Building hope for adolescent girls in post-earthquake Haiti

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© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1206/Roger LeMoyne
A girl smiles during class in a tent at Celie-Lilavois Primary School in Port-au-Princel. Some 4,700 schools were damaged or destroyed by the earthquake, affecting some 700,000 school-age children. The new school year brings both challenges and opportunities for girls in Haiti.

By Anna Azaryeva

NEW YORK, USA, 13 October 2010 – As schools open for the new academic year in Haiti, the hope is to bring all boys and girls to school, those who attended before the earthquake struck in January 2010, and those hardest to reach, who will go to school for the first time.

Providing girls and boys with a safe and nurturing educational environment is a priority in Haiti. However, as 1.3 million Haitians are still displaced 10 months after the earthquake, adolescent girls remain one of the most disadvantaged groups. Factors including disparities and poverty put Haitian girls and young women at risk before the earthquake, and now, living in displacement camps, they are particularly vulnerable to sexual and other forms of violence.

UNICEF Radio podcast moderator Amy Costello spoke with Judith Bruce, Senior Associate and Policy Analyst with the Population Council’s Poverty, Gender, and Youth program, and Michelle Trombley, UNICEF’s Gender-Based Violence Specialist in Haiti, about the situation for adolescent girls in Haiti, both in camps and at school.

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Girls at risk

“The situation for adolescent girls in Haiti has been increasingly difficult,” said Michelle Trombley, who is leading UNICEF’s response to violence against women and girls in Haiti. “Schools have just started. For a lot of children, this is going to be the first time back in an actual building structure since the earthquake, so there are many different levels of stress that are facing girls.”

“There was very little focused on girls, particularly the youngest girls, who have become the rising proportion of the reported rapes and other kinds of violence,” said Judith Bruce. “The work we have done is showing that most of youth programmes, in fact, are dominated by older males who are threatening to these girls, so very early on girls start dropping out and the least empowered girls just do not show up.”

“There is nowhere to hide in the camps,” explains Michelle Trombley. “There is really no space that girls have to find safety and security or to even talk about issues that they have going on.”

Dedicated spaces for adolescent girls

To empower and protect Haitian girls, AmeriCares and the Population Council co-founded the Haiti Adolescent Girls Network. This coalition of humanitarian organizations aims to reduce girls’ risks of poverty, violence, and rape by supporting the creation of dedicated safe spaces for adolescent girls.

“Girls need a space where they can go to regularly and reliably, at least weekly, at least for two hours, where they can be themselves – essentially a place where they can talk about their concerns and the stress they are under,” said Judith Bruce. “The specific theory, with good evidence now, is that girls who have strong friendship networks are much better protected.”

Empowering and protecting girls

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1282/Marta Ramoneda
Nine-year-old Rachel(name changed) was kidnapped near the tent camp where she was living with her sisters after the earthquake. She was raped and badly beaten. After Rachel returned from the hospital, the assaulter tried to attack her again. Dedicated spaces for adolescent girls can help girls build support networks and protect them from violence.

The start of a school year presents new challenges concerning girls’ safety at school, but also new avenues to empower girls. “There are a lot of opportunities to be working within schools, to be working with girls and with boys as well to raise their awareness about the issues and to be working with them more from the prevention point of view,” said Michelle Trombley.

For adolescent girls, having additional community-based opportunities is especially important. “When you have girls’ spaces, you can move directly into basic literacy which is often what’s missing”, said Judith Bruce. “There is a tremendous amount of confidence and asset-building that can be done in the community-based platforms.”

Judith Bruce explained that these programmes work particularly well in conjunction with school programs, especially when targeting the youngest girls in secondary school.

“They often are the ones who are the most likely to be victimized because they’re the youngest females in the setting,” she said. “I think there is a lot we can do with single-sex opportunities, and a lot we can do from community-based programs.”

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