Issue 60 - Article 2

Gender-based violence: a confused and contested term

February 11, 2014
Sophie Read-Hamilton
A meeting in South Africa to improve state response to gender-based violence

Addressing gender-based violence (GBV) in communities affected by armed conflict and disasters is an evolving field of practice, and increasingly a contested one due to confusion about what the term actually means. There are various, at times conflicting, views on what gender-based violence is and is not, and therefore what humanitarian responses to it should look like. Some protection and child protection actors argue that GBV is a broad term which should include different forms of gendered and sexualised violence, such as sexual violence directed at men and forced recruitment of boys into fighting forces. For others, gender-based violence is synonymous with violence against women.

The current debate about what constitutes GBV raises a number of issues and questions that need to be considered if we are to promote theory- and evidencebased humanitarian practice in this area. Is it a good idea to have an all-encompassing definition of GBV? Where does the term come from in the first place, and what does it actually mean? Will a broad definition serve the needs, interests and rights of diverse groups affected by different forms of gendered and sexualised violence in humanitarian settings? Is there a risk of rolling back the hard-won gains made to have violence against women and girls in humanitarian settings recognised and prioritised by the international community? Is GBV still a useful term if it has so many different meanings?

The history of GBV in humanitarian action

read-hamilton-boxWhile preventing and responding to GBV is now a core component of humanitarian action, as recently as the early 1990s the problem in conflict and disaster-affected settings was all but invisible. In the 1990s a number of factors led to the issue of violence against women in conflict, sexual violence in particular, becoming recognised by the international community. These factors include the efforts of women’s rights advocates and activists to position violence against women and girls as a human rights issue and move the problem of violence against women from the private to the public realm. The visibility, scale and scope of sexual violence perpetrated against women in conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda also gave the issue momentum and spurred the international community to act in response.

The 1990s saw the first sexual violence programme, in refugee camps in western Tanzania. Since then, GBV prevention and response, as with humanitarian protection more generally, has become an integral aspect of humanitarian action. The past decade has witnessed the development of policy frameworks, programme guidance and standards and capacity-building for preventing and responding to GBV in humanitarian emergencies. The responsibilities of all humanitarian actors to prevent and respond to GBV are now clearly spelt out in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)’s Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings, first published in 2005 and currently under revision. This document outlines actions to be taken across humanitarian sectors to prevent and respond to GBV, sexual violence in particular. Many humanitarian agencies, NGOs and UN agencies alike, have resources dedicated to GBV, with technical advisors in headquarters and in the field; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has Standard Operating Procedures (SOPS) for GBV in place in virtually every camp under its jurisdiction.

A shifting paradigm

The growth of GBV prevention and response and its evolution into a distinct field of practice within humanitarian action have been largely driven by practitioners, activists and researchers at the forefront of building humanitarian accountability and capacity for responding to violence against women and girls in conflict, postconflict and disaster settings. Feminist theory and practice have informed intervention frameworks and models. Responding to survivors of GBV in humanitarian settings is grounded in a survivor-centred, empowerment approach that prioritises a survivor’s rights to self-determination, an approach which has been the cornerstone of the feminist-based rape crisis and domestic violence movements around the world for decades. For many humanitarian agencies and practitioners, gender-based violence remains synonymous with violence against women and girls.

This paradigm is, however, shifting. There are now calls for GBV prevention and response in humanitarian settings to focus on a wider range of gendered and sexualised violence, such as sexual violence directed at men in conflict, and violence against gay, lesbian, transgendered and intersex people. Some child protection actors argue that forced recruitment of boys into fighting forces is a form of gender-based violence. The call for a broader interpretation of GBV in humanitarian action appears to have a number of drivers. One is increasing awareness of the different forms of gendered and sexualised violence in conflict and disaster-affected settings which, like violence against women, are hidden for reasons of shame, stigma and taboo and entrenched social norms around sex, sexuality and gender. This growing awareness of other forms of gendered and sexualised violence facing individuals and groups in humanitarian contexts brings with it an imperative for protection actors to act.

Another driver appears to be a paradoxical outcome of gender mainstreaming within humanitarian action. Gender mainstreaming emerged in the 1980s as a strategy to further women’s empowerment and promote gender equality through ensuring that public policy reflects the needs and interests of women as well as those of men. Within some parts of the humanitarian community the intended aims of gender mainstreaming have become lost, and working on gender issues has come to mean demonstrating that women/girls and men/boys benefit equally from humanitarian interventions (see, for example, the IASC Gender Marker, a tool developed to track gender allocations in humanitarian projects and ensure that humanitarian action is equally meeting the distinct needs of female and male beneficiaries). This interpretation has led to men and boys being ‘added’ to definitions, documents, policies and programmes that focus on violence against women and girls. One can find many examples of this, such as one country’s GBV sub-Cluster Terms of Reference, in which GBV is defined using the definition of violence against women from the UN DEVAW, with ‘men and boys’ added. This particular document describes different forms of violence against men, such as trafficking, as gender-based by using the definition of violence against women.

The idea that men and boys can simply be added to policies, documents and frameworks that aim to address violence against women is simplistic and problematic. It does not help build knowledge or understanding of the causes and consequences of sexualised and gendered violence against men and boys in conflict and disaster-affected settings, nor does it contribute to the development of good practice in responding to violence, which requires evidence-based and theory-driven frameworks. While there may be similarities between different forms of gendered and sexualised violence experienced by men and women, they are not the same. The causes, dynamics and outcomes of violence against women are different from those of violence against men. Adding men into documents and policies for responding to violence against women and girls does not account for these differences.

So what is GBV?

So what is GBV? Is forced recruitment of boys into fighting forces GBV? Is so-called ‘corrective rape’ of lesbians GBV? Is the sexualised torture of male prisoners of war GBV? Is refusing to register a transgendered person as an IDP because the sex on their documentation does not match their appearance GBV? Is sexual abuse of boys by men with a sexual preference for pre-pubertal children GBV?

If you survey practitioners about their understanding of GBV, as I have done, In 2012 I interviewed 35 GBV and Child Protection specialists from international humanitarian and development organisations about their understanding of the term ‘gender-based violence’, as well as how the term is interpreted by their organisation. The interviews were conducted as part of a larger literature and practice review on children and gender-based violence.  you will find a diverse range of perspectives and understandings of what GBV is and isn’t. For many practitioners and policymakers, their interpretation does not necessarily even accord with that of their agency. Individuals often have different views about what should and should not constitute gender-based violence from those of their organisation. These divergent and contested views on what GBV actually means, what forms of violence it includes and what GBV programmes should be preventing and responding to causes significant confusion. Analysing the different interpretations of GBV may help to shed some light on this confusion, explain why there are conflicting perspectives and help move the debate forward.

Different interpretations

There appear to be three main interpretations of GBV, each of which includes different forms of violence, and each with different theoretical roots. The first and most common interpretation is GBV as primarily men’s violence against women and girls. Thus, gender-based violence was used in the UN DEVAW to underscore the structural nature of male violence against women across the lifespan, and to highlight the gendered power relations that cause and perpetuate it. Within a violence against women framework, which is informed by feminist theory, the gendered dimensions of violence against women are different from those of violence against men, because ‘while men may certainly be exposed to violence as a result of their socially determined gender roles and norms, the violence they experience – or even perpetrate against other men – rarely if ever contributes to or confirms the overall subjugation of men as an entire subgroup of people’. J. Ward, From Invisible to Indivisible: Promoting and Protecting the Right of the Girl Child To Be Free from Violence (New York: UNICEF, 2008), p. 18.

A second major interpretation of GBV has emerged from the study of masculinity and sexuality. This sees GBV as violence primarily used by men against women, some males, and inclusive of sexual violence against children. In this interpretation, GBV is used to oppress some men as well as women and girls, and is a policing mechanism to enforce gender hierarchies in which men are privileged in relation to women, but also in relation to some groups of men. J. Lang, ‘Men, Masculinities and Violence’, Key Note Speech presented at the International Conference ‘Eradicating Violence against Women and Girls – Strengthening Human Rights’, Berlin, 2002.  Homophobic violence and sexual exploitation and abuse of children are considered forms of GBV in this interpretation.

A third interpretation of GBV – and the broadest – refers to violence ‘directed at an individual, male or female, based on his or her specific role in society’. J. Benjamin and L. Murchison, Gender-Based Violence: Care & Protection of Children in Emergencies, A Field Guide, Save the Children, 2004.  In this interpretation GBV is violence used against women, girls, men and boys to assert and reproduce gender roles and norms. According to this understanding, GBV can happen equally to a person of either sex and is used to reinforce conformity to gender roles. It includes violence against women and girls, sexual violence against men and violence that is directed at girls because they are girls and boys because they are boys, for example the recruitment of boys as combatants into armed groups.

Why does this matter?

Why does it matter that humanitarian agencies and workers have multiple, different, shifting and sometimes even conflicting perspectives on what is and is not GBV, and therefore what should and should not constitute humanitarian response to it? Divergent views and perspectives could lead to healthy and rigorous debate and to more appropriate and more effective humanitarian response. However, lumping all forms of gendered and sexualised violence together under a violence against women and girls framework without a sound understanding and explanation of the causes, drivers and impacts of such violence on individuals, families and communities is potentially harmful. A broad definition of GBV that is not clearly grounded in sound analysis and does not draw on expertise and experience will lead to poor practice and potentially to ineffective interventions. To prevent this, humanitarian actors need first to be clear about which types and manifestations of violence their interventions are aimed at addressing. They then must use or develop definitions, conceptual frameworks and programmes based on theories underpinning the particular types of violence they are seeking to address.

Issues of violence, gender and sexuality are complex. Addressing them has political dimensions, and requires engaging with multiple relationships and layers of power and oppression, and with multiple theories and intersections of causation. There is a very real risk that putting all gendered and sexualised violence under the GBV umbrella will take attention and resources away from violence against women and girls. While all forms of gendered and sexualised violence must be addressed as a component of humanitarian protection and assistance, humanitarian response must be grounded in a sound understanding of who this violence affects, how and why it happens and how it is best addressed.

Sophie Read-Hamilton is an independent consultant with 20 years’ experience of working on issues of children’s and women’s rights. She focuses on violence against women and girls in humanitarian settings, and has worked for various humanitarian agencies on GBV policy, strategy, practice and capacity-building.


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