The Gender and Age-Specific Vulnerabilities of Refugees and Internally Displaced Adolescent Girls

         Imagine being forcibly displaced from your home, and have to leave everything behind, only to find yourself living in camps in the other part of the country or the world because this is the only safe place for you. Imagine, finding yourself stuck in an illegal boat, using illegal means to escape from violence, war, or natural disaster. Now, imagine facing all these already traumatizing, complex, and harsh living conditions but having to do so as a young girl.

         Teenage girls are the most vulnerable and excluded group in the world yet they are the most inherently powerful with the most potential. They experience double discrimination based on gender and age; they are girls and young.

      A report published by UNHCR in 2018, showed that there were over 25.4 million refugees around the world, 52% of whom were under 18. The number of Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are even higher, estimated to total approximately 40 million globally, 17 million of whom are children under the age of 18.

        There are more than 17 million girls around the world caught up in the “epidemic of human displacement” that has forced 68.5 million people from their homes. Once again, girls from Internally Displaced and Refugee communities are the groups who suffer the most. Evidence shows that adolescent girls and young women are an overlooked group within conflict settings. From violence, forced marriage, early motherhood, to missing out on education, teenage girls experience a lot of challenges. Refugee and internally displaced women and girls are less likely than men and boys to have access to some of the most fundamental human rights.

“… they are the first to be trafficked for sex or child labor; the first to be exploited as tools of war; and the first to lose their childhoods … they are the last to be fed, the last to be enrolled in school and, too often, the last to be valued” (CARE International, 2018).

What is it like being a girl in a refugee camp in Lebanon and Greece?

         Insecurity for women and girls is very high in most refugee and IDP camps, and the ones in Beirut and the Moria camp in the Greek Island of Lesbos are no exception. Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world. This includes an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, close to one million of whom are registered with the UNHCR. In addition, there are an estimated 34,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) who join a pre-existing population of more than 277,985 Palestinian refugees whose families have resided in Lebanon (PRL) since 1949 under the mandate of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). A report released in 2019 by Plan International Australia, looking at the experiences of girls in refugee camps demonstrated evidence that these later are impacted by humanitarian crises in ways not only divergent from boys and women but are, as I mentioned above, often overlooked. Here are some of the findings from the report classified by the type of challenges faced by teenage girls in camps:


  • Violence

At home and in public spaces girls report experiencing, witnessing, and perpetrating violence and their expectation and perception of harassment and sexual violence against girls are particularly high.

  • Freedom of movement

Adolescent girls report limited freedom of movement both in their communities and in Beirut more broadly. This is mainly due to the security concerns of the girls and their parents, with girls reporting high levels of street harassment and feeling unsafe on public transport.

  • Access to education

Adolescent girls report difficulties in getting to schools and this intensifies for refugees who arrived last, and as girls get older. Girls not getting access to education attribute this to lack of parental permission, limited places, cost, administrative barriers to enrollment (including those associated with migration), and child marriage.

  • Healthcare

Adolescent girls claimed overwhelmingly that they receive routine medical attention when necessary, but only half of those with significant or long-term health concerns report receiving appropriate healthcare. This seems to be particularly high for Syrian girls. Girls also report receiving low levels of sexual and reproductive healthcare, which is alarming considering the high levels of early marriage and pregnancy, and the indications of sexual violence.

  • Discrimination

Adolescent girls responded that their communities face discrimination, and this is even more pronounced among recent refugee populations: discrimination takes place in terms of access to services and resources, and in inter-community dynamics.

  • Rights and Opportunities

Adolescent girls state that their rights and opportunities are more limited as they get older. Their attitudes also become more negative. This is evident in access to education, safety, and experiences of harassment, access to community services, and freedom of movement.

        Sadly, Lebanon is not the only country where teenage girls suffer from these insecurities and restricted rights. Adolescent girls living in camps in Greece are experiencing similar challenges. According to the International Rescue Committee, Greece currently hosts approximately 50,000 refugees and over half are women and children. Many of the people on Lesbos have fled the war in Syria, persecution in Iraq, conflict in Afghanistan, and experienced trauma along their journey. With the overcrowding of most of its camps, Greece is struggling to ensure security for all. It has been reported that in the Moria Camp, women and girls, including those traveling alone, live with unrelated men and boys, often in tents without secure closures. Indeed, the simple fact of going to the toilet seems too risky for them. They have said that, out of fear, they avoid leaving their shelter or using the toilet and sanitation, or queuing up when distributing food. Parents say they do not allow their daughters to go out unaccompanied, even to school. These women and girls flee their home country seeking protection and security, but sadly enough they encounter the opposite.

         As most Arab neighboring countries from the Levant including Lebanon and Jordan (who are a host of the highest number of refugees) are already dealing with their own economic and political crisis, Gulf countries who are better equipped financially must intervene and do better. Europe must do better as well, as European countries have the capacity to relocate those who are caught in such alarming circumstances on the islands. The most powerful countries in the world are witnessing in silence these girls getting robbed from their childhood. Why aren’t they doing more?

       Unfortunately, the situation of teenage girls from IDP communities is no better and is as concerning as the situation of refugee girls.

 The Tragic Story of the Yazidi Girls – IDPs

        In August 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), launched an attack across the Sinjar region, in northern Iraq, homeland to the Yazidi ethnoreligious minority. Among other atrocities, they abducted thousands of women and girls (some as young as 9 years old) and traded many of them into sexual slavery. The UN estimated that 5,000 men died in the massacre, and 7,000 Yazidi women and girls were held in sexual slavery. Survivors reported being repeatedly sold, gifted, or passed around among ISIS fighters.

      According to a report from 2019 by UNHCR, up until March 2015, 500,000 Yazidis, primarily from Sinjar District, had been displaced, most of whom were fleeing to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and particularly Dohuk Governorate. Currently, there are 3000 Yazidis, mostly women, and children, reportedly still missing after having been abducted.

       Though Iraq proclaimed victory in 2017 over ISIS, thousands upon thousands of civilians victims of the armed group have been left to deal with scars and atrocities committed against them and their loved ones. Six years after their abduction, the Yazidi women and girls’ struggle continue, having to bear physical and psychological trauma as a result of sexual violence and enslavement. Amnesty International revealed some of the cruelties committed to the Yazidi girls after conducting interviews with some of the victims. Many women and girls have attempted suicide either in captivity or following their escape, or have sisters or daughters who killed themselves following the torture they lived through in captivity. Apart from the horrors experienced in IS captivity, many Yezidi women and girls who escaped or were freed, have not been able to return home and instead live with their impoverished relatives or in camps for internally displaced persons. These atrocities were recognized as genocide by the United Nations in 2016.

       Though some international NGOs working with youth and minorities in Iraq have implemented projects to provide educational assistance and psychological support to Yazidi girls, more assistance is needed. For instance, SOS Children’s Villages launched in 2016, a humanitarian program in the Dohuk region of Iraq Kurdistan to help Yazidi girls and other IDPs. The program focuses on providing psychological and emotional care, economic and livelihood assistance, and child-friendly spaces for families at the Khank camp. There are an estimated 400,000 IDPs in Dohuk and more than three million across Iraq. Khanke hosts nearly 17,000 people, more than half of them under 18.

Coping Mechanisms & Failed Systems

         The camps are supposed to be a shelter for refugees and IDPs, providing them with protection and assuring that their basic human rights are covered. However, it appears to be that these camps are lacking structural, governmental, and financial assistance. Many governments and the international community are failing these people. They are incapable of ensuring their safety. This is not just about refugees, this suggests that the universal system and process is cracked. Change is strongly needed and creating more sustainable solutions is imperative. We need to be rethinking the impacts of humanitarian crises on children and adolescents’ ability to grow and thrive. Some of these adolescents have only lived through conflict or have experienced it most of their lives. Research has proven that education is the weapon for teenage girls to gain back normalcy in context crises. Thus, keeping kids including girls at school is a way of protecting them from violence and assuring their security. It is a shelter against early marriage, violence and enables opportunities for the future.

           I cannot stress enough how important it is to invest in girls and supporting their range of needs. They are witnessing their childhood and innocence getting robbed from them. As more psychological programs are of high necessity to help them deal with the trauma they experienced; there is also a need for empowerment projects, to aid these girls to regain a ‘normal’ adolescent life, gain confidence, and use their voice to speak their truth. They must know about their rights, and values and the importance of education and to know that they too can plan for their future. A secure future, free from violence and oppression. It is important to teach girls soft and leadership skills to establish the belief that the humanitarian crisis and the status of refugees or IDPs do not mean that their future is doomed. That whatever trauma they experienced does not define who they are or can be, they can turn that into strength and be successful, and achieve great things.

       Furthermore, there is an important lack of research and media visibility on refugee and IDP adolescent girls. The world tends to forget about this group when talking about the issue of migration, the refugee crisis, and IDPs. It is crucial that we invest in more initiatives to provide these girls with their most basic fundamental rights and protection but also to give them back what has been taken away from them. It is essential as well when talking about refugees and IDPs girls to invite them to be part of the discussion, to give them a platform where they can share their stories and challenges to the world. “It is critical to amplify their voices and perceptions of their lives and communities, and present their views on how the humanitarian sector might respond to the challenges they face.” Most importantly, just letting these teenage girls be teenage girls.


WhatsApp Image 2020-05-18 at 4.15.25 PMAbout the author:

Rabab Talal was born and raised in Casablanca, Morocco. She has lived in different parts of the world including Canada, Spain, Costa Rica, and Jordan, which triggered her love for other cultures, diversity, and her addiction to traveling. She holds a BA in Communication and Political Science from Saint Louis University, Madrid Campus, and a MA in International Relations, more precisely in International Peace and Conflict Studies with a specialization in Media from the UN Mandated University for Peace. She has experience in politics and development in the MENA region and research on migration issues in Central America and electoral systems in the Arab region. Some of her professional experiences include UNDP Regional Hub for the Arab States in Jordan and the National Human Rights Council of Morocco. Her recent work experience is in social work, mainly in grassroots NGOs in Morocco and Uganda. She worked as the Development Coordinator for Project Soar, a grassroots organization that supports teen girls empowerment in rural and semi-rural areas in Morocco and Uganda in order for them to become leaders with powerful voices for inclusion and democracy. Her work focused on donor relations and grant proposal writing. She is a strong advocate of women’s and girls’ rights, education for all, youth civic participation, and international development. Her feminist work until now focused mainly on issues related to Arab, Western, and Eastern African women, and she considers herself as an intersectional feminist.

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