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A group of people wearing red shirts and holding a large printed banner while protesting on the street of Abuja, Nigeria.
Civil rights activists at a rally calling for the rescue of abducted Chibok school girls in Nigeria. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

Adolescent girls in five African conflict zones share stories about their lives

International organisations around the world are increasingly committing themselves to undertaking inclusive approaches to peacebuilding. These organisations all pledge to engage with ‘local actors’ in the design, implementation and evaluation of their programmes to support peace and security in conflict-affected zones.

There is good reason to adopt this approach. Research shows that programmes that are inclusive of the voices in a community, and responsive to their needs, are more likely to see short- and long-term successes.

But the number of times organisations take this approach is patchy at best. And even when they engage in genuine inclusive peacebuilding practices it is still necessary to ask: ‘Whose voices and experiences are included in efforts to ensure inclusive peacebuilding?’

In our research with conflict-affected communities in South Sudan, Uganda, and Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon in the Lake Chad Basin, we found that adolescent girls aged between 10 and 19 were seldom – if ever – consulted about the programmes to support peace in their communities. This was true even if the programmes were designed to support the girls themselves.

This is an important oversight that needs to be fixed. Adolescent girls face unique challenges in times of conflict and crisis. Their experiences are different from those of women, boys, and younger children.

If adolescent girls are not consulted about the programmes that seek to support them and their community, it is less likely that the programmes will be responsive to their unique challenges, and girls will continue to face insecurity.

How do girls experience conflict differently?

Over the last three years we have surveyed, interviewed and held focus group discussions with thousands of adolescent girls in conflict and crisis contexts. In 2017 and 2018 we conducted a survey with 698 girls across South Sudan, Uganda, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon. The aim was ascertain the security risks they faced, the ways in which they navigated them, and ways in which they contribute to building peace and security in their communities.

We also held interviews and focus group discussions with girls, their parents and guardians, adolescent boys, community leaders, representatives of civil society and international organisations, to understand the challenges girls face.

The adolescent girls we spoke to identified several major challenges to their lives.

For example, girls experience unique forms of conflict-related gender-based violence. One of these is child, early and forced marriage. South Sudan and Niger have among the highest rates of child marriage in the world. In Niger, almost half of all girls we surveyed aged between 15 and 19 told us they were, or had been, married.

Research has shown that child, early and forced marriage increase in times of crisis. Girls told us that this was for a number of reasons: they were married as a way of restoring a girl’s or family’s honour in the aftermath of sexual violence; to provide physical protection from abduction, sexual violence and forced marriage by militant groups; and to address the economic insecurity of girls (and their families, with one less mouth to feed) through the payment of a bride price.

Girls in South Sudan reported that child, early and forced marriage was the most prominent form of gender-based violence they faced. While many girls in both contexts recognised its inevitability, none we spoke to freely chose to marry nor reported that they were involved in the decision-making around marriage.

Early marriage can have devastating consequences for adolescent girls, increasing their likelihood of family violence, poverty, denial of education, and health complications associated with early pregnancy.

Another example of conflict-related gender-based violence was the fear of abduction, sexual violence and forced recruitment by militants.

Girls cited cases of abduction, including that of the Chibok schoolgirls, as a reason for their restricted movement and fear of moving about their communities. In South Sudan, 13% of all girls we surveyed said that they had previously been abducted. Across Lake Chad 50% of all girls said they felt insecure in their own communities.

Another example of conflict-related gender-based violence was the fear of being vulnerable to family violence. This was particularly problematic given that many girls were separated from their families because of the conflict.

In South Sudan, a girl in Bidi Bidi told us:

I know children being mistreated because the mother is far away.

Girls also suffer other forms of community-based physical violence and threats. A girl in Juba told us:

We will be beaten by unknown people. Because the security is not good at night. People can be easily killed or shot dead…

Imagining life in peacetime

By far, the overwhelming hope recited by adolescent girls was to return to school.

Girls told us that their ability to attend school was undermined by numerous factors. These included the cost of school fees and supplies, the poor quality of the teachers and facilities, the increased domestic labour and caring responsibilities placed on girls, issues of safety and distance in travelling to school, and marriage.

None of the girls we spoke to who were married returned to school after their marriage.

Girls described school as fundamental to their lives. They saw it as a protective mechanism against early marriage and family violence, a safe space to learn, a network that built their confidence and happiness, and an opportunity to develop independent pathways and future economic security.

Why these voices matter

Adult decision-makers assume that both their age and their gender render adolescent girls unable to understand and articulate their life experiences.

Yet in our conversations with girls, we found astute commentaries on their communities, and the causes of the issues that they face. They are clearly experts on the threats to security in their own lives.

Moreover, we found that adolescent girls have different priorities to adults on the issues that needed addressing, new insights into the drivers of the insecurities they faced, and a capacity to be partners in the programmes offered to them.

Another reason peacebuilding programmes need to include the views of adolescent girls is that they are major grassroots peacebuilders in their communities. Girls and women run households, perform care labour, build social relationships, show community leadership in times of crisis, raise children and foster the values of inter-generational peace. Moreover, research has shown that building cultures where girls and women are encouraged to participate, lead and make decisions in both public and private spheres is central to achieving lasting peace.

And where girls and women continue to experience gender-based violence and are denied their rights, true peace will always be undermined.

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