Creating Opportunities and Raising Voices of Adolescent Girls in Humanitarian Settings

Adolescence is a distinctly challenging and critical time for girls, during which they face immense social barriers that limit them from leading safer, healthier and more self-sufficient lives. Humanitarian crises, which rupture existing key community and state structures such as health care, education and social services, and break up or displace families and communities, render adolescent girls even more vulnerable. Adolescent girls living in crisis-affected communities, including refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), are at increased risk of gender-based violence (GBV), including sexual violence and exploitation, intimate partner violence and early and forced marriage.

GBV is a direct attack on girls’ mental and physical health, and future aspirations and prospects. It has implications on girls’ access to education, participation in society, employment prospects and family life. Although there is a growing body of information on the prevalence of GBV against girls, there is still little research available specific to adolescent girls in humanitarian settings. As a result, there is also a lack of rigorous evidence on effective strategies for protecting adolescent girls in humanitarian settings from GBV and helping them recover.

To respond to the specific needs of adolescent girls in humanitarian settings and to address the gap in evidence of what works to promote the health, safety and empowerment of adolescent girls, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has invested in a robust adolescent girl programming and research agenda. As part of this effort, the IRC partnered with Columbia University over a three year period (2014–2017) to develop, implement and evaluate the Creating Opportunities through Mentoring, Parental Involvement and Safe Spaces (COMPASS) program, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). COMPASS was implemented with refugees living in camps on the Sudan/Ethiopia border, conflict-affected communities in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and displaced populations in north-west Pakistan.

The IRC developed and implemented the interventions used in COMPASS by building on existing programming and resources on adolescent girls and GBV, as well as adapting them for the complex contexts of diverse humanitarian settings. COMPASS was implemented by IRC’s Women’s Protection and Empowerment (WPE) program teams, with support from IRC researchers and technical advisors, and evaluated by Columbia University.

An external evaluation, led by Columbia University, was carried out across the three program locations to assess the effectiveness, feasibility and acceptability of the above program interventions. The evaluation in each program location had different objectives and different designs. Methodologies included quantitative and qualitative data collection. Each country’s evaluation is described below:

  • In Ethiopia, an impact evaluation was carried out to study whether the adolescent girls’ life skills sessions conducted as part of COMPASS had an impact on the girls’ exposure to gender- based violence (GBV) and their social and health outcomes.
  • In DRC, the evaluation sought to assess the additional impact of the parents’ group discussions on adolescent girls’ exposure to GBV, their social and health outcomes, as well as on the attitudes of parents towards adolescent girls.
  • In Pakistan, the evaluation assessed the feasibility and the acceptability of the program to adolescent girls and parents in their context, and measured changes in girls’ social and health outcomes over the course of the programme.

Though the study design was different in each country, common outcomes were measured in all three, to enable some comparison. In addition to the external evaluations led by Columbia University, the IRC’s Women’s Protection and Empowerment teams in each location collected monitoring data throughout the implementation of the program to assess what did and did not lead to desired changes, and to inform program adaptations and feed into wider learning.

This report shares learning from the implementation and evaluation of COMPASS across locations in Ethiopia, DRC and Pakistan.

COMPASS included the following core interventions:

  • Adolescent girls’ life skills sessions: weekly discussions with groups of adolescent girls in allocated safe spaces, facilitated by young female mentors.
  • Parent/caregiver discussion groups: monthly discussions with parents/caregivers of adolescent girls participating in the program.
  • Service provider support: targeted training and ongoing support to develop knowledge, capacity and skills regarding the specific needs of adolescent girls, and particularly those who have experienced GBV.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Below is a summary of the key conclusions from the implementation and evaluation of the COMPASS program and recommendations to donors, policy makers, practitioners and researchers on supporting a robust programming and research agenda for adolescent girls in humanitarian settings.

  1. Adolescent girls as young as 10 are experiencing GBV in humanitarian settings. Intimate partners were most likely to be the perpetrators of nearly all types of violence against adolescent girls.
  2. Adolescent girls expressed a clear demand for the tailored support provided by COMPASS. As a result of participating in the program, girls had better knowledge of professional GBV services, felt more positive about themselves and about the future, and had stronger social networks and a safe space to go to.
  3. Consultation with adolescent girls throughout implementation was essential to ensure programming was responsive, flexible and addressed the needs of girls from diverse backgrounds.
  4. The existence of quality GBV services and trained staff was critical to ensure the safety and wellbeing of adolescent girls targeted by COMPASS.
  5. COMPASS has made a valuable contribution to the evidence of what works to promote the health, safety and empowerment of adolescent girls in humanitarian settings. However, further programming and research is needed to build on this learning and increase understanding of which strategies and interventions are most effective in reducing GBV against adolescent girls in humanitarian settings.

Based on these conclusions, the IRC has developed a program model and resource package called Girl Shine. It builds on the positive practices in COMPASS and bridges the gaps identified during the implementation of the program and by associated research. Girl Shine is intended to be a practical and flexible resource for practitioners. It includes step-by-step guides on how to design, implement and monitor a life- skills program for adolescent girls and parents/caregivers living in humanitarian settings. It also features a training component for mentors and staff.

IRC makes the following recommendations to donors and policy makers, (including donor governments, UN bodies and humanitarian bodies) and practitioners (including INGOs, national, local and women’s organisations in emergency-affected contexts):

  1. Donors and policy makers should commit to the development of a strategy or government-wide policy dedicated to adolescent girls in humanitarian settings.
  2. Donors and policy makers should provide long-term, dedicated funding to programs like COMPASS that specifically address GBV against adolescent girls in humanitarian settings.
  3. Donors and practitioners should ensure adolescent girl programming is driven by adolescent girls’ needs and voices and is responsive to ongoing monitoring.
  4. Practitioners should ensure that adolescent girl programming also targets younger adolescent girls.
  5. Donors and practitioners should invest in safe spaces for adolescent girls.
  6. Donors and practitioners should invest in mentorship approaches.
  7. Practitioners should ensure staff implementing adolescent girl programming have GBV knowledge and skills, and receive training on how to work appropriately and effectively with adolescent girls.
  8. Donors, policy makers and GBV service providers should ensure adolescent girls can access quality GBV services that are tailored to meet their needs.
  9. Donors, policy makers and practitioners should ensure holistic programming exists that tackles wider harmful norms.
  10. Donors, practitioners and researchers should pilot further programs and research to better understand how female and male parents/caregivers can contribute to the safety and wellbeing of adolescent girls.
  11. Donors and researchers should continue to invest in research to improve program models before moving to large -scale impact evaluations.
  12. Donors, practitioners and researchers should prioritise the following areas of research on strategies and interventions that reduce GBV against adolescent girls in conflict and humanitarian settings:
  • Another cycle of COMPASS data collection to better measure the long-term effects of the intervention.
  • The effectiveness and impact of mentorship models on the empowerment, community status and gendered attitudes of mentors themselves.
  • The ways in which mothers, fathers and caregivers influence girls’ exposure to violence and how this is mediated by gender and power dynamics in the household.
  • Further develop qualitative research methods to better understand the needs of younger adolescent girls in order to inform programming.