Issue 60 - Article 10

Building a web of protection in Darfur

February 12, 2014
Martha Thompson, Mary Okumu and Atema Eclai
Women in Zam Zam IDP camp at an event to promote a campaign on protecting women from violence, Darfur

Humanitarian workers can give a plethora of reasons why they do not prioritise addressing gender-based violence (GBV) in humanitarian crises. Unlike lack of food, water or shelter, GBV is often not seen as life-threatening. The reality, however, is that rape, sexual harassment, physical assault and murder are committed largely against women and girls in camps, displacement situations and conflict areas. Despite the UN Assembly passing numerous resolutions addressing violence against women in conflict, high-level advocacy has had little effect on the situation on the ground. In humanitarian crises where there is continuing violence against civilians, what can we do to make women and girls safer? What are the gendered factors that make women and girls vulnerable? What are women and girls’ own ideas about their level of safety and their protection needs?

Building a ‘protection web’

This article reflects on a programme to improve women’s and girls’ safety developed by the US-based Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) and implemented by UNIFEM in 11 camps in Darfur from 2008–2011. From the outset we rejected the traditional protection approach, built on the assumption that state-directed advocacy underpinned by evidence is an effective way to stop gender-based violence. This approach assumes that protection of civilians can be achieved by using statistics and human rights reports to pressure states into complying with international human rights standards and laws. However, although at least three well-researched and documented human rights reports STAND Canada, The Prevalence of Sexual Violence in Darfur, 2008; Physicians for Human Rights in conjunction with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Nowhere To Turn: Failure To Protect, Support and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women, 2009, Refugees International, Ending Sexual Violence in Darfur: An Advocacy Agenda, 2007.  had been produced on gender-based violence in Darfur, the Sudanese government did not accept that gender-based violence existed, and these reports had little to no impact on women’s safety. The situation on the ground in Darfur also worked against state-centered advocacy: there was a high level of violence by non-state actors and a general sense of impunity, exacerbated by shifting political alliances and the fragmentation of opposition groups. Strategies for state-centred advocacy could gain little traction in this environment. Traditional human rights strategies also do not recognise the agency of affected communities in transforming their situation. In fact many threatened communities continuously develop and adapt strategies for their own protection. Ashley South et al., Local to Global Protection in Myanmar (Burma), Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe, Network Paper 72 (London: HPN, 2012).

The project drew on experience gained working with refugees and civilian populations in El Salvador and Guatemala during the 1980s and 1990s. This provided two key lessons that were applied in Darfur. Firstly, affected people themselves often have valuable information on what threatens their safety and ideas on how to address these threats, and can be agents in a protection strategy. Secondly, to address GBV in emergencies effectively it is essential also to tackle the gender inequality that makes women and girls more vulnerable. Protection strategies should then be tailored to address those vulnerabilities. Marginalised communities in Central America suffered significant violence at the hands of armed groups during the civil wars of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Once they grasped the idea of framing their experience in the context of human rights, a transformation process began. From feeling like victims with no rights whose suffering was invisible, they moved to learning about and articulating their rights and then demanding that those rights be respected. Understanding the causes of inequality, and linking it to a rights framework, encouraged them to take concrete actions. In Guatemala, women refugees trained on the provisions of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) quickly made the link between their lack of representation and participation and the lack of programmes that focused on their protection. Having an outside institution reaffirm their rights was empowering, and the women had a wealth of suggestions and ideas on how to improve their protection and enhance their representation and voice in camp decision-making structures.

Drawing on this experience, we began the project by talking to women about the gendered factors that made them vulnerable, and what would make them safer. Women identified three issues that put them at risk. The first was the division of roles between men and women in work, shelter and aid distribution. Women had to leave the camps to get firewood, fodder, materials, employment and water. This made them vulnerable to attack by armed men outside the camp. They were also vulnerable when they visited latrines at night because there was no lighting. Some women were subject to violence standing in line for distributions, and young girls were vulnerable when running errands. Single women were vulnerable to attack in their tents because there was little internal security and there were no private areas for them. Poverty and scarcity of food made women extremely vulnerable to sexual manipulation, and ethnic divisions made it difficult for women to organise around their problems.

The second set of gendered factors concerned the attitudes and mindsets that underpinned and upheld the first. Women had little influence in camp governance structures: female representatives were present only in the bottom tier of camp management, not in the higher governance levels. This made it easy for their needs to be ignored, their safety issues overlooked and their participation sidelined. This lack of participation and voice had many repercussions. Although firewood patrols did exist, there were no forums for women to give suggestions to the UN Police who accompanied women on the patrols. Women did not trust the UN Police, did not have information about patrol logistics and in some cases were met by the police at collection sites but not accompanied into forested areas where they were subsequently attacked.

A culture of silence around GBV in Darfur exacerbated women’s vulnerability. Reporting sexual violence to the authorities had a huge social cost. Married women could be ostracised by their husbands, and single women seen as unmarriageable. The lack of reporting reinforced the lack of understanding of the extent of GBV in and around the camps. The male-dominated police force, both local and United Nations, was another reason why women were reluctant to report incidents because they did not feel comfortable reporting intimate violence to men. Even more profound was the fact that sexual violence against women had become a weapon of war in Darfur.

The programme tried to address the key issues the women raised by seeking to build what we called a ‘web of protection’. Atema Eclai, Program Strategy Framework for Darfur, 2008.  We began by trying to give women more voice and agency, providing training in women’s rights and leadership and supporting women’s centres so that women could share experiences with each other. This offered women a safe place to talk about strategies and helped them identify common problems. Camp leaders, officials and police were trained in gender sensitivity and programmes were offered to UN and local police on gender-based violence and protection. As part of the course, the trainer helped participants to develop skills in conflict resolution, communication and problem solving, which they practiced repeatedly in reallife camp situations. The immediate benefits convinced the UN Police about the efficacy of this approach, and opened them up to the rest of the curriculum. Other sceptics were convinced when the trainer asked them to reflect on their feelings if the women in their families were suffering the kind of violence women in the camps were experiencing. She also kept a balance between the theoretical (what made women vulnerable), and the practical (what steps could be done to address these vulnerabilities).

Camp leaders formed gender committees and firewood committees so that women had access to decision-makers. Through the firewood committees, women were able to give regular feedback on patrols, and UN Police began to understand some of the women’s concerns. Relations with the community changed to such an extent that the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in Darfur signed an agreement with UN Women to train all police in gender sensitivity. The Sudanese police also requested training and agreed to deploy more female police in the camps, and men in the camps asked for training on women’s rights and protection. Several camps also formed community policing groups, approximately half of whose members were women. The community police became a very effective bridge between the community and the UN Police, improving women’s reporting of incidents significantly and enhancing their feelings of security.

Several useful lessons emerged from the sensitisation and training part of the project. The first was that it is essential to train camp leaders in GBV so that they understand the problems and learn practical skills on how to translate ideas and principles into tangible prevention and response actions. Secondly, the type of training is crucial. Training does not change people’s attitudes, behaviour or actions unless it is participatory, draws on participants’ experience, teaches them induction and analysis, provides practical skills and involves them in formulating solutions. Thirdly, to create lasting change at the level of camp leadership, training should occur at least every six months, with regular follow-up and support. This allows camp leaders to experiment with strategies and seek help to improve.

More concrete changes in practice suggested by the women, such as using donkey carts for firewood collection or improving firewood patrols, had varied results. There was great enthusiasm for income-generating projects, but there were not enough funds or technical assistance available at the time to scale up these projects to the level needed. Suggestions for improving firewood patrols were very successful because the UN Police were much better versed in GBV thanks to the training they had received. However, sustaining positive change requires continual follow-up and training, which was difficult as UN Police were rotated out every few months. Training community police seems to have had a longer-term impact in improving internal security for women in the camp. Reporting of problems and incidents increased notably because women were much more willing to approach female community police. Increased reporting gave camp leaders a clearer picture of the security problems that women faced.

A key component of the project focused on changing the mindset, created by the war, that violence against women was permissible and inevitable. To that end, UUSC supported a programme to train imams in speaking out against violence against women in their preaching in mosques, using values articulated in the Koran. Radio and television programmes featuring imams reinforcing these messages were hugely popular, and several imams have signed a public declaration against domestic violence.

The experience in Darfur demonstrates the need to change attitudes towards gender-based violence in order to change practice, and shows that doing so is possible. Practical action to address a problem (security) can often help lead people to greater understanding of the underlying causes of the problem. While beginning work on changing attitudes, it is possible to simultaneously introduce changes in practice, such as income generation so that women do not have to leave the camp to earn money and separate areas in the camp for single women. In this way different types of work reinforce each other and build the will for change.


Despite training on gender, GBV manuals, agreements to uphold the Sphere guidelines and human rights reports and advocacy, the record of international NGOs in prioritising GBV in emergencies is dismal. Experience in Darfur suggests that a better way to enhance safety for women and girls in camps is to focus training and sensitisation at the level of camp leaders, religious leaders, community decisionmakers and local NGOs. Lessons from work in Darfur suggest that putting the safety of girls and women at the centre keeps the focus on their protection. Bringing women’s voices into the problem analysis and proposed solutions is crucial to programme development. Building women’s agency increases their voice and thus their chances of building alliances for protection. Multi-faceted programmes which include mutually reinforcing practical actions, such as providing lighting in latrines, with training to change attitudes help to create the will to address GBV. Focusing on changing the attitudes of grassroots and community leaders so that they take action might have much more impact than focusing attention on trying to change the mindset of transitory relief workers, and working to strengthen calls for addressing GBV at the grassroots is more effective than highlevel advocacy in reducing the incidence and acceptability of violence against women and girls in the long term.

Martha Thompson, Mary Okumu and Atema Eclai are independent consultants.


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