Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
Colourful illustration of girls ;

Girl-led activism in humanitarian crises: Implications for programmes and policymaking in COVID-19

Feminist Perspectives
Janina Jochim, Lauren Rumble, Rosa Bransky, Boikanyo Modungwa,

Georgia Booth, Leila Asrari, Alison Wright, Madeleine Askham

18 February 2021

Despite major setbacks, many girls and women continue to advocate for gender rights and social justice in crisis situations. Adolescent girls often choose pivotal roles in the immediate response to crises, which require creative thinking about addressing the imminent needs of communities and how to mobilize resources fast. However, these efforts often remain unrecognized, undocumented and under-resourced.

“We have to liberate what’s in our hearts, don’t keep it inside.” Oumou Kalsoum Diop, 18, girl activist, Dakar, Senegal. (UNICEF, International Day of the Girl 2020)

Girls and women are often the first activists to step up when there is work to be done. Emma González’s moving moment of silence at the March for Our Lives, the #MeToo movement, and Malala Yousafzai’s vocal fight for girls’ education after she was shot are just some examples of girls and women rising for social justice.

Humanitarian crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, can magnify the disadvantages adolescent girls and young women face, particularly in low- and middle-income countries where the majority of crises occur and high levels of poverty pervade.1,2 Girls’ pre-existing vulnerabilities to violence and exploitation are often exacerbated during crises, underscoring harmful gender norms and long-standing structural inequalities within communities.3,4 In the COVID-19 context, pre-existing high levels of violence against girls and women have deepened as a result of school closures and many victims face being trapped indoors with their abusers, in addition to service disruptions and limited access to accountability mechanisms.5–7 Adolescent girls also face disproportionately high risks as a result of the pandemic,8,9 including potentially permanent school dropout, heightened poverty, restricted access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights,6 and an increase in child-marriages.10,11 These have long-term consequences for girls and are likely to derail the progress made towards several Sustainable Development Goals.

At the same time, girl and women activists do not pause their work when crises hit. On the contrary, reports document many examples of the critical efforts of women-led groups in stepping up efforts to support their families and communities in the face of significant challenges. For example, local women’s networks in Nepal challenged the growing threats of trafficking and violence through the provision of safe spaces and hotlines after the earthquake in 201512. During the Ebola crisis, women’s groups in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia went door-to-door to educate communities on the spread of the virus.13,14 As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, women’s groups in India, Liberia, Palestine, and Vanuatu, helped to mobilize communities and raise awareness about the pandemic and how to stay safe.15-17.

Women’s and girls’ rights organisations and networks are arguably best placed to address critical needs and offer opportunities18 to re-shape societal structures and transform the gender imbalances in the long term. Compared to conventional top-down disaster management, supporting women and girl-led practices may facilitate sustainable and lasting change because the responses are tightly embedded in existing community structures.19-25 It is also their right, as affirmed in various human rights conventions and United Nations Resolutions.26-29 Yet, women and girls remain conspicuously absent from national recovery response efforts and plans30 and are frequently under-represented from decision-making structures. There is also limited information about the activism and organizing led by adolescent girls. Similar to women-led groups, girls are leading social movements that challenge the root causes of injustice and advocate for human rights, climate justice, and gender equality. However, young activists are often not taken seriously and their work does not receive much attention. As a result, girl-led activism is currently lacking comprehensive coverage that would provide insights into its scope and support needs.

We set out to systematically assess the scientific and grey literature on the evidence of girl-led activism at times of crisis in low- and middle-income countries, aiming to gain insights into and synthesize the evidence on girls’ agendas, priorities, funds, and achievements. We reviewed 679 records from 7 databases and 59 hand-searched academic journals which led to seven articles on girl-led activism in low- and middle-income countries, which were further reviewed for information on activism in emergency situations. The initial search also covered 25 relevant organizational websites through which we located four main reports on girl-led activism which were examined for information on girls’ activities during crises.

Our results showed that young women’s activism occurs across a range of contexts31-35 but also highlighted the lack of accessible documentation of the detailed agendas, achievements, and support-needs of girls under the age of 19. Even though girls’ activism does seem to receive much attention36-40 and some important insights on girl-led activism at ‘normal’ times is available, we identified a particular lack of information documentation of girls’ organizing and achievements during times of crisis.


Illustration of two firls of different races hugging

Illustrations by Maria Ponce

A Collective Approach to Resourcing Responses to the COVID-19 crisis

However, promising models to support girl-led activism whilst collecting and documenting invaluable information on the aims and workings of girl-groups have been emerging during the COVID-19 pandemic. “As we started to see the realities of COVID-19 unfold, we knew girls and young womxn would bear the brunt of the impact” remarked Jody Myrum, Gender Justice Consultant, “and yet, history tells us these girls and young womxn would be invisible and not resourced for their incredible brilliance, bravery and labour. We wanted to make sure in this crisis, history would tell a different story, and these incredible young feminist organisers would be visible, honoured, and resourced.”

In response, the Global Resilience Fund was created by Purposeful and Women Win in Spring 2020. It represents one of the first crisis response mechanisms to directly support adolescent girls’ networks. This feminist funding partnership recognizes girls’ ability to lead within their communities and aims to move resources – rapid response grants of up to $5,000 – to young feminist womxn, trans and intersex activists engaged in addressing the impacts of COVID-19 in their communities.

The Global Resilience Fund represents a unique model for humanitarian funding which rapidly moves resources to young feminist activists across the world. “We took applications over WhatsApp, voice notes, in person and over telephone. We made sure that literacy was no barrier to application. We saw that when you lower barriers you uncover the creative, imaginative and brave action that girls are taking,” explained Zanele Sibanda from Purposeful about improving the application processes. The Fund’s learning approach and decision making on grant allocation is guided by a young feminist activist advisory panel which also includes a small number of adolescent girls. Through ongoing learning conversations with activists and the wider networks, the Fund seeks to understand how it has supported the girls’ work, the changes catalyzed through the funded initiatives, and gather recommendations for further support and improvement of the current processes.

What do we know about girl-led groups during COVID-19?

At the time of writing, the Resilience Fund has received 1000+ applications and provided financial support for over 200 groups from 91 countries. Among the recipients are 35 groups in 27 countries (from Colombia to Somalia to Bosnia and Herzegovina) that are either entirely or mostly girl-led. The groups, many of which adapted their pre-pandemic strategies to respond to the effects of COVID-19, proposed work on a range of issues such as economic hardship, violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights and increased marginalisation of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Tackling immediate needs such as food, personal protective equipment and healthcare is also priority for many groups. In the applications, girls highlighted the ongoing challenges in the implementation of their work due to restrictions in movement, the closure of spaces they use to convene, and the lack of access to the funding required to respond to the crisis in their communities.

Case study: Girl-led group in Cameroon promotes girls’ health in the COVID-19 response, funded by the Global Resilience Fund

Adolescent Initiative for Reform (AIR) is a girl-led group (14–19 years old) in Cameroon which runs a peer education program in schools, focused on menstrual hygiene and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Furthermore, they seek to strengthen the capacity of girls to influence SRHR and HIV/AIDS laws and policies. Once schools were closed due to COVID-19 the group decided to facilitate access to information on SRHR through the use of radio, posters and social media campaigns. In addition, they sought to provide ‘dignity kits’ to internally displaced girls – each kit will have COVID-19 prevention materials as well as menstrual kits. The group has changed its strategies from in-person to online peer education through various platforms to ensure that girls in their community access the content they are sharing.

Clearly, girls around the globe continue their work as changemakers during crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, yet their work receives little coverage. Emerging reports on girls’ organizing constitute an important step towards a better understanding of the workings of girl-led groups. The work of the Global Resilience Fund provides a good example on how to directly support these initiatives, whilst also building the evidence base on girls’ support needs during times of crises. Boikanyo Modungwa from Purposeful explains “Our approach moves away from functional reporting to facilitating learning conversations as spaces for open sharing and peer learning […] it seeks to shift understanding on what counts as evidence: young activists’ experiences, stories and perspectives are more than just anecdotes and should be used to inform the field.” Additional international commitment to learning and documenting the needs of young activists in critical moments will not only help to find out more about what they can achieve but will also give them the recognition and visibility they deserve.


  1. The World Bank Country and Lending Groups. Available at:
  2. Development initiates. Global humanitarian assistance report 2019. (2019).
  3. Care. Women and girls in emergencies. (2018).
  4. Davies, S. E. & Bennett, B. A gendered human rights analysis of Ebola and Zika: Locating gender in global health emergencies. Int. Aff. 92, 1041–1060 (2016).
  5. UNICEF. COVID-19 - GBV risks to adolescent girls and interventions to protect and empower them. (2020).
  6. Cousins, S. COVID-19 has "devastating" effect on women and girls. Lancet 396, (Elsevier Ltd, 2020).
  7. PMA Agile / Gender & ICRHK. Gender & Covid-19: Safety and violence. Baltimore, Maryland, USA: Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. (2020).
  8. Burki, T. The indirect impact of COVID-19 on women. Lancet 20, 904–905 (2020).
  9. PMA Agile / Gender & ICRHK. Gender & Covid-19: Access to health and contraception. Baltimore, Maryland, USA: Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health (2020).
  10. Jones, N. et al. Listening to Young People’s Voices under COVID-19: Child marriage risks in the context of COVID-19 in Ethiopia. (2020). Available at:
  11. Grant, H. Why Covid school closures are making girls marry early. (2020). Available at:
  12. Standing, K., Parker, S. & Bista, S. Grassroots responses to violence against women and girls in post-earthquake Nepal: Lessons from the field. Gend. Dev. 24, 187–204 (2016).
  13. Mutima, N., Gitomer, S. & Hobson, S. Women’s organisations fighting Ebola should be funded as a first-line defence. (2015). Available at:
  14. Airey, S. Ebola: what next for women and girls? (2016).
  15. ActionAid. Creating lasting impact: The power of women-led localised responses to COVID-19. (2020).
  16. Raghunathan, K. Every little step helps: How SHGs are stepping up to provide relief in times of COVID-19. (2020). Available at:
  17. The Wold Bank. In India, women’s self-help groups combat the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. (2020) Available at:
  18. Bradshaw, S. Gender, Development and Disasters. Edward Elgar Publishing (2013).
  19. Bradshaw, S. & Fordham, M. Women, girls and disasters - A review for DFID. (2013).
  20. Fordham, M., Gupta, S., Akerkar, S. & Scharf, M. Leading resilient development. Grassroots women’s priorities, practices, and innovations. UNDP Publications and GROOTS International (2011). Available at:
  21. Htun, M. & Weldon, S. L. The civic origins of progressive policy change: Combating violence against women in global perspective, 1975-2005. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 106, 548–569 (2012).
  22. WomanKind. Standing with the changemakers: Lessons from supporting women’s movements. (2017). Available at:
  23. Parke, A. The Indonesia earthquake and tsunami: Why women’s leadership worked. (2019). Available at:
  24. Moreno, J. & Shaw, D. Women’s empowerment following disaster: A longitudinal study of social change. Nat. Hazards 92, 205–224 (2018).
  25. Al-Abdeh, M. & Patel, C. ‘Localising’ humanitarian action: Reflections on delivering women’s rights-based and feminist services in an ongoing crisis. Gend. Dev. 27, 237–252 (2019).
  26. UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). (1979). Other UN Conferences which have focused on the specificities of women’s rights and gender concerns are: the Rio Conference on Environment and Development (1992)
  27. UN Security Council, Security Council resolution 2250 (2015) [on youth, peace and security], 18 March 2016, S/RES/2250 (2015), available at: [accessed 20 January 2021].
  28. UN Security Council, Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) [on women and peace and security], 31 October 2000, S/RES/1325 (2000), available at: [accessed 20 January 2021].
  29. UN General Assembly, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1577, p. 3, available at: [accessed 20 January 2021].
  30. Wenham, C., Smith, J. & Morgan, R. COVID-19: The gendered impacts of the outbreak. Lancet 395, 846–848 (2020).
  31. Salazar Rodriguez, M. F. Girls to the front - A snapshot of girl-led organising Case studies. (2010). doi:10.1016/B978-1-84569-448-7.50013-7
  32. Kimball, G. Media empowers brave girls to be global activists. J. Int. Womens. Stud. 20, 35–56 (2019).
  33. Brave, creative, resilient. The global state of young feminist organizing. (2016). doi:10.1525/curh.2000.99.641.413
  34. Salazar Rodriguez, M. F. Girls to the front - A snapshot of girl-led organising. doi:10.1016/B978-1-84569-448-7.50013-7
  35. Bashi, G., Martelotte, L., Modungwa, B. & Olmos, M. E. Young feminists’ creative strategies to challenge the status quo: a view from FRIDA. Gend. Dev. 26, 439–457 (2018).
  36. UN Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. Available at:
  37. NPR. 8 Things Teen Girl Activists Want You To Know About Their Pandemic Life. Available at:
  38. How youth claim power digitally Covid-19. Available at:
  39. How to take your activism online in the time of COVID-19. Available at:
  40. How is Covid-19 affecting girls around the world. Available at:

About the Fund

The Global Resilience Fund is a partnership between social justice funders committed to resourcing girls’ and young women’s activism through the COVID-19 crisis. The Fund was established in response to the pandemic in early 2020 and continues to disperse resources through an activist-led participatory. The fund is housed at and facilitated by Purposeful, a feminist movement building hub for adolescent girls rooted in Africa and working all around the world. Beyond the financial support of girl-led groups, the Fund's networks are engaged in a process of deep learning to better understand what young feminist activists need in this critical movement while documenting what it takes to hold collaborative and participatory funding processes through a pandemic and beyond.

The partners in the Global Resilience Fund are: Central American Women’s Fund (FCAM), Central America and Mexico Youth Fund (CAMY Fund), Disability Rights Fund, Elas Social Investment Fund, Filia, FIMI – The International Indigenous Women’s Fund, Fondo Semillas, Ford Foundation, Global Fund for Women, MADRE, Mama Cash, Ms Foundation for Women, Oak Foundation, Orchid Project, Plan International, Purposeful, The Fund for Global Human Rights, Ukranian Women’s Fund, UNICEF, Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, With and for Girls Collective, Women Enabled International, Women’s Fund Asia, Women Win.

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

Latest news