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Cash assistance is critical for adolescent girls in crisis

News and Press Release
Originally published

By Cassondra Puls, research advisor, Women's Refugee Commission

Humanitarian agencies are increasingly supporting displaced families with Cash and Voucher Assistance (CVA). This has raised questions about how CVA is affecting -- and being inclusive of -- specific populations, such as adolescent girls.

This work on inclusion of adolescent girls in humanitarian action has been a priority of the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) for some time.

Last year, WRC researchers consulted adolescent girls and their caregivers who took part in Plan International's CVA programming in the Central African Republic (CAR) and in Egypt. We also reviewed current evidence related to adolescents and CVA across humanitarian settings globally.

What we found underscored our commitment to ensuring access for adolescents to all possible tools that can help them build their own brightest futures. We found that cash assistance programming matters for adolescent girls for three main reasons, as outlined below.

Cash enhances protection

Crises can force adolescent girls to take on adult responsibilities. Programs for adolescent girls that include CVA can enhance girls' protection from negative developmental patterns, risky coping mechanisms, and the long-lasting negative effects of economic shocks and unequal gender norms.

In CAR, adolescent girls between the ages of 10 and 19 described escaping from militant group attacks and becoming separated from their families in the process of fleeing. As one girl said, "Last year I lived a life of catastrophe because I lost my parents during the crisis." Cash transferred to foster families enabled adolescent girls to be looked after within a protective family environment. "What we like about our [foster] parents is that they show us parental love in the household like all other children," one girl in Berberati, CAR, who was separated from her family members and then placed in a foster family, told WRC.

In Egypt, cash assistance enabled families to pay fees for school and contributed to keeping 10- to 14-year-old adolescent girls out of child marriages and in school. A Syrian refugee community leader told us that "parents marry off their girls to reduce the economic burden that is placed on them. Sometimes, they believe she would be better off marrying someone rich to cover her expenses." Instead, Syrian refugee parents used the cash assistance to pay for school fees so that adolescent girls could stay in school, engage positively with peers, and participate in afterschool programming. A younger adolescent girl described her experience, saying, "After learning from the program, I make sure to spend time socializing. Now I have many friends and I always talk with them."

Cash promotes well-being

Adolescent girls have unique developmental and individual needs that are distinct from those of children, boys, and adults. Interventions that use CVA can help relieve the economic barriers to the well-being of adolescent girls.

In Egypt, CVA enabled adolescent girls to go to school and study in positive, protective, supportive environments. Adolescents explained that through CVA not only were they enrolled in school, but following participation in Plan's parenting circles and teacher trainings, parents and teachers used less corporal punishment and more positive means of motivating girls.

In CAR, adolescent girls said CVA was the key to greater access to food and health services; as one adolescent girl told us, as a result of the cash transfer, "our parents take care of us in terms of health, education, and nutrition." An older adolescent girl explained that "the problems girls are facing are unwanted pregnancy, early marriage, rape, and sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS."

Our global review of evidence showed that CVA can enable adolescent girls to purchase supplies for menstrual health management and contraception, and to access sexual and reproductive health care, including safe abortion where appropriate. As a humanitarian practitioner told us in our interviews with global experts, adolescents "are being placed in this adult position and certain needs of adolescents are taboo or not understood, like condoms. We [agencies delivering CVA] might support them when their parents might not." Our global review and WRC's ongoing work on gender-based violence indicates that CVA has the potential to strengthen interventions to prevent and respond to violence against women---and showed that more needs to be learned about how CVA can prevent and respond to violence against adolescent girls.

Cash allows girls to reach their potential

Adolescent girls have diverse interests; effectively designed CVA enables adolescent girls to fulfill their unique needs, interests, and leadership capacities to achieve their individual potential. In WRC's consultations in CAR, adolescent girls aged 10-14 said they were interested in dance, sports, and school; they were glad that conditional cash transfers to their parents allowed their families to pay for school fees. Meanwhile, the interests of adolescent girls aged 15-19 were less directly met through the program, reflecting the importance of varying humanitarian programming that targets adolescent girls based on girls' diverse profiles. Older adolescent girls were more likely to be interested in professional and higher education, vocational training, and secure housing---things needed to build an independent life for themselves, and in some cases for their own growing families and children. "For us who are already young mothers, if the organization could train us on professional training such as sewing, hairdressing, and IT, that, too, can help us," one young mother told us.

The older adolescent girls WRC spoke with revealed that interventions that include CVA need to better meet the needs of all adolescents girls---through integrated programming that leverages cash to support greater access to sexual and reproductive health services and to vocational training, and support adolescent girls' agency to make and enact decisions about themselves and their futures.

A brighter future for adolescent girls

We now have increasingly clear evidence that cash can strengthen programs that reduce a girl's risk of child marriage, enable her to go to school, provide her with a safe environment in a foster family, and much more. We call on humanitarian agencies that are delivering CVA in crises to step up and do more to reach, benefit, and engage adolescent girls in all their diversity.

Nothing less than their future is at stake.