United Nations — As Lake Chad enters its 10th year of conflict, millions of young girls are being used and manipulated in grotesque ways.
Maria Sole Fanuzzi, Lake Chad Child Protection Specialist at Plan International, said: "New York City has 8.25 million people, so when we talk about the girls in the Lake Chad crisis, you have to imagine the whole city where we are now is completely filled by children, and half of that would be girls."
She was speaking at an event co-hosted last week by the Permanent Mission of Belgium, the Government of Niger, and Plan International.
Spanning across Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad, the Lake Chad crisis is a complex one, attributed to extreme poverty, climate change, underdevelopment, and attacks by the jihadist group Boko Haram, which garnered international attention with the kidnapping of 276 girls from a school in Nigeria in 2014.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), says the Lake Chad region (specifically in northeast Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger) is struggling with "the compounded impact of climate change, deep poverty, and violent extremism."
A report by Plan International has revealed that over 15% of girls aged 10-19 had been married at least once or were currently married. As a result, the levels of girls' education have drastically decreased.
With this, there is a severe lack of information concerning sexual and reproductive health. The Lake Chad basin has one of the highest rates of maternal deaths anywhere in the world, with about 773.4 deaths for every 100,000 successful births.
"Conflicts and disasters amplify this relative powerlessness of girls,'" said Sole, pointing out that the crisis affects girls disproportionately, where they are faced with situations, such as the deprivation of basic needs, sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices such as trafficking, forced as suicide bombers and child marriages.
Those that survive and do manage to return home are confronted with discrimination and stigmatization from their communities and are even accused of witchcraft, she said.
"They are considered to have somehow absorbed the demon of the enemy- to have somehow given their consent," she explained.
"And for the children in there that might have conceived during their captivity are unwanted, unrecognized and chased away."
Sole went on to narrate the story of a girl from Cameroon who stated that "If a girl gets pregnant out of wedlock, and no matter if we consent or not, it is a sign of terrible doom, that will fall on her house."
She then described a case two months ago where a girl had been abused, and thus conceived out of wedlock returned home only to be rejected for "bringing shame to her house."
Still, "some important initiatives have been taken," Sole announced.
These initiatives include strengthening of social and emotional learning; building confidence; fostering relationships; harmonizing with their communities to build safe environments; economic empowerment and adequate education. However, it is important to educate the boys as well, she noted.
"The engagement of men and boys is crucial to tackle gendered social norms. the change cannot happen if masculinity continues to be seen as the affirmation of a predominance over the other gender," Sole told IPS.
Boys and men get raped constantly in the world, and conflict all the more exasperated the exposure and the impact of this phenomenon.
"They are exploited as child workers, they are trafficked, and when they are deprived of sexual and reproductive health rights they are also deprived of their own right to a positive fatherhood," she added.
"After all, the gendered norms that prescribe masculinity as an aggressive form of domination deprive also men and boys of that peaceful coexistence that eventually turn into the many males dominated wars we see worldwide. So, no wonder that statistics show that more equal societies are also more peaceful ones."
"Boys and girls do share a common destiny and as much as we recognize the different perspectives of one and the other our ultimate goal is to empower both of them to live free from oppression and free to express their own human personality to the fullest and greatest extent," she declared.
"We need to look at adolescents for what they are- humans."
Asked what role Plan International will have going forward, Jessica Malter, Senior Communications and Advocacy Advisor at Planned International, told IPS: "Plan International is committed to working together with international partners and local entities to advance girls rights in the Lake Chad Basin and worldwide"
She further noted that they are working on developing integrated programs "that address the complex and interconnected issues affecting adolescents, such as lack of education, child marriage, early pregnancy, child labour and sexual exploitation and that
"We cannot continue to address these issues with single-sector responses or ad-hoc interventions."
She also stressed the importance of incorporating the young generation stating that "including young people in the decision making that impacts their lives is absolutely critical, and note that
"We still do not sufficiently listen to young people, and particularly not adolescent girls who are often invisible", said Malter.
"It is rare though, that girls are given the opportunity to express their views.
That said, they do have a way of tackling the issue.
Malter said "one way we are addressing this is with the Girls Get Equal, which is a global campaign that provides girls and young women the tools and resources they need to demand power, freedom and representation. age disaggregated data, to strengthen evidence and better inform programmes."
Asked about what surprised her the most about the survivors she encountered, Sole said: "The most striking thing in almost every encounter is to see how incredibly resilient girls and boys are. They face the unspoken, some of them have witnessed the slaughter of their own parents, almost all of them are mothers to their younger siblings, and yet you can see a strength to restart and to rebuild their lives that is uncommon in most of our wealthier societies.
"Girls agency is something that can be at times challenging, but the recognition of this factor is the only way to trace back the logical, historical and societal meaning into the events that we witness and within which we move."
"Girls and women cannot be confined to the role of the victims and need to play a major role into the rebuilding of their own lives whenever conflicts have broken the flow of their existence and shaken their previous foundations."
With this is mind, it will be a victory to watch the growth and success of these children if/ when it happens.
"They are the beginning and the end of their own history making." Sole concluded.