There are two key periods of child identity development that require different approaches: childhood and adolescence. The intersection of gender and age deserves attention as adolescent girls affected by displacement in urban areas face enormous challenges from menarche. In development interventions, children are often homogenised into one category, ignoring their vast differences and often proposing approaches that either infantilise adolescent girls or fail to distinguish them from adult women. This box highlights the specific challenges and needs of this group of children that are often not explicitly targeted. It builds on a slowly increasing body of work by NGOs and research from the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence study.
In displacement settings, risks to young girls from violence and early sexual activities are exacerbated by the social and physical challenges of managing menstruation in overcrowded situations with limited privacy, water, sanitation and hygiene services. Modesty and secrecy may be prioritised by caregivers over girls’ basic physiological needs (Chant, Klett- Davies, & Ramalho, 2017). Moreover, a growing proportion of adolescents are displaced without a parent.
Adolescent girls ‘experience multiple layers of discrimination on the basis of socially constructed gender roles, but also on the grounds of age, which compounds their marginalisation. Typically, they are relegated to the bottom of power structures within the family, the community and society’ (Aling’o and Abdulmelik, 2017, p. 2). These inequalities result in adolescent girls being disproportionately affected by the structural exclusions and spatial limitations that characterise many urban poor neighbourhoods, with important implications for their health, wellbeing and personal advancement (Ramalho and Chant, forthcoming). Girls’ ability to adequately care for their personal hygiene during menstruation is negatively affected by taboos around frank and open discussions about female reproductive health.
Adolescence is a key stage of individual cognitive, emotional and social development, and physical transformation. For girls, the first menstruation marks a set of significant biological and socio-cultural changes – the entry into woman-hood and child-bearing capacity. This is often associated with expectations of different behaviour and taking on additional responsibilities in the household, resulting in less time for education and leisure activities (Mmari et al., 2016 cited in Coast and Lattof, 2018).
Gender moral codes may lead to the increased surveillance of adolescent girls to reduce their interaction with men, which limits their movement and shrinks their use of public spaces. While mobility expands for adolescent boys, girls’ spaces are reduced. Moreover, girls often perceive public space as unsafe and may risk having their reputation damaged by being out in it. Safety concerns constrain the freedom, geographic mobility and opportunities of adolescent girls, with long-term psychosocial and material implications for their wellbeing (Hallman et al., 2014).
Social norms and limited access to clean water and private spaces for bathing create exceptionally difficult circumstances for females of reproductive age to manage their menstrual hygiene. The situation is more difficult for girls with disabilities or who face discrimination in accessing water and sanitation because of their ethnicity or nationality (Ramalho and Chant, 2021; Coast et al., 2017; Sommer et al., 2015). The absence of girl-friendly water and sanitation facilities in schools causes many girls to miss school.
Schools are spaces where girls may experience sexual and gender-based violence from peers and teachers, which also contributes to dropouts. Adolescent girls living in cities report exposure to harassment on their journeys to school or at communal water and sanitation facilities. Living in constant fear of crime and violence has acute mental health implications. Displaced urban adolescent girls face specific challenges worsened by the socio-economic, spatial and infrastructural constraints associated with the poor urban neighbourhoods or precarious settlements where they settle.
This box heavily draws upon Chant, S., Klett-Davies, M., & Ramalho, J. (2017). Challenges and potential solutions for adolescent girls in urban settings: a rapid evidence review. London. For a more detailed review, see this document.