of refugee children are not even enrolled in primary school. A mere 36 percent of youth are enrolled in secondary school. Girls are particularly disadvantaged. A study done for the UN refugee agency revealed that in East Africa refugee boys are schooled at twice the rate as girls. When one considers that the average length worldwide of long-term displacement for refugees is 17 years, a lack of access to education can translate into a lost generation and countless missed opportunities for successful community-building and reconstruction efforts when conflict ends.

Indeed, for many displaced girls, school isn't even an option in their current circumstances. They are often responsible for collecting water and firewood for their families, and for cooking and caring for their siblings. They may have lost their parents and any other responsible adult in war, and suddenly have found themselves in charge of an entire household. Here is how one 14-year-old refugee girl from Sierra Leone living in Guinea described her daily routine, "In the morning, I fetch water, sweep and pray. Then I go to find a job for the day. Usually I pound rice. I work all day until evening... I feel pain all over my body... I live with my grandmother and she is very old. I need to take care of her."

The struggle to survive is made all the more harrowing by the sexual violence and exploitation that is endemic to crisis-affected settings. The breakdown of community norms and support structures has a profound effect on adolescent girls and leaves them vulnerable to all forms of abuse. They are targeted because they are powerless. In such an environment, it seems a cruel twist that displaced adolescents are also the least likely to have access to reproductive health care, putting them at greater risk for HIV/AIDs and unsafe abortions.

As bleak as the picture is today, we are encouraged that there is growing awareness of the need to address the special needs and vulnerabilities of displaced adolescent girls and young women. The Women's Refugee Commission has launched an initiative to help improve programs for those most vulnerable by modeling innovative approaches that strengthen girls' capacity to better protect themselves, and to gain the life skills they need to meet their education and employment goals and participate in community life and decision-making.

We hope our efforts will be complemented by a much deeper commitment on the part of the international community to supporting formal education and vocational training, including financial literacy, as well as improved health care, for displaced girls. The U.S. government has a very important role to play as a leading advocate on these issues and as the single largest donor to humanitarian and development programs. It needs to maintain and strengthen its efforts and take every possible step to ensure that other developed countries are making similar substantial efforts.

In this regard, the recent release of a U.S. National Action on Women, Peace and Security and the U.S. Agency for International Development's new Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy are particularly welcome. Both documents provide a strong framework for more equitable integration of the needs of adolescent girls and young women into all U.S. humanitarian and development work. If these initiatives are well implemented and properly funded, our investment will lead to more effective programming, stronger and healthier societies, and increased stability in some of the most fragile areas of the world. We will be playing our part in creating a world where displaced girls like Betty from Uganda have an education and health care, and can participate in society and make a difference.