This is the conclusion of a report by the Women’s Refugee Commission and Save the Children, who argue that girls in particular are left extremely vulnerable in most crises. Based on findings from a study conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United Nations Population Fund, the report warns that governments, donors and agencies must do more to address the sexual and reproductive health needs of young people caught up in conflict.
In most conflicts (such as the one now affecting Syria), the majority of refugees are under the age of 25 and young people are frequently removed from their normal familial and social structures. This leaves girls vulnerable to sexual violence, rape, unsafe abortions and early marriage. Adolescent girls are at the highest risk of dying from pregnancy; girls aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related deaths as women over twenty. To reduce deaths and allow girls to stay in education, the report’s authors call for adolescent reproductive health services to be instigated at the start of emergency situations and to be integrated into the overall response by agencies.
In the report, three case studies are highlighted showing intervention programmes which engaged quickly with adolescents following an emergency, covered diverse groups and integrated services in one place, while offering help for adolescents in remote or insecure areas to reach these services. One of these successful programmes was run by the Straight Talk Foundation (STF) in northern Uganda.
Founded in 1997, this civil society organisation was set up to reach young people across the country through print, radio and outreach programmes. The aim of STF is to provide support and “values-based and scientifically-accurate knowledge on HIV, sexuality and growing up” to youngsters across all communities. This is done through newspapers such as ‘Straight Talk’ (and ‘Young Talk’ in Braille) distributed through a national daily and to schools, through radio broadcasts and face-to-face meetings with adolescents, parents and teachers.
In northern Uganda, STF has been supporting young people following the conflict in the region (as well as having acted as a communications partner for USAID’s ‘Stability, Peace and Reconciliation’ initiative). STF conducts teacher training sessions, village and parent meetings and school visits, as well as running four youth centres in the north which are used as bases for outreach work. As one counsellor for STF points out, work with youngsters doesn’t stop once a conflict ends since “there is a lot of sexual violence because of the war”. As well as needing access to sexual health advice and services during a crisis, the experience of northern Uganda therefore shows that youngsters continue to need ongoing advice and support for a long time afterwards.