We applaud young successful feminist activists such as Amanda Gorman, Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg. Yet there is a real danger that the world sits by and watches as adolescent girls bear the brunt of a devastating global food crisis, shattering their ability to contribute to society.
In 2019, 688 million people were chronically hungry. Today, this figure has shot up to about 1 billion and of these, 270 million are “marching towards starvation”, to borrow the haunting words of David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme. The COVID-19 pandemic is a key contributing factor to this rising global hunger, which today means four countries are on the brink of famine. But it isn’t the only reason. Conflicts and insecurity have also forced huge swathes of people to flee their homes and livelihoods. Climate change is devastating harvests, inducing pests and increasing disasters such as floods and cyclones. To top this off, between January 2020 and January 2021, food prices globally have risen by 20% due to export restrictions and demand exceeding supply. And girls and women, who account for 70% of the world’s hungry, are bearing the brunt.
Time and again, our moral compass kicks in when we see images of emaciated bodies in the media. But by then, it is too late. Hunger has an impact on girls’ lives months and even years before, as families adopt heart-breaking coping strategies to survive. This could be pulling girls from school to support with childcare or to earn income, or worse, marrying them to obtain a dowry and reduce the number of mouths to feed. It is projected that COVID-19 will result in an additional 13 million child marriages taking place over the next 10 years.
On top of this, UNESCO estimates that some 24 million pupils are at risk of not returning to education due to COVID-19. Being out of school exposes adolescent girls to an array of abuses, often of a sexual nature. When the 2014 Ebola outbreak forced schools to close in Sierra Leone, adolescent pregnancy increased by 65%. Inevitably we will see girls becoming adolescent mothers. If they make it that far. Becoming pregnant without adequate nutrition puts mothers at risk of dying in childbirth, the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 globally. It also increases the risk of stillbirth or newborn death, low birth weight and stunting, meaning the impacts of hunger snowball and limit the prospects of generations to come.
The responsibility lies with all of us to ensure adolescent girls are not forgotten. But what actions can be taken? First of all, governments worldwide must contribute the funds needed to avert famine. It has been a year since the UN warned of “famines of biblical proportions”, yet donors have still only funded 5% of the UN’s $7.8bn food security appeal for 2021.
Next, we need equitable access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines in low and middle-income countries. This will prevent the setback to girls’ and women’s rights caused by the pandemic from deepening. So will peace efforts to end conflicts, which are perhaps the biggest contributor to food insecurity. And finally, we must scale up financing commitments to mitigate the impacts of the climate emergency in countries who have contributed the least to it yet are bearing the brunt of impacts.
But most importantly, we must listen to the voices of adolescent girls themselves. And we need to act on what they say, if we are to prevent a catastrophe and no longer have the chance to say “never again.”
Source: Plan International