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In early August, the international news agency, Reuters, reported that families in Kenyawere selling their daughters into marriage, sometimes for as little as $168.00 dollars, in an attempt to ease the economic burden caused by drought. The story about the “child drought brides” gathered international attention. Sadly, the situation inKenya is not unique. Climate change, and its detrimental effects on the environment, disproportionately affects adolescent girls and is increasing girls’ risk for school dropout, early marriage, sexual violence, and other negative outcomes.


“Climate change and local environmental change may destroy all of my dreams and aspirations,” 15 year-old girl from the Philippines

Drought and natural disasters often increase the economic burden felt by vulnerable households.  In the aftermath of natural disasters, families may experience job loss, home damage, and loss of crops and livestock. Girls are often the first pulled out of school to help supplement the household income.

Girls may also be forced to leave school in order to shoulder some of the burden of increased household responsibilities. Girls may be expected to care for sick or injured relatives or to provide childcare for younger siblings when parents are traveling to collect aid or food.  Furthermore, drought, deforestation, and natural disasters often cause adolescent girls to spend more than half of their days looking for wood and clean water; this results in less regular school attendance.  When a girl is forced to leave school, not only is her education jeopardized, but she faces increased risk of early and unintended pregnancies, and HIV and other STIs.

The economic burden of climate change also increases a girl’s risk of early marriage. Many families arrange marriages for the “bride price” and to ease the burden of having to feed and care for girls. Early marriage often results in girls leaving school and increases the risk of early pregnancy.

In disaster situations, women and girls are more likely to experience all types of violence including sexual violence. Girls are at risk of sexual violence while staying in relief shelters, on the way to the shelters, and when collecting water or firewood while staying in a shelter.  Sexual violence leads to poor health consequences for its victims including unintended pregnancies, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and death. Also, because families perceive shelters as unsafe, girls may be left at home, making them unable to benefit from the reproductive health services offered there.

Programs and policies need to place a greater focus on the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change on the reproductive health of adolescent girls. In a recent report called “Weathering the Storm: Adolescent Girls and Climate Change,” Plan International makes the following programmatic and policy suggestions.

Programs should ensure that girls have: 

  1. Greater access to quality education
  2. Greater protection from gender-based violence  
  3. Greater participation in activities related adapting to climate change and reducing risk

Policies should:

  1. Prescribe gender-sensitive strategies for adapting to climate change
  2. Address gender inequality as a root cause of vulnerability to climate change



Elizabeth Futrell is an associate technical officer at FHI360, where she works on activities related to community-based family planning and youth sexual and reproductive health.

© 2011 Onasis Odelmo, Courtesy of NBC Chicago

On July 26, ten up-and-coming Chicago fashion designers competed in the Heshima Kenya Fashion Challenge, an innovative event to benefit unaccompanied refugee girls who have arrived in Nairobi from conflict- and famine-ravaged regions of Africa. In 2007, Anne Sweeney and Talyn Good founded Heshima Kenya, a U.S. nonprofit organization based inNairobi, after noticing that most humanitarian relief efforts focus on general aid and overlook the unique and pressing needs of unaccompanied refugee minors.

© 2011 Melissa Hayes Photography

Heshima is the Swahili word for respect, honor, and dignity, and Heshima Kenya was founded on the belief that young people deserve to grow and develop with integrity and thrive in communities where their rights and interests are respected. Heshima Kenya works to carry out its mission by providing a continuum of holistic care to address issues of medical care, shelter, education, legal documentation, and family tracing. The program also promotes self-sufficiency by providing skills-building opportunities, resources, and economic support for a healthy transition to adulthood. Its staff works with partner organizations and local schools, clinics, and religious organizations to identify and protect additional unaccompanied refugee minors and spread awareness of their needs. Finally, the program builds the capacity of the refugee community to effectively care for minors and encourage youth participation as caregivers, volunteers, and mentors.

One initiative that has developed from Heshima Kenya, the Maisha Collective, offers refugee girls and young women from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Burundi economic opportunities with which to rebuild their lives. By managing a business collective that designs and produces a line of unique hand-dyed scarves, participants gain business and marketing skills that prepare them for future independence.

© 2011 Onasis Odelmo, Courtesy of NBC Chicago - The winning design.

The Heshima Kenya Fashion Challenge was a Project Runway-inspired competition, emceed and judged by local celebrities and members of the Chicago fashion community. Competing designers each received one Maisha Collective scarf, chosen at random, and had two weeks to design an original women’s look. The judges critiqued each look and chose the winning design. The audience also voted on one designer to receive the People’s Choice Award. Guests had the opportunity to bid on the designer looks and, of course, purchase scarves.

Many of the designers said that their creations were inspired by the young women who made the scarves; in turn, there is no doubt that the members of the Maisha Collective in Nairobi will be inspired to see how the 10 American designers transformed their scarves into unique and beautiful couture.

© 2011 Onasis Odelmo, Courtesy of NBC Chicago

For a full slideshow of photos from the event, click here.

Current events such as the unrest in the Middle East, the crisis in Japan, and the continued recovery efforts in Haiti remind us of the many needs of adolescents in humanitarian settings. Adolescents are a special population, and they require tailored programming to meet their unique needs in crisis situations. Nearly 85 percent of the world’s young people live in developing countries, where most humanitarian emergencies occur. Humanitarian emergencies disrupt family and social structures; in crisis situations, adolescents are often separated from their families, and educational programs are discontinued.

“The loss of livelihood, security and the protection provided by family and community places adolescents at risk of poverty, violence, and sexual exploitation and abuse.” -ASRH Toolkit for Humanitarian Settings (Save the Children and UNFPA)

To learn more about working with adolescents in Humanitarian settings, participate in the upcoming IYWG e-forum, Untapped potential—Working with youth to meet their SRH needs in humanitarian emergencies, April 19th through April 22nd.  Facilitated by experts in the field, the forum will give participants an opportunity to discuss this topic and to ask questions about the Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Toolkit for Humanitarian Settings (Save the Children and UNFPA), a companion to the Inter-agency Field Manual on Reproductive Health in Humanitarian Settings (Inter-Agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises). An e-learning course on this subject has also been released by UNFPA and Save the Children.

Click here to register for the forum and read more about the facilitators. We look forward to hearing from you on the 19th!


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This blog is brought to you by the Interagency Youth Working Group (IYWG) with financial assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The content is managed by FHI, which functions as the secretariat for the IYWG.
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