Young and adolescent girls understand their needs best – whether they are survivors of violence, child, early & forced marriage or female genital mutilation/cutting; in or out of school; living with a disability; pregnant or young mothers; from a low-income background; from minority groups; refugees or migrants; experiencing puberty; living with HIV; and/or facing threats due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. They want more control and power over their lives, to be consulted about decisions that affect them, and have the right to be at the center of and involved in any policy and programming decisions related to their protection. For girls in humanitarian crisis contexts, it is imperative that the needs and wishes of girls are prioritized to prevent further harm and that their safety is at the epicenter of a humanitarian response.
Times of crisis expose adolescent girls to multiple risks. With an estimated 50% more women and girls living in conflict-affected contexts in 2022 compared to 2017 – indicating 614 million live under threat – there is a clear need for urgent and effective action. This is just the tip of the iceberg as many more girls are living in natural disaster affected areas. Girls are more likely to experience different forms of gender-based violence (GBV), sexual and reproductive health related complications, have limited access to public spaces and services, and be the first to lose access to education. Specifically, in emergency settings, young and adolescent girls are far more likely to be restricted in terms of their movement, which is particularly pronounced for girls with disabilities, and in camp settings. Girls displaced by conflict and refugee girls are also at higher risk during displacement/when on the move from threats of sexual violence or abuse and other forms of gender-based violence, both by partners and non-partners. This can impact their ability to build friendships and connections, and their sense of identity and independence, which has a significant impact on their mental health and aspirations.
To commemorate this year’s International Day of the Girl Child, we are sharing key guidance and tips for practitioners working in humanitarian settings in line with UNICEF’s theme "Invest in Girls' Rights: Our Leadership, Our Well-being" and share this collective call to action for global stakeholders:
1. Center girls safety and promote their rights.
In response to a humanitarian emergency, it is important to understand and prioritize adolescent girls’ (in all their diversity) needs and participation in decisions that affect them. This should start by investing in and putting the most marginalized girls at the center. Whether debating in an international resolution, crafting a national policy, funding grassroots movements or designing, implementing and monitoring emergency preparedness and response programs, an intersectional lens must be taken.
Tip: Conduct a rapid, intersectional gender-power analysis to highlight girls’ needs, risks and opportunities during the first phase of an emergency or in more protracted conflict-affected settings. Disaggregating data as well as listening to and engaging directly with adolescent girls as part of these efforts helps us to understand their experiences, better recognize and appreciate their agency, and help identify potential entry points for working with and for them.
2. Recognize, celebrate and support girls' leadership.
Creating safe spaces is a common and effective approach in girls-centered programming that enables girls to be free from harm and encourages them to seek, share, and gain knowledge, skills and information; access services including GBV response services, express themselves, enhance psychosocial wellbeing where their physical and emotional safety is respected, foster opportunities for mutual support, nurture leadership and collective action in their community, and more fully realize their rights including their reproductive and sexual health rights. Integrating menstrual hygiene management (MHM) Activities for girls into Women and Girls Safe Spaces (WGSS) is an example of how girls’ health, safety and wellbeing can be supported.
For example, UNICEF’s brand-new Virtual Safe Space digital platform Laaha will now be rolled out in Ecuador and Iraq (following a pilot in Iraq and Lebanon). Laaha aims to facilitate access to information and services in a way that is safe, culturally appropriate, and accessible to adolescent girls, particularly those who face higher levels of marginalization, such as girls with disabilities and married girls. The platform accounts for low connectivity, limited levels of literacy, and safety considerations, and its content was designed to be highly interactive and accessible.
Tip: Whether online or offline, provide structured safe spaces and platforms to enable the participation, voice and leadership of a diverse group of adolescent girls, by directly resourcing girls’ movements and networks, at all stages of the humanitarian programme cycle and humanitarian-development-peace nexus. These spaces should be built on feminist, survivor-centered approaches and principles.
3. Prioritize support to GBV Specialized Programming as well as scale up multi-sectoral programs that support the range of adolescent girls' safety and well-being needs.
Tip: Draw on and adapt existing evidence and best practice. Joint or multisectoral approaches, which are guided by longer-term visions of transformation, engage with a diverse group of adolescent girls alongside the wider community, are shown to be most effective for the sustainable empowerment of adolescent girls in contexts affected by natural hazard, epidemics or conflict-related crises.
By working with girls, their female and/or male caregivers and their communities, it is feasible to increase girls’ access to essential GBV specialized services, for example, and to increase the safety of girls. Supporting girls’ education is also a protective factor against GBV in both humanitarian and non-humanitarian settings.
4. Ensure information, services and systems meaningfully change to be adolescent-girl-friendly.
In humanitarian crises, challenges such as tackling stigma, harassment, social exclusion and poor treatment are particularly acute for many girls. This hinders them from accessing essential services, such as GBV case management; psychosocial support; sexual and reproductive health services or coming to school if pregnant/having given birth.
Gender inequality, discrimination, social norms, cultural taboos, poverty and lack of basic services such as toilets, bathing facilities and sanitary products can all cause health and hygiene needs to go unmet. When this happens, it restricts girls’ mobility and personal choice, can cause stress and anxiety, it can also lead to exploitation in exchange for hygiene materials. This can also affect girls’ school attendance and participation in community life.
Tip: Work with duty-bearers and institutions (e.g. teachers/schools, local leaders, lawmakers) - where these remain functional in crisis-affected situations - to ensure girl-friendly policies, services and that girls have access to accurate information. This can be done by raising awareness of gender-based violence and engaging in advocacy activities, capacity-building trainings, policy dialogue, legal reforms, etc. It is important to center girls’ participation, voices and leadership in these change processes. (See point 2 above).
5. Make structural changes to scale up funding for girls (and not as a one-off).
To strengthen the empowerment of adolescent girls in humanitarian and conflict settings, structural change is needed in how the humanitarian sector operates.
Tip: Encourage major international development and humanitarian actors, governments, the private sector and civil society organizations to make structural changes and policy decisions to fund evidence-based approaches and services and invest in longer-term support for adolescent girls. This should focus on transformational change, encourage holistic and joined up multi-sector programming, and prioritize adolescent girls’ needs, priorities and leadership across preparedness, response and recovery efforts.
The GBV AoR Helpdesk is a free and confidential technical advisory and research service for all humanitarian actors working on GBV risk mitigation, prevention and response at the local, country, regional and global level. The Helpdesk is operated by SDDirect on behalf of UNICEF and the GBV AoR.
The GBV AoR Helpdesk is available 09:30 – 17:30 GMT, Monday to Friday. We will respond to you within 24 hours during these working days.
The Helpdesk also has a resource and publications library.
 UN Women & United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2023). Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. P. 5. https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2023-09/progress-on-the-sustainable-development-goals-the-gender-snapshot-2023-two-page-spreads-en.pdf
 Murphy M.et. al. (2019) What works to prevent violence against women and girls in conflict and humanitarian crisis: Synthesis Brief. https://www.whatworks.co.za/documents/publications/355-p868-irc-synthesis-brief-report-lr-26092019/file
 Social Development Direct (2020) Violence Against Women and Girls Helpdesk: Humanitarian and Conflict Brief – Adolescent Girls Resource Pac. https://www.sddirect.org.uk/sites/default/files/2022-10/VAWG-H~2.PDF