One question we receive from time to time is why we tend to highlight the experience of girls in the work we do. Does ADRA think that girls are more important than everyone else affected by poverty and crisis?
Our work prioritizes the most urgent needs regardless of gender or any other factor. Poverty is a multi-dimensional global issue. The better we understand the root cause of every factor that contributes to this crisis on any scale, the better equipped we are as humans to help uplift and equip one another. We highlight the unjust experiences girls around the world face because injustice continues to be a reality.
ADRA has a powerful motto: Justice. Compassion. Love. Love may be at the end of the list, but it’s the driving force in everything we do. Love thy neighbor, we’ve been told, and through that act of love, we can transform the way we understand one another to create a deeper, more love-based way of thinking.
People may not even realize the aspects of a girl’s life that are affected by unique challenges and the lack of awareness. Here are just a few to consider:
We know that in times of crisis, violence against women and girls escalates, and a girl is more likely to face more risks.
Even in everyday activities, a girl faces multiple risks by simply being. For example, in many parts of the world it’s often a young girl who is responsible for fetching water for her family. This may mean walking a long distance in an environment where others may recognize an opportunity to cause harm.
Similarly, when a girl grows up in a place where sanitation means going into the woods to go to the bathroom, everyday necessities are not accessible to her in a safe environment. Sexual violence is not the only risk to her safety, but according to UNICEF, an astounding 1 in 20 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 have experienced forced sex. That’s 13 million girls!
Another risk you’re probably well aware of is human trafficking, which threatens millions worldwide. It might surprise you that children are often put in the hands of traffickers by their own families. A struggling family is the perfect target for a criminal who promises lucrative opportunities for their child and one less mouth to feed for the family.
This is often the case for girls who end up joining ADRA’s Keep Girls Safe shelter in Thailand. These young girls can’t offer much to help support their families and are at extreme risk of being sent away for a “job” in a city far from home. In addition to providing safety and education for the girls, ADRA’s team in Thailand also educates families and communities about the true risks of trafficking.
From the earliest age, a girl is often thought of in terms of what her body can or cannot do. To be blunt, a girl’s body can be objectified, debated, and controlled by her family and community, not to mention the world at large, while her actual needs may be left out of the conversation.
We can talk about some of the extreme risks that a girl may face, such as becoming a mother at a young age or female genital mutilation (FGM), but to put this in even simpler context, how many of us grew up talking openly about periods?
Younger generations are certainly getting better about this, but a natural experience that about half the people on this planet will experience for most of their lives is still considered taboo in many circles.
Tiptoeing around menstruation as a “girl problem” causes girls to miss out on support they need and causes them to feel shame over their natural bodies. Girl problems should be everybody’s problem!
In Uganda, where ADRA does a lot of work with refugees, our team spoke with teen refugee girls who didn’t have basic sanitary supplies and had turned to sex work so they could afford to buy what they needed.
ADRA quickly worked to fill that gap and partnered with Pathfinders in the local community to distribute appropriate sanitary supplies to girls within the refugee camp, but it’s devastating to realize how easily situations like this could be prevented if girls’ physical needs were discussed openly and given appropriate priority.
The future has already been decided for too many girls around the world. Education is simply not an option for girls in some parts of the world and they may be the first to miss out if opportunities are limited. UNICEF reports that “nearly 1 in 4 girls aged 15–19 globally are not in education, employment or training, compared to 1 in 10 boys.”
Supporting girls on their path to education and employment depends on a lot more than available space in a classroom and a willingness to let them learn. Girls must be able to learn safely and have adequate facilities for their physical needs, so they aren’t forced to drop out when they begin menstruation.
Child marriage also remains a barrier to a prosperous future for a girl child. She may be more valuable to her family as a bride because if they receive a dowry, and there will be one less person for the family to support.
While we’ve seen progress in the push against child marriage, we’ve also seen setbacks. Did you realize the effects of the COVID-19 crisis will put an additional 10 million more girls at risk of becoming child brides over the next decade?
A few years ago in Nepal, we met an 18-year-old named Bhawana who was trained by ADRA to become a peer educator. She met regularly with the young people in her rural community to present age-appropriate lessons, as well as facilitate conversations and answer some of the tough questions the children and teens were too embarrassed to ask the grown-ups in their lives (with their parents’ full permission, of course!)
The young people were broken up into groups by age, but boys and girls met together. The week we visited, Bhawana was talking to a younger group about puberty and their changing bodies, then having a heavier discussion with the local teens about not getting married too young and making sure they understood the importance of education.
It seems like such a simple concept, but it was groundbreaking to hear young people sharing so openly about these topics. It was especially heartening to hear young men speak respectfully about the experiences their female peers were facing.
It’s this kind of shared understanding that will lead young women not only in this Nepali village, but in communities around the world, to opportunities their mothers never imagined!
Gender issues vary from country to country and community to community, but the more we learn and understand the unjust experiences girls face, the more our conversation and actions can be based on justice, compassion, and love for all.