Shortly after the ferocious Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the Philippines last November, killing 6,155 people and leaving 4 million displaced, seven teenagers vanished from the badly hit village of Legazpi on the island of Samar. Rhoda Ercilla of aid agency Plan International noticed their absence but was told they had been offered work in a bakery in another city. "I was suspicious, so I asked the parents to check. It turned out their daughters had been trafficked as sex workers." She reported the trafficker to the police, who are trying to bring the girls home.
The case highlights what Plan International calls the double jeopardy faced by girls in huge humanitarian emergencies. Young women are at risk twice over: Not only do they have to struggle for basic survival amid a lack of food and shelter, they also face the dangers of rape, forced marriage, and sex trafficking. "Teen girls are often invisible or neglected in the aftermath of catastrophes, when there is an enormous number of people who need help," says Dr. Unni Krishnan, Plan International's head of disaster preparedness and response.
To protect young women during the continuing recovery effort following Typhoon Haiyan, Plan International is mobilizing teams of mostly female local volunteers in the worst-hit areas. "We train volunteers to be aware of the dangers of trafficking, abuse, and rape, and to provide emotional support," says Krishnan. The organization has conducted similar trainings in India, Bangladesh, and Mali. The little things are important, like ensuring girls have flashlights to use at night, he says. "Ultimately, our goal is to empower young women so they can learn to protect themselves as much as possible."