10/11/2012 06:05 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

Letting Girls Be Girls


Walking my daughters to school this morning, I told them that they should celebrate because today is a special day for girls around the world. International Day of the Girl is a day to recognize the rights of girls and to reflect on the unique hardships many of them face. It's also a day to honor their resilience and their capacity -- if given the right opportunities -- to lead strong and healthy lives and to make meaningful contributions to their communities.

Yet for millions of girls, these opportunities do not exist. Those who are displaced by war or natural disaster live on the fringes, with little to no support. Their lives have been profoundly disrupted and changed and they are even less visible and more vulnerable than other girls. They may be living in camps or cities far from home. They may be compelled to take on added responsibilities to support themselves or their families. Some will be sexually exploited, abused or face other forms of violence as a result of being displaced. Many will be married at a young age, some by the age of 12 or 13.

Child marriage, which is a form of gender-based violence, is one of the most serious threats to girls' well-being -- not least because it increases their risk of early pregnancy. And pregnancy at a young age, in these settings, can be fatal: Complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide.

Child marriage continues to threaten progress in many developing countries, and in places affected by humanitarian emergencies, growing evidence suggests that the situation could be even graver. This should come as no surprise: Following a humanitarian disaster or conflict, the social fabric comes apart and institutions and support structures are upturned. Not only do displaced girls face violence at multiple levels and from various sources, they have no safe havens or places to escape to. Many, especially older girls, cannot attend school -- either because it is too far, dangerous for them to travel to or there may not be room for them at the school. This significantly heightens their risk for child marriage. Poverty only worsens the situation and makes it more likely that girls will marry early.

Many of the displaced adolescent girls we have spoken to over the last few years have said they would like to marry later; they want to study and then work, to be independent and secure before they get married and have families. But this is often not their lived reality. As one young girl in the Nakivale refugee settlement in southwestern Uganda said, "The conflict has made us become hopeless, lifeless. We are not sure of our future." Many displaced girls are forced into unions before they are ready, which will have a dramatic, long-term impact on their lives. The humanitarian aid community needs to work to address this.

Though the dangers they face are very real, displaced adolescent girls have not received the attention they deserve from donors, policymakers and those providing services on the ground. Part of the reason is that adolescent girls are assumed to be included in programs for children or adults, and yet their needs are distinct.

The Women's Refugee Commission is trying to remedy that, by specifically highlighting and addressing their needs -- for safe spaces, for education, for skills training and for sexual and reproductive health care. We are conducting pilot projects with local organizations in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania to test various initiatives, to see what strategies best reach adolescent girls. And we are looking more closely at child marriage among those who are displaced to better understand their vulnerabilities and what can be done to lessen them. We're confident that targeted and well-thought-out programs can protect displaced girls from serious risks and long-term harm.

We hope that more girls will be able to follow in the footsteps of some of the Somali girls we met in Ethiopia: Awa* is the leader of a youth group in her camp and is raising awareness of issues related to gender-based violence; Nadifa is in secondary school and aspires to become a physicist; Ayaan is studying biology and hopes to become a doctor to help her community.

These are the girls that inspired our Strong Girls, Powerful Women campaign, which concludes today. The campaign features the story of a composite character named Amina, who represents many of the young girls we have met through our research -- girls who want to go to school and be independent women one day. Learn about Amina's story, share it and join our efforts to ensure adolescent girls like her can have a chance at a better future. Girls everywhere have the right to be safe and to grow up to become strong, powerful women.

* The girls' names have been changed for anonymity.