The escalating violence by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014 sparked widespread international condemnation, but the fighting triggered a regional crisis in neighbouring countries of northern central Africa that continues to this day.
While the roots of the problem are complex – involving inequality, political marginalisation, and competition over scarce resources, particularly water at a time of prolonged drought – it is adolescent girls that are especially disadvantaged and vulnerable.
If sustainable peace is to be secured, it is essential that the specific needs of adolescent girls are attended to, and their voices heard.
Next week, representatives from the international community will gather in Berlin for the “High Level Conference on the Lake Chad Region” in a bid to respond to this protracted crisis, which has become one of the most severe – yet barely reported – humanitarian emergencies in the world. More than 2.4 million people have been displaced, half of whom are children, and more than 10.7 million people need humanitarian assistance.
If sustainable peace is to be secured, it is essential that the specific needs of adolescent girls are attended to, and their voices heard. Recent research conducted by Monash University’s Gender, Peace and Security Centre (Monash GPS) and Plan International has investigated the unique impact the crisis has had on adolescent girls in the Lake Chad region (specifically in Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon).
Throughout the research, adolescent girls described a wide spectrum of violence that affects almost every aspect of their lives. Those who are displaced or separated from their parents are particularly vulnerable to all forms of violence. Violence and fear also impacts girls’ access to other rights, including freedom of movement, access to education, and vulnerability to child, early and forced marriage.
Across all countries, many adolescent girls reported feeling unsafe in their communities, especially at night. Girls feared harassment and the presence of armed gangs, including being kidnapped by such gangs. As one 14-year-old girl in Djalori, Niger, told researchers:
Life is difficult here; we live in fear.
The crisis infiltrates the home
The presence of family members, as well as peers and known community members, has a significant impact on how safe adolescent girls feel. However, girls also reported feeling unsafe in their home. This is partly to do with external threats, and some adolescent girls spoke of previous experiences of violence at the hands of Boko Haram.
Displaced adolescent girls in Sayam Camp, N’gourtouwa and Garin Wanzam in Niger detailed how they often flee their homes due to fighting, spend the night hiding out in the bush and return when they can no longer hear the shooting. One 16-year-old at Sayam Camp in Niger said:
If we don't feel safe in the house, we go and sleep in the bush and come back in the morning.
But the stress of the crisis also increases the likelihood of violent outbursts in the home. Of those who said they had been assaulted in the last month (almost a quarter of all girls surveyed), 60% of these cases occurred in the home.
Deteriorating economic conditions were blamed for a recent increase in violence in the home. Many girls recommended humanitarian agencies provide economic opportunities for families to address dire economic circumstances and food insecurity as well as help curb violence in the home.
The targets of sexual violence
While few girls were willing to talk about sexual and gender-based violence, many spoke of regular sexual harassment they suffered. Many said they changed their behaviour and limited their movement in public spaces in response to harassment and abuse.
Some girls also spoke of kidnapping and forced marriage perpetrated by armed groups. Civil society organisation representatives also spoke of how adolescent girls have suffered sexual assaults alongside other physical attacks and injury as a result of the ongoing crisis.
Some girls also spoke of girls being forced to have sexual relationships with men in order to survive. It was described by some girls as a negative coping mechanism in response to the insecurity and economic crisis, while others spoke of persistent poverty prior to the crisis driving survival sex.
Many girls also spoke about the re-victimisation of survivors of sexual assault through stigmatisation or being forced to marry their attacker.
Building security and resilience
To address the many forms of violence adolescent girls are subject to, it is vital that immediate and comprehensive efforts are made to improve security conditions for adolescent girls. This means confronting the drivers of insecurity and violence, including economic deprivation, as well as direct threats.
Responsible authorities, notably governments, should be urged and supported to fulfil their duties to protect the most vulnerable and ensure their rights are able to be realised. Investment in programs which build resilience and security also need to be prioritised, including supporting safe spaces, delivering psycho-social support, and providing livelihood and economic opportunities for girls (to avoid resorting to negative coping mechanisms) and for their families (to help guard against domestic violence).
These girls already have great resilience, not least in withstanding sustained and compound threats and insecurities. They also continue to hope for a brighter future, continue to want to help their community, and continue to aspire to better themselves through education and valued employment.
Alongside attending to their urgent security needs, it is essential that their voices inform humanitarian and development programming to ensure such programming is responsive and utilises the knowledge, skills and capacity of adolescent girls to pave the way towards a safe and prosperous future for communities in the Lake Chad region.