Publication Date
October 4, 2016

"[R]ecent humanitarian action has highlighted the need to more rigorously include the perspectives and consider needs of adolescents in crisis situations."

Plan International United Kingdom (UK) and Plan International commissioned this report to clarify and develop a conceptualisation of adolescence during emergencies and to summarise the data available on adolescents in humanitarian settings. The report also maps out the work Plan International is doing with and for adolescents in humanitarian action, offers programming tips, identifies trends in the work of other agencies, and proposes recommendations for future work designed to meet the needs of adolescents during emergencies. Data and research information were drawn from approximately 120 sources, references, publications, and websites, and a total of 34 key informants were involved in 20 interviews.

The report first examines the meaning of the term "adolescence", which refers to a specific phase of life within the process of a child's development. Adolescence may be thought of as a stage of life as defined by a set period of time or age bracket. Alternatively, adolescence may be characterised as a series of interconnected biological or physical, intellectual (including cognitive), emotional (including psychological), behavioural, or social changes that take place in a child's life. The socio-cultural expectations and norms that vary for girls and boys will determine how the biological and physical differences are interpreted and impact on the roles individuals are expected to fill and behaviours they are expected to demonstrate. The age at which certain markers come into force, such as age of compulsory education and legal age for engagement in certain forms of work, varies significantly from one country to the next.

These definitions change over time and as a result of emergency events. It is recommended that Plan International conceptualise adolescents as including the age-graded definition provided in The State of the World's Girls (10-19 years old). However, they should consider presenting this as flexible and reinforce the fact that this will differ based on context. For any given programme in a given location, a process for defining adolescence may start with discussion with a range of stakeholders (for example young children: in two groups 7-10 and 10-14; older children: 14-18; and youth: 18-25; parents; and key members of the community: religious leaders, teachers, medical personnel, etc.) to establish if the concept of a transition phase between childhood and adulthood (i.e. adolescence) exists. Because donors may impose or expect certain ages to be adhered to, advocacy needs to take place at country, regional, and global levels to negotiate a more open approach, with an inception phase to allow for a context-specific definition of adolescence and identification of relevant children.

The next section looks at the specific needs of adolescents generally, and in humanitarian settings specifically. The data and evidence here are reviewed according to certain categories: child protection; adolescents on the move; sexual and reproductive health; education; livelihoods; nutrition; water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH); climate change; and other issues (bullying, abuse through technology, drug and alcohol use, gang violence, and questions around sexuality and gender identity). For each topic of discussion, the report defines the issue; then - where data is available - summarises global trends in incidence rates, outlines the consequences for adolescents, identifies case examples in emergencies, indicates which sub-groups of adolescents may be most vulnerable, and outlines some key considerations for programming.

To cite only one offering in the report related to programming recommendations, with regard to physical violence, it is suggested that assessments find ways to gather data in a highly confidential manner enabling programme staff to understand trends of intra-household violence that may be more concealed than that caused by strangers. For example, the use of one-to-one interviews or handheld devices to collect data from a sample of children may be preferable to focus group discussions, which may inhibit free and open discussion. Another recommendation is that programme activities seek to address issues of intimate partner violence by raising awareness of the issue at community level and ensuring services area available (such as safe houses) for those who are escaping such violence. Location-specific modules for caregivers on positive parenting techniques, and specifically the challenges of parenting adolescents in humanitarian settings, would be beneficial. Simply establishing opportunities for caregivers of adolescents to meet and exchange on the challenges of parenting and ideas for positive ways to address the difficulties they face may be helpful. Recommendations in the report on sexual violence are in some ways overlapping and point to the need for specific skills/training and practices on the part of personnel engaging in programmes to prevent or respond to incidents. Links to helpful resources are provided.

Plan notes: "When practitioners take on a one size fits all approach, they often fail to meet the varied needs of adolescents in emergencies, both girls and boys. Yet, specialised programming for this population group is not often identified. The primary reasons given for the lack of tailored responses to the specific needs of adolescents are issues in relation to data collection and quality, time constraints, lack of financial and material resources, limited technical capacity, lack of tools supporting programme delivery, the inter-sectorial nature of adolescents’ needs, and the hidden nature of adolescents broadly and the most vulnerable adolescent specifically." This section of the report provides various recommendations for programme personnel to overcome these constraints. For example, to address limited technical capacity among the humanitarian sector in working with and for adolescents, it could be helpful to create a learning platform and exchange network internally to discuss challenges and exchange ideas on how to address these issues. If possible, this should be done through platforms that staff already consult regularly - for example, using social media sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

The next section explores what Plan is doing for and with adolescents in emergencies in 9 countries: Central African Republic, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nepal, Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania. The report describes the nature of this work, noting for instance that the majority of staff use traditional participatory focus group discussions, which have gender and age disaggregated groups, as their primary means of establishing the needs of children broadly. The data received through these channels does not always appear to be systematically assessed in a way that spotlights the specific needs of the 10- to 19-year-old age groups, however. In refugee camp settings - namely, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Tanzania - ongoing data on specific needs and vulnerabilities were being gathered through one-to-one processes such as case management systems and analysis of data collected through best interest assessment processes. This enabled continuous learning and adjustment of programing according to evolving needs. In locations where youth or adolescent groups were set up - including Central African Republic, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Rwanda - regular consultations take place that influence programme design and implementation. A mix of programming implementation methods was used, ranging from more individual, one-to-one support reaching out to adolescents, to work that addressed needs through group activities, and finally to broader work with communities and schools that may indirectly reach adolescents. Various challenges to programme implementation are described, such as the difficulty of reaching the most vulnerable, who are less likely to attend centralised activities.

What are other agencies doing on the issue of adolescents in humanitarian settings? The report examines the activities of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Save the Children, War Child Holland, and the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC). For each, links to related resources created by that organisation are offered. Donor trends, with examples of programming and resources (e.g., the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)'s Adolescent Kit for Expression and Innovation), are explored here in order to help personnel seeking to reach, work with, and engage adolescents affected by conflict and disaster. Recommendations for donors are offered, along with recommendations for Plan's work going forward (with more detailed discussions for different aspects of Plan's work and work they may seek to catalyse in humanitarian settings outlined in the annexes). Several of these ideas focus on learning and exchange, as well as documenting lessons learned on programme work for adolescents in humanitarian settings.


Plan website, November 1 2016. Image credit: Plan International