By Maddie Koch
This week, we’ve all been saddened – but not necessarily surprised –by the shooting of the 14-year-old Pakistani education activist, Malala Yousafzai. You may remember that she was the brave voice of school-age children in the 2009 documentary “Class Dismissed.” Despite her age, Malala saw an opportunity to advocate for an issue that directly affects her life. A panelist at GW University’s event “Women and Girls: Forces for Creating Disaster-Resilient Societies” spoke on Thursday about another 14-year-old, Jesmine, who helped her community in Bangladesh develop contingency plans for the cyclones that often affect families’ economic and physical security. Jesmine, too, took advantage of an opportunity to become a community leader and improve quality of life for her family.
As the U.N. celebrated its first “International Day of the Girl” on October 11th, WIIS thought about the members of our informal network who are way ahead of their years- those who are (hopefully) still in school studying history and math, but have the potential to ameliorate security issues in their own communities.
Not just women, but girls, can be agents of peace building and change.
Development and security organizations are constantly trying to “find the balance between victims and agents of resiliency” when programming for a female-specific audience. Adolescent women are probably the subgroup most often identified as victims, because they are the most vulnerable; adolescent women are not yet adults but still face many of the same challenges as their mothers- sexual violence, economic and social burdens, lack of education, social and political marginalization. Gender-sensitive programming in situations of armed conflict, refugee crises, natural disasters and other situations should be inclusive of all generations of women.
Consider the Penn State geospatial mapping project undertaken in Kibera, a large slum in Kenya. Geography students used direct reports from women and girls to map instances of sexual violence and harassment, providing the community with an essential personal safety tool. In this instance, the simple participation of multiple generations of women contributed to improved security conditions.
Unfortunately, young women living in prolonged crisis or conflict situations grow up faster than most. Women are more likely to become the head of the family when men are absent due to violent conflict or refugee situations, and adolescents then take on roles with greater responsibility. Young women in disadvantaged communities are also essential agents of peace building relative to their male counterparts who are typically at-risk for terrorism and other illegal activities (unfortunately we’re seeing the gender divide on this subject slowly decreasing).
Although – or because – these girls have been put in such difficult situations, they can also be strong and authoritative agents of change when given a voice. Just take a look at the past twenty months of youth-led protests in the Arab world!
Girls have already proven to be agents of change. See how:
 Andrea Burniske, director of Save the Children’s GIRL Project, helps run the disaster preparedness program in Bangladesh which has trained Jesmine and other adolescent girls to become leaders in their communities.
 Carla Koppell, Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, USAID (GWU, Oct 11, 2012)
 Anita Malley, Acting Senior Displacement and Policy Protection Advisor, US OFDA (GWU, Oct 11, 2012)