Drought has swept the Horn of Africa, leaving in its wake famine, communities forced to migrate, swollen refugee camps, and death.
Yet one of the greatest travesties of the worst drought crisis facing the region in more than a half century isn’t what we can see, and it won’t be resolved when the famine is over.
As we lift the tent walls and look into the bush, we find there is no safe space for girls and women—even in the displacement camps.
For that reason, when girls and women fleeing the devastating Somali and Kenyan drought were asked, “What is your greatest concern?,” food, water, and shelter were not their first answers.
A recent survey funded by the U.K.’s Department for International Development of 100 girls and women in the Dadaab refugee camp of northern Kenya shows that their greatest concern is avoiding rape and kidnapping.
Somali and Kenyan girls have become the victims of sexual violence on a frightening scale. The most vulnerable are girls under the age of 15. As one woman said, “While we were walking, if the men with the guns saw a pretty girl, they would take her and they would keep her.”
In the first six months of this year, there were 358 reported incidents of sexual violence in and around Dadaab—but this is probably just a fraction of the true number.
Girls who are raped are afraid to tell anyone for fear of shame, being blamed, or being branded as “unmarriageable” by their families and communities. As one—anonymous—woman in Dadaab put it: “If you tell, no one will help. It is better to be safe and tell no one.”
The problem here is not just that girls are not being protected. Or that girls are not being supported. The real issue is that girls simply are not seen. They are not valued. But this is not unique to refugee camps, or to this crisis. The crisis exacerbates the issue.
Around the developing world, girls are the infrastructure of poverty—carrying firewood and water, caring for the young and elderly, working the fields or hawking in cities. Seventy percent of out-of-school children are girls. One girl in seven in developing countries is married before the age of 15. Three quarters of 15- to 24-year-olds living with HIV in Africa are female.
These are some of the figures we do know. There would be more, but across much of the developing world, girls aren’t even counted. There are no systems for recording their birth, their citizenship, or even their identity.
Girls in the developing world are invisible. In crises, they are the first to go hungry and experience the highest levels of violence. But girls are more than invisible victims. They are the invisible solution to poverty.
According to Oxfam, more than $1 billion has been pledged to support the Horn of Africa. The U.S. government has donated more than $580 million to the Horn effort this year alone, making the U.S. the single largest contributor to the emergency response.
And yet it’s not enough. If we want to address this crisis, we need world leaders and the aid industry to think beyond food aid and temporary shelter. We need to think about how we’re going to prevent crises in the future.
When you invest in a girl, you stop poverty before it starts. Ignite her potential and transform her world, and she will not only improve her life, she will propel her family and her community. We call it the “girl effect.”
For every extra year of schooling, a girl’s income is increased 25 percent. Women and girls reinvest 90 percent of their income into their families—compared with 30 to 40 percent for a man. A girl is the mother of every child born into poverty. As an educated mother, an active, productive citizen, and a prepared employee, she breaks the cycle of poverty—for herself, for her family, for her community. Multiply that by the 250 million adolescent girls in the developing world, and you get the most powerful force for positive change on the planet.
Girls’ unique vulnerability ends when they have control of their lives and their future. This means specifically designing for their distinct needs and investing in their capacity. As we focus on the Horn, we must focus on girls. It doesn’t mean changing everything. It just takes including girls in what’s already being done.
It starts with making sure girls eat. Both short- and long-term, creating safe spaces and environments to ensure their protection. Keeping girls in school. And enabling girls to get assets early and maintain control of them.
People across the world can be proud that their contributions to the Disasters Emergency Committee are doing just that. CARE is just one of the charities funded by the DEC that are doing great work to protect girls in Dadaab.
This crisis is our wakeup call. If the world opens its eyes to girls, and starts protecting and investing in them, we have the power to transform not only their future but also the future of the Horn, and the future of the world.