There are close to 600 million adolescent girls aged 10 to 19 living in the world today, with 500 million in developing countries. Importantly, more than half the global population of adolescent girls are on Australia’s doorstep, growing up in the countries that we provide aid and development to, trade with and engage with on foreign policy.
Our neighbours in South Asia host a staggering 340 million adolescent girls and boys, and East Asia and the Pacific are home to 277 million adolescents. In the Sub-Saharan region, where we provide the most in humanitarian aid, 10 to 19 year olds make up almost one quarter of the region’s population.
This means that half a billion adolescent girls in the developing world are our next generation of leaders, workers and mothers. Empowering girls teaches them to use their voices; to speak for themselves, and to recognise that they have choices. This leads to transforming economies and building peace.
It is important to recognise that adolescent girls’ experience of the peace and security agenda is different to that of younger children, boys, men and even adult women. The unique intersection of age and gender makes adolescent girls particularly vulnerable to physical, emotional, sexual, and mental health issues and disproportionately high levels of sexual and gender-based violence.
The picture is even bleaker for girls that are the most disadvantaged and discriminated against, such as girls that have a disability, those who are the poorest or live in the most remote communities, girls that are sex workers, girls that belong to a minority indigenous, ethnic or religious group, those who are young mothers, girls who are refugees or migrants or girls who identify as lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
And yet, despite the challenges they face, adolescent girls can be powerful agents of social change. They have the desire and the capacity to transform the world and are looking for opportunities to do so. In fact, young people have played an important role in every social movement in modern history.
Research into adolescent girls in emergencies and protracted crises suggests that humanitarian responses do not account for the unique risks they face, and how their routines, roles and assets shape their ability to safely access vital resources. Adolescent girls can be rendered invisible, forced to take on roles and responsibilities that restrict their mobility and visibility.
However, if girls are listened to and their needs are met, they can go on to play a critical role before, during and after emergencies. Girls that are able to access education during times of crisis are less likely to be at risk of child marriage, trafficking and gender based violence. Adolescent girls also play a crucial role in supporting their families and their communities to prepare for disasters, understand risks and apply transformative solutions.
As Australia works to develop its next National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, it is vital that we make adolescent girls visible, and recognise the powerful role girls can play in creating peaceful and safe societies. Specifically, this paper focuses on the opportunities for Australia to promote transformative practice through aid and foreign policy.