Gender-based violence (GBV) is a pervasive risk that cuts across continents and contexts. Programming to respond to GBV saves lives and mitigates the debilitating consequences of violence. Yet such programming and funding to support it remains a secondary priority in humanitarian crises and development contexts. The dearth of responses is often attributed to a lack of evidence that GBV is occurring. Despite decades of research that points to the pervasiveness of GBV, prevalence or incidence data has become a near-requirement to demonstrate that GBV is on a scale that merits funding and action. However, on its own prevalence data does not provide sufficient contextual information to allow policymakers, donors and practitioners to make informed decisions about funding and designing GBV programmes. Additionally, the drive to collect prevalence data can prioritise information collection over the care and protection of survivors, and can lead to their exploitation and further traumatisation.
While prevalence, or even exact incidence numbers, may not be available, important information can be garnered through the provision of services. Practitioners, policymakers and donors can make informed decisions through the use of contextualised GBV information, such as service-based statistics, monitoring data and best practice standards. Thus, prevalence is not a prerequisite for understanding GBV in a given context; service provision is. Collected safely and ethically, this contextualised service-based data can help practitioners, donors and policymakers improve programming, address gaps in assistance and develop policies to address pervasive forms of violence.
Prevalence – the red herring
GBV is difficult to quantify as many cases go unreported, its scope is difficult to estimate and existing data is often misunderstood, misrepresented and ineffectively utilised. Globally, only a fraction of GBV incidents are reported to service providers.
Prevalence studies can provide some idea of the overall picture of GBV in a country or area. However, they are only estimates and generally provide little information on more subtle or short-term changes in GBV trends, the particular needs of specific groups of survivors or the quality of available services all of which require a nuanced understanding of the context and detailed case information. More importantly, prevalence studies can risk further traumatising survivors by asking questions about violence where support services are not in place. As indicated in the World Health Organisation (WHO)s Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Researching, Documenting and Monitoring Sexual Violence in Emergencies, Basic care and support for survivors must be available locally before commencing any activity that may involve individuals disclosing information about their experiences of sexual violence. Prevalence studies and other types of data collection conducted in the absence of GBV services are in violation of humanitarian ethics.
The absence of prevalence data should not impede humanitarian action. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings recommend that All humanitarian actors must take action, from the earliest stages of an emergency, to prevent sexual violence and provide appropriate assistance to survivors. These guidelines apply whether the known prevalence of sexual violence is high or low.
The need for services, and the data that follows
Global studies tell us that upwards of one in three women will be raped or abused in their lifetime. The onus is on the international community to provide lifesaving services to survivors of GBV, regardless of the available data, because violence must be assumed to be happening.
Through over a decade of womens protection and empowerment programming in 18 countries, the International rescue Committee (IRC) has found that, once GBV services are in place, survivors of violence feel safe and supported to come forward, disclose acts of violence and get the specialised, confidential assistance they require. For example, in late 2012, the emergency in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) caused widespread population displacement. According to the many general needs assessments conducted by NGOs, there were no reports of GBV incidents during displacement or in the camps. Yet when support centres with specially trained staff from the community were established, GBV survivors came forward to report incidents on the first day the centre opened in every camp, every time. The risk of stigmatisation and shame can affect safety and survival. Hence, survivors did not report the violence they experienced until safe, trusted and confidential services were in place.
In the drive to design and improve programmes that respond to needs through the evolution of an emergency and post-emergency context, GBV service agencies wanted to know how to effectively capture more information. Questions were raised such as: who is walking through our doors and who is not? Are these services and the management of cases safe for survivors and do they respect confidentiality? Does the way we store and share information create further security risks for survivors? Different data collection methods arose from these questions, including the GBV Information Management System (IMS).
The GBVIMS system allows for the collection, storing and sharing of GBV data in compliance with internationally recognised ethical and safety standards, while upholding the dignity and rights of survivors. It can be used anywhere from urban hospitals and clinics to remote rural huts that serve as support centres for women and girls. The system allows service providers to better understand reported cases of GBV. In examining GBV incidents over time, one can assess valuable information, such as survivor demographics, types of GBV reported, the timeframe and location of incidents, perpetrator profiles (demographics, relationship to survivor, etc.) and service availability and utilisation.
These numbers come from a particular geographic area with unique contextual dynamics, and every number is a survivor with a specific story. Therefore, GBV data cannot be thoroughly analysed without the expertise and input of service providers from the setting where services are provided. For example, when the number of reported GBV cases changes, this can indicate several different phenomena: there can be significant change in the environment or context (natural disaster or conflict); more or fewer services may be available; more or less information on GBV services may have been communicated; or the quality of available services may have improved or deteriorated. These factors can all determine if, when and how survivors come forward. In the absence of contextual information, the data can be misinterpreted, in turn affecting programming and funding streams.
The GBVIMS produces the highest-quality GBV client/ incident data currently available to humanitarian actors. When implemented as intended, the GBVIMS upholds the highest ethical and safety standards regarding data collection and sharing. Confidentiality and coding methods are incorporated into the system, so that records need not identify survivors and place them at further risk of violence or expose them to acts of retribution, community stigmatisation or family abandonment. The GBVIMS also enables actors to safely share data internally across project sites and externally with agencies for broader trends analysis and to improve GBV coordination. Data is strongest when combined or triangulated with a range of different sources, and where possible service-based data should be combined with surveys, needs assessments, situational analyses and others methods.
While there are limitations to service-based data, it is the one form of data most readily accessible in humanitarian settings, and when contextualised can provide concrete information to inform programmes and policies for GBV survivors.
Between 2009 and 2012, the IRC provided essential services to over 10,000 GBV survivors in eastern DRC. Through an analysis of service-based GBV data, the IRC learned that an increase in incident reporting corresponded to the introduction of services through local womens communitybased organisations. It was determined that survivors were more comfortable reporting their information, and trusted the confidentiality of that information, when they were able to speak to someone from a local womens organisation, rather than a non-governmental organisation that was perceived as external. Based on this information, IRC changed its programming strategy to ensure that GBV services and referrals were available from existing community-based organisations. Reporting of incidents of rape within 72 hours increased by 18%, and there was a threefold increase in reported incidents of intimate partner violence. Data analysis also showed an underreporting of 15.7% for minors under the age of 18, which revealed that programming in the DRC needed to look more specifically at working with girls and ensuring their access to services. Another trend revealed that, of the total number of survivors, 0.6% were male; while internationally the vast majority of survivors of violence are women and girls, service providers also need to understand how men and boys access services. In addition, data analysis showed that 37% of alleged perpetrators were reported as armed actors and 18% as intimate partners. The remaining 45% of alleged perpetrators included community members, unknown individuals, teachers, employers, service providers and others. Thus, the common narrative that the vast majority of GBV is perpetrated by armed actors in the DRC is not nearly nuanced enough to capture the reality on the ground.
In Sierra Leone, Côte dIvoire and Liberia, the GBV discourse also centred on sexual violence perpetrated by armed actors. Yet when IRC analysed its service-based data, over 60% of survivors seeking assistance from the IRC reported violence at the hands of an intimate partner or a spouse. This information allowed IRC to change the scope of programming to respond to these needs, as well as working with partners to advocate for appropriate action from donors and policymakers. This led to new efforts in Liberia to draft legislation on domestic violence. It also attracted regional attention to a previously invisible issue.
Mapping existing GBV services, and where they are not available, can be an excellent guide to determine where services are needed. Another way to understand who needs services and where is to explore who is not accessing existing services. Reported GBV data is available because there are available GBV services; at the same time, it can provide information on what barriers may exist to accessing these existing services. What is the profile of survivors reporting these incidents? Are they mostly adults, meaning that there may be barriers for children and adolescents in accessing services? Are reported incidents perpetrated by strangers only, meaning that there are little to no reported incidents perpetrated by intimate partners, family members or community members? Are services available for individuals who are not reporting incidents, and if so how can their access to these services be increased? This kind of analysis can ensure that existing GBV programmes are improved and reach more survivors.
In summary, prevalence data is not a prerequisite for designing and implementing lifesaving GBV programmes. It has been proven in multiple countries and contexts that GBV occurs in humanitarian crises, and will continue to do so if left unaddressed. In providing critical services during the onset of emergencies, humanitarian actors can save lives and meet the multifaceted needs of survivors, while safely and ethically contributing to data collection that can be used to inform programmes that are responsive to the needs of survivors over the evolution of an emergency. Service-based data can assist in monitoring programmes and identifying programming gaps and opportunities. This information, when analysed within the appropriate contexts, can lead to properly informed practices and policies that allow for the development of the most appropriate GBV prevention and response interventions.
Aisha Bain is Advocacy Advisor for the Womens Protection & Empowerment Unit, International Rescue Committee (IRC). Marie-France Guimond is a monitoring, evaluation and research specialist at IRC.