06/20/2012 09:05 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

World Refugee Day: Strong Girls, Powerful Women -- It's Time To Give Refugee Girls a Chance

On this World Refugee Day, I have in front of me the faces of the young refugee girls the Women's Refugee Commission met on a recent visit to Ethiopia. As I read through the notes from that visit, I am reminded again that for many refugee girls around the world, there are no good choices.

I see the sad eyes of 14-year old Zala*, who fled Somalia two years ago after her parents were killed in front of her. Somehow, this young girl survived a harrowing trip on a boat that capsized after five weeks at sea. She was rescued and eventually ended up in a refugee camp. Zala is on her own, working as a domestic servant. She hasn't gone to school since she left Somalia. Zala is hanging on, just trying to survive. She told us she cannot think beyond her next meal.

Zala is like most refugee girls -- so much courage, so much potential, and so few opportunities. No opportunity to go to school or earn money safely. No chance to live their lives without the daily threat of exploitation or assault. Worrying every time they go out to fetch water or collect firewood that they will be harassed or attacked. As a colleague who recently returned from Ethiopia put it, "Refugee girls we spoke with cited numerous barriers to getting their basic needs met and to participating safely in community life. They spoke of dangers at home, along footpaths and roads, at markets and water collection points, on the way to and from school. They said that many girls are put in the position of having to trade sex for basic necessities."

At the same time that we were documenting these very difficult stories, a number of young girls also conveyed through conversations, photos and drawings an enormous drive to somehow secure an education and make a better life.

Through our Protecting and Empowering Displaced Adolescent Girls initiative, the Women's Refugee Commission is advocating for policies and programs that will allow refugee girls to have that better life. Our goal is a world in which every Zala is safe, healthy and self-reliant -- a world in which they have a chance to learn, to grow and to thrive.

As was confirmed by our mission to Ethiopia, there are very specific steps that can be taken to improve girls' physical security. Some steps are quite basic -- providing adequate lighting in camps and sturdier doors and locks on homes, especially those where girls live alone. Community watch groups can be strengthened, but they must also be properly trained to protect girls and report abuses confidentially.

To better prepare refugee girls to succeed and build skills so they can pursue safe and dignified work, the humanitarian community needs to make greater investments in girls' education, including special programs to help girls complete primary school and go on to secondary school. And much more attention and resources should be given to vocational training and financial literacy programs designed for girls.

As we are learning in our work, these practical programs must be accompanied by initiatives that give refugee girls the opportunity to develop the confidence, critical thinking, leadership skills and support networks that will allow them to better protect themselves and to participate fully in community life and decision-making.

Under the Women's Refugee Commission's Protecting and Empowering Adolescent Girls project, we will be working with girls, their families and communities to identify good practices and test model programs that will allow the millions of Zalas to see beyond their next meal to the hopeful future they deserve. That's a goal to inspire us all on World Refugee Day.

*Zala's real name has been changed to protect her identity.