Girls' Fund - Plan International USA

by Plan International USA
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Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Girls' Fund - Plan International USA
Makeshift maternity ward in refugee settlement
Makeshift maternity ward in refugee settlement

89 million.

That’s how many people around the world were forced from their homes, due to conflict, disaster or persecution by 2021. And, since the war in Ukraine began in February 2022, this number has climbed to over 100 million.

Close to 70% of displaced people (including internally displaced people, asylum seekers and refugees) are women and children. Whether they settle in a different region of their country or end up in an entirely new one, the challenges they face are enormous. Language barriers, uncertainty of their legal status and financial insecurity are just a few factors that put intense strain on refugees’ safety and well-being.

And, given that most refugees settle in neighboring or other low-income countries, vital health services are inadequate, if available at all.

This is especially dangerous for pregnant women and girls, and those who recently gave birth. Pre- and post-natal care (including mental health support) is important for both a mother and her baby, but between underfunded facilities and a lack of trained professionals, maternal care worldwide is in an abysmal state. For people fleeing to new places, this vulnerability and stress is also intensified when mothers don’t know how or even if they can access care.

“From our past experiences of emergencies, we know that in times of crises, childbirth can be a life-threatening experience, instead of a life-changing one. Women and girls can be forced to give birth in extremely dangerous conditions, without help from skilled health care providers in the safety of a health facility." — Alexandra Parnebjork, Gender in Emergencies Advisor, Plan International

In sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, where a large portion of refugees settle, a lack of health care resources and devastating hunger crisis are contributing to the regions’ exceptionally high maternal mortality rates.

On top of the insufficient care for the physical health of pregnant refugee girls and women, accessing mental health care is equally difficult. The events that pushed refugees from their homes to begin with are often traumatizing, and end up triggering or worsening conditions like depression, anxiety and PTSD.

In many countries, not only is there a lack of services impacted by the same underfunding and understaffing issues as natal care, but there’s added stigma associated with seeking mental health care. Refugees already struggle with cultural barriers and a lack of knowledge about what services are available to them. For some, feeling like a burden or as if their problems aren’t real or legitimate is an additional barrier.

For pregnant girls and women struggling with conditions like prenatal and post-partum depression, the stakes are especially high.

To address these needs, Plan is implementing projects to support displaced people and host communities in places like Ethiopia, where 4.2 million internally displaced people and nearly 1 million refugees and asylum seekers live.

In addition to food assistance and medical care for pregnant adolescent girls and women, mobile health teams are deployed to treat informal communities of refugees and displaced people.

The mobile teams help patients access the immediate care they need or get referrals to local hospitals if specialized care is necessary. And because we know displaced mothers and pregnant women are especially vulnerable with regard to their mental health, the teams organize group therapy sessions as well so women in the community can support each other.

“First, we screen them, and if their cases are mild, we invite them to take part in group therapy sessions,” Bemenet, one of the teams’ counsellors, says. “We discuss a variety of issues with the women in group therapy and encourage them to speak about their circumstances. We make plans, set clear goals and handle the women’s issues, such as [post-partum] depression, based on the concerns they raise.”

Staff also educate and raise awareness about health and gender equality issues by offering other members of these communities group therapy sessions.

“The elders and fathers have discussions on gender-based violence, mental health issues, education and malnutrition,” Bemenet says. “We believe that involving men in addressing the issues that women face is quite crucial.”

Inequality doesn’t know borders, and in the response to humanitarian crises, girls’ and women’s needs are often buried. We can’t control when an emergency happens, but we can make sure the health care needs of displaced people are met.

Millions of Ukrainian children have been displaced
Millions of Ukrainian children have been displaced
Bemenet provides psychosocial support in Ethiopia
Bemenet provides psychosocial support in Ethiopia
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Vidya speaks at GirlCon
Vidya speaks at GirlCon

Vidya, age 19, is the director of education at Encode Justice: a coalition of youth activists and change-makers fighting for human rights, accountability and justice under artificial intelligence. On International Day of the Girl, she led a discussion at a Plan-led virtual forum called Girls vs. the Machine: The Algorithms are Sexist, which explored how the internet’s algorithms and artificial intelligence are perpetuating cultural gendered stereotypes and misrepresenting girls in society.

Here, Vidya dives into her work with Encode Justice, her experience with Plan on International Day of the Girl and why youth activism in the tech space is so vital for our future. 

Q: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us about your work! To start, can you please share a bit about who you are and how you got interested in youth activism around technology?

A: My name is Vidya. I’m a freshman at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I’m studying computer science here. Throughout high school, I was pretty interested in technology. I knew I always wanted to be involved in the tech space … both my parents are software engineers, so I was pretty exposed to it growing up. But I think it was really my junior year when I heard more about the ethical side of this space, which is when Encode Justice had slowly started … The founder, Sneha Revanur, reached out to me because I do a lot of work with equity and diversity in tech.

Q: What do you do as part of Encode Justice?

A: I sort of cultivated a whole education sector [at Encode Justice], where we created a workshop curriculum for high school students. We used to go around to different high schools in the country, educating students about the implications of artificial intelligence, talking about what AI is, how it has a potential bias and how it’s impacting each of us in our everyday lives.

Especially during the pandemic, we saw technology in basically every field. So, having students talk to other students definitely made it help them understand it a lot better, and they valued the information that we talked about.

I learned a lot in this process of creating this curriculum and talking to other students … we’re not really exposed to the biases [in AI] and how we can be impacted by this … they talked about facial recognition technology — a lot of them had been profiled themselves. And so, listening to their stories and talking about how they’ve felt discriminated against or see that their social media algorithms are acting a certain way, and actually hearing their testimonials was really impactful.

All of our workshop curriculums center around different topics. I try to focus on AI and its intersections, such as healthcare and policy … if we’re talking about policy, I usually focus on facial recognition technology. So then I would talk about how in criminal court cases or in our criminal history, there’s a lot of bias within how people have been targeted in the past.

Q: Can you give an example of how technology can discriminate based on human bias?

A: Minority groups, people of color and women have been discriminated against in our criminal data. And so, when we put that into facial recognition technologies and it’s trying to profile people for criminal activity, it’s obviously more biased because of like that … the topic becomes a lot more serious and more relevant when we put it in that context.

Q: How did you get involved with Plan?

A: Plan reached out to Encode Justice right before International Day of the Girl. I was really interested because I actually run GirlCon, an international conference focused on tech and women’s empowerment … this machine algorithm bias and diversification of the tech field was something I’m really interested in. So, I thought it would be cool to work with Plan to for their event.

Vidya speaks at GirlCon, a conference that strives to fix the lack of diversity in STEM.

I really liked the tone of the whole [Plan virtual forum] and sort of the message that we brought out at the end. This topic can be really serious and really scary … I thought that was really interesting on how we felt empowered after that to take charge and make a change.

We can’t stop artificial intelligence, or we can’t stop the development of it. We always talk about how it can sound like we’re trying to stop the development of technology — we’re really not … We just want people to be more conscious of what they’re doing. You know, if it’s harming people, then there’s no use in that. So that’s sort of what I wanted to take away from that panel is [for people to know] it’s up to us to be conscious of that.

Q: Have you experienced gender inequality in your own life? How? 

A: Especially as a [computer science] student right now, I can see that throughout my progression of high school and now in college there is that gender gap … I definitely feel outnumbered and I think there’s an unspoken double standard. Like, I go into a meeting or I go into any of these tech clubs and you feel like there’s something to prove or something to show as a girl — you feel like you have to prove something extra. And I think forums like [Plan’s International Day of the Girl event] are definitely helpful in talking about that, and helping girls know that they’re not the only one that’s facing that kind of thing.

Q:  Why do you think it’s important for young people to get involved with activism and technology?

A: We are the people that will eventually take over these companies and will eventually start running these things. So, I think it’s really, really important that initiatives like this exist. I think for us, we feel like we’re qualified [to take the lead] because we are facing these problems every day — we’re surrounded by the algorithms we grew up with it, which makes our voice really important to listen to.


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Please note that this story mentions sexual violence and suicide.

More than 820 million people around the world will go to bed hungry tonight. It’s estimated that 70% of that group are girls and women. And when you’re a girl, the situation goes beyond food. Because as hunger escalates, so does gender-based violence. Girls are the last to be fed, and the first to become vulnerable.

Here, four girls and women share how the global hunger crisis is putting their safety at risk. These stories can be difficult to read, but communities are calling out for help, and it’s up to us to listen and respond.


Aisha, a 55-year-old community worker in Somaliland, Somalia

“As a result of the drought, people are less financially secure,” Aisha says. “Gender-based violence has risen dramatically. Before the drought, most men were busy with their work, but now many have lost their jobs. Men are harassing young women on the street, and some will commit rape if they get the chance.

“Families are facing greater hardships because of the drought and its effects on the economy. This means gender-based violence within families is becoming more common. These abuses happen between married couples when food is more expensive and there’s less work available. It leads to conflict, and women are beaten and hurt.

“Because of the drought, displaced people from the countryside are moving in search of water. Displaced people are coming to live with relatives in the city. There may be older men who’ll commit abuse, either physically or mentally. It may come from the landlords, or from within the family. Girls may be abused in the home, or domestic workers may be subjected to abuse in their workplace.

“In rural areas, girls who walk long distances to fetch water are at greater risk of being harassed or abducted. There is a lot of abuse.

“Girls who go to college at night also suffer. For example, a lot of abuse happens in tuk-tuks. If a girl uses a tuk-tuk at night, it may not stop where she wants. Instead, she is taken to a place where she is abused.”

“Some victims come and ask for help in dealing with the trauma,” Aisha says. “They find people who are there to help, they return to their communities, adapt and have hope. Others don’t seek help. They may hurt themselves. Some may even attempt suicide. Others leave their families and communities.”


Hawi, a 13-year-old girl in Ethiopia

“My future has become dark due to the severe drought we have been facing this year … Many girls have migrated to urban areas to look for work,” Hawi says. “I heard that many of my friends are now working in hotels. Many children are now working. This is all the result of the drought.

“I have never experienced a drought or thought it could be like this. I now understand that the biggest enemy for girls is drought.  Drought makes girls homeless and forces them towards violence and abuse.

“I have great love and respect for nature and uniquely for cattle. I named my cow ‘Harme,’ which means mom. And I loved her equal to my real mom. But she passed away during the drought along with many other cows and calves. I cried … but no one comforted my grieving, because everyone has been crying.

“My brother is thinking of migrating. I advised him to not do so, but if the situation continues like this, he will leave the area and become one of the vulnerable migrated children. My little sisters are also becoming weak and hopeless. Not only my beloved cows and calves — I am also going to miss my brothers and sisters,” Hawi concludes, as though their future is already determined.


Halima, Hawi’s mother in Ethiopia

Halima, a 30-year-old mother in Ethiopia, says her daughter Hawi and her other children are often sick from hunger.

Halima, a 30-year-old mother in Ethiopia, says her daughter Hawi and her other children are often sick from hunger.

“Learning from my daughter’s active engagement in girls’ rights [with Plan], I was encouraged to bring together women in my village,” Halima says. “I started a small women’s group to challenge gender-based violence. But now, many of the women have become even more vulnerable as their husbands have abandoned the village, leaving them responsible for everything.

“They cannot feed their children because there is no food, no husbands even to support them. They have become hopeless and most of them have lost their minds — they don’t know what they are saying, but are always crying.

“Women and girls go to very far places searching for water. We have to walk 10 kilometers [more than 6 miles] on average to collect water. Very few ponds have any water left.

“We take turns to go, often taking three or four hours. Many women go during the night thinking that less people will be at the ponds. They are abused by men and some arrogant people at night.

“I cannot express the challenges we mothers are facing in this community due to this drought. Our children are always sick since the water is not clean. We don’t have water to wash our bodies. My daughters can’t wash their bodies regularly as before. Girls’ health and hygiene are being seriously affected by the absence of water. No food, no water, no way to keep my body healthy – it’s a really dark life.”


Marie*, a 16-year-old girl from Haiti

“We rely on selling charcoal, which is the only income we have as a family,” Marie says. “As a result of our situation, my child is not well fed.

“A man who lived in my neighborhood called me to his house. When I arrived, he put his hands on me and raped me.”

“My family’s economic situation does not allow me to go back to school,” Marie says.  “We have no home — and when it rains, we can only wait for it to stop.”

*Marie’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

Halima and her calf
Halima and her calf
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Girls stand along the foundation of the dormitory
Girls stand along the foundation of the dormitory

When we ask the girls we work with about the problems they face in their daily lives, they sometimes bring up issues we don’t expect. They also have ideas about how to solve those issues. This is the heart of our GirlEngage approach at Plan International USA. When girls can truly direct their own lives, meaningful change becomes reality.

In Zimbabwe, many rural homes don’t have access to running water. It’s not uncommon for girls to walk several miles each day to collect water from rivers and streams for their families to use for cooking, cleaning and washing. This not only means girls have less time to go to school, if they’re even able to attend in the first place, but it also puts their safety at risk to travel so far from home on their own. With the climate continuing to warm, the availability of water decreases with every passing season — and the distance girls must walk to find it only increases.

Through The Graduation Project, which is building dormitories for girls at two schools in the country, Plan consulted participants about additional features they felt were necessary to support their education. One of those features was direct access to clean water.

“Now I appreciate the GirlEngage approach. It’s unleashing the potential that was hidden within me. I never thought I would confidently speak before an audience, but now I do it with much ease.” — participant in Zimbabwe

So, in partnership with Purdue University, the project is also conducting an engineering training course for girls to design, plan and implement a water recycling system together. So far, the girls have learned about the basics of water recycling, including how to treat and reuse water for things like agriculture and drinking. Not only do the girls have the opportunity to create more sustainable access to water in their community, but they’re also inspired to pursue science and engineering in the future.

“We used to think engineering is for men and boys only, but now we have the understanding that engineering is for anyone ¾ including women and girls. We are so grateful because, through this project, we are now connected on Wi-Fi. We now have tablets where we have full access to our online engineering lessons.” — 14-year-old participant in Zimbabwe

Girls in Senegal are also taking on climate change initiatives through Girls Learn & Thrive, Plan’s project to prevent child marriage and keep girls in school. In this community, the pandemic surfaced many problems girls face, one of them being access to electricity. When schools closed and turned to remote learning, many girls couldn’t keep up. Even if some students were lucky enough to have access to the necessary technology, unreliable electricity made regular studying impossible.

Purdue University is also partnering with Plan and the local technical high school to implement an engineering program in Senegal, this time focused on solar energy. The girls identified problem areas where consistent lighting was necessary to keep them safe and shared with Plan what they currently know about engineering so courses could be designed with them in mind.

As the project continues, the girls will learn to co-design, test and implement the renewable solar systems in their community. And, once their new systems are in place, they’ll be able to study in the evening even after the sun goes down, and public spaces won’t feel so unsafe.

Best of all, the girls in Zimbabwe and Senegal are just beginning their journey in an industry that benefits the planet while opening new doors for their futures. With more girls engaged in climate solutions that solve local problems, we can strive for a greener, more sustainable world for everyone.

Well installed at the girls' school community
Well installed at the girls' school community
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This is Zalissa

Growing up in Burkina Faso often means knowing about violence and terrorism from a young age. When attacks started happening in Zalissa’s community, life changed for girls like her. And one day, without knowing it, she left her classroom for the last time. Going to school simply wasn’t safe anymore, and just like that, the 13-year-old was no longer a student.

Then in 2020, things got worse. Zalissa and her family were forced to flee their home and start over in an unfamiliar place. She became an internally displaced person — a label given to over one million people (and 600,000 children) in Burkina Faso.

Daporé: a teacher with a vision

The school in Zalissa’s new community welcomed displaced students like her. But it was challenging. The school was already in disrepair, and the classrooms weren’t big enough to fit nearly 130 new students. Classes became overcrowded, with students having to share seats. Books and school supplies ran out.

Teaching in classrooms like this isn’t easy, but dedicated teachers like Daporé are showing up every day, doing their best. He knows how important girls’ education is, and how issues like displacement, child marriage and early pregnancy can keep them out of school.

“When girls are in school it has a positive effect on their families and society,” he says. “We need to ensure girls have access to support and scholarships so they can stay in school.”

Cécile is bringing change

Cécile manages Plan International’s education and protection projects in Burkina Faso. One thing she’s working on this year: revamping 16 schools across the Centre-Nord region (including Zalissa’s). That means building new classrooms and learning spaces to reduce class size, providing school supplies and focusing on how to best reintegrate displaced students.

She’s passionate about making sure girls are in school. But she knows what they’re up against.

“Girls’ education is often sacrificed when families are in difficulty,” explains Cécile. “Many girls end up in situations of child labor or marriage. It can be hard to find the motivation and courage to return to school.”

A new chapter for Zalissa and her classmates

The new classrooms at Zalissa’s school made all the difference. The teachers like Daporé can accommodate more students and provide better quality education.

That means a lot to displaced students and girls like Zalissa. They’ve been through enough hardship, and deserve a safe and inclusive place to learn.

Zalissa’s favorite subject is history. She says she likes it because “it tells the story”.

She might not realize it, but Zalissa is making history as part of Burkina Faso’s story herself. Because every girl like Zalissa that stays in the classroom sends the same message: Girls deserve to determine their own futures.

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Plan International USA

Location: Providence, RI - USA
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Twitter: @PlanUSA
Project Leader:
Catalina Fischer
Warwick , RI United States
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