Issue 60 - Article 4

If GBV programming is essential in emergencies, how do we do it? Developing a model to operationalise existing guidance

February 12, 2014
Alina Potts and Virginia Zuco
Women displaced by the conflict in Mali often walk long distances in search of water and wood outside makeshift camps in Niger

Emergencies occur against a backdrop of pre-existing gender inequality. From Darfur to New Orleans, such inequality is exacerbated as any existing systems and structures to protect women and girls are changed, weakened or destroyed, when fighting breaks out or a hurricane hits. This creates specific risks that the humanitarian community cannot ignore – risks that disproportionately affect women and girls. Gender-based violence (GBV) programming in emergencies aims to meet the immediate, lifesaving needs of women and girls while laying the groundwork for survivors of such violence, their families and their communities to recover. Failing to include GBV-specific programming in emergency interventions carries consequences: first responders may inadvertently expose women and girls to additional risks; weaken the foundation for their resilience and health; and create barriers to reconstructing the lives and livelihoods of individuals, families and communities.

While attention to violence against women and girls in emergencies – particularly during armed conflict – has increased over the last decade, humanitarian responses do not prioritise responding to this violence as a lifesaving intervention. Programmes to provide essential services to GBV survivors are rarely part of the first stage of an emergency response, despite wider acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of GBV in humanitarian contexts and the existence of clear standards outlining the necessity of addressing it.

The investment

The volatility and complexity of emergencies has been cited as one reason for the humanitarian community’s failure to address GBV from the outset. In response to this, the Inter- Agency Standing Committee (IASC) released the Guidelines for GBV Interventions in Humanitarian Settings in 2005. These standard-setting guidelines clearly state that ‘All humanitarian actors must take action, from the earliest stages of an emergency, to prevent sexual violence and provide appropriate assistance to survivors/victims’. The IASC Guidelines on Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings (2005) (p. 1).  The Guidelines include actions that all sectors – protection, shelter, water and sanitation, camp management, etc. – should take to reduce the risks for women and girls in emergencies, as well as meeting the specialised needs of GBV survivors. Numerous other inter-agency and internal standards and guidelines have since been developed to reinforce these messages. Examples include Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Guidelines for Prevention and Response (UNHCR); Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls (UNHCR); Handbook for Coordinating Genderbased Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings (GBV Area of Responsibility); Gender Handbook for Humanitarian Action – Women, Girls, Boys and Men – Different Needs Equal Opportunities (IASC).  Yet time and again, experience in the field has shown that actors often overlook the effects that pre-existing gender inequality has on all facets of programming – shelter, food and non-food distributions and water and sanitation – and miss numerous opportunities to reduce risks for women and girls, or to offer services that meet the specialised needs of GBV survivors.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has witnessed these challenges first hand, as our own staff have struggled to prioritise actions outlined under best practice standards. If the humanitarian community at large does not understand how to put guidelines in place and is not comfortable with them, the chaos and complexity of emergencies will lend itself to saying it’s too hard or too complex. In short, guidelines that are not operationalised or that lack institutional backing, consensus and understanding are unlikely to be used.

The IRC decided to invest, to dedicate time and resources to developing a programme model based on the existing guidelines and a system for capacity-building that would train GBV actors, as well as those from other sectors, on how to undertake priority actions in emergencies, and continue to support them as they attempted to put the training into practice. The outcome of this investment was the GBV Emergency Response Program Model and capacitybuilding package. Its goal is to enable all humanitarian practitioners, in particular field staff, to feel comfortable and confident in dealing with the most immediate and lifethreatening results of gender inequality, as they manifest themselves in the midst of an emergency.

Developing resources for the humanitarian community

potts-boxThe GBV Emergency Response Program Model outlines the concrete steps emergency practitioners need to take in ensuring that GBV survivors have access to appropriate services in a safe and timely manner, and that coordination and advocacy are undertaken to reduce risks to women and girls. The IRC built a resource package around the model (including standard assessment and planning tools, training and guidance to adapt these to their specific contexts and access to technical support to put learning into action; see Box 1), and a capacity-building strategy focused on specialised GBV programming as well as risk mitigation across sectors (mainstreaming).

Once rolled out, field staff identified the need for further interaction and support, specifically a platform from which they could access resources as they are adapted and updated based on use in the field, alongside remote technical support and online learning opportunities. In response to these requests, the IRC created a website – – to provide access to these resources, as well as a platform to exchange and learn from technical experts and fellow practitioners in the field.

As part of field-testing these resources, the IRC also adapted the After-Action Review (AAR) method. The IRC’s AAR process is designed to provide first-line responders with an opportunity to pause, reflect and analyse how they applied learning and tools during a recent GBV emergency preparedness or response intervention, reflect on any obstacles to effective response, and formulate ways to improve future responses based on this experience. In short, AARs are a way to apply real-time learning to emergency programming.

To date, the IRC has used this package to train almost 400 practitioners from 27 different countries, almost half of them staff from other organisations, and almost half working in sectors other than GBV. This is a resource, and a competency, meant for the entire humanitarian field.

What we learned

How do we know if this capacity-building package, and the GBV Emergency Response Program Model on which it is based, is effective in building the knowledge, confidence and skills of practitioners? The IRC recently concluded a three-year evaluation (funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) to assess just this. Trained practitioners demonstrated significant increases in knowledge and confidence across the three core competency areas of the training curriculum: understanding GBV in emergencies, conducting GBV assessments and implementing a GBV emergency intervention. Put another way, capacity-building with an operational emphasis – model, tools, practice and ongoing technical support – leads to increased knowledge, confidence and skills.

Other learning opportunities are equally informative. Key lessons from the IRC’s 2012 response in the Democratic Republic of Congo, supported through funds from the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, highlight the effect that GBV preparedness actions had on our ability to quickly and effectively respond when the conflict in North Kivu reignited. Investments in preparedness included training IRC and partner staff, pre-positioning key materials (such as post-rape kits), organising clinical care training for health providers, involving the Ministry of Health in preparedness planning and developing protocols with UNHCR, UNICEF and MONUSCO for response, as well as agreements between different sectors within the IRC.

These actions had clear impacts on the IRC’s ability to respond. In addition to IRC field offices providing ongoing services, trained staff deployed to conflict-affected areas over 40 times between April and December 2012, as part of two- to four-strong GBV rapid response teams providing services to over 200 GBV survivors; services in IRC’s existing areas of operation treated almost 2,100 women and girls. The IRC shared assessment reports and trained 132 service providers and outreach workers from local and international NGOs. This emphasis on local capacity paid off as services never stopped: even when displaced themselves, psychosocial assistants ensured ongoing service provision. Investing in preparedness meant investing time and resources in building the capacity of IRC staff and partners to identify likely emergency scenarios, develop and take action based on agreed plans, ensure emergency response materials were pre-positioned and advocate for the prioritisation of GBV response at the height of an emergency. During the AAR, IRC and partner staff reported that this focus on capacity building before the crisis hit gave them more confidence in their ability to rapidly respond to the protection needs of women and girls.

How the humanitarian community can take it forward

If specialised GBV programmes are established in the first phase of an emergency, women and girls take the first step towards recovery and in turn are then better able to support others. If such programmes are not in place, not only do survivors not receive support, but opportunities to reduce the daily risks faced by women and girls are missed or, worse, these risks are exacerbated. They may face a trade-off of risking their safety to access the goods and services that aim to be lifesaving. They face threats and violence because of poorly designed and placed latrines and water points, insufficient shelter and badly implemented distributions.

The GBV Emergency Response Program Model, its related tools and resources and the website that houses them were all developed with the intention of being adopted and adapted by other organisations. To that end, the IRC has hosted a series of meetings and roundtables in London, Brussels and Washington with UN agencies, donors, policymakers and sister organisations. As evidenced through the UK government’s Call to Action and the US government’s Safe from the Start initiatives, the time is ripe for humanitarian actors to build on these resources as they see fit to further investment in programming that addresses the specific needs of women and girls in emergencies.

The IRC’s vision is one in which women and girls, with their communities, work to create a world where they are valued, live free from violence and exercise their rights to promote their own safety, equality and voice. In working towards this, we recognise and value the primacy of collaborating across disciplines and sectors to achieve our collective aims. The GBV Emergency Response Program Model and capacity-building package were not developed in isolation, nor should they be used that way. They exist to supplement what organisations already have – to be adapted and developed so that we, as a community, can build consensus and move forward to face the next challenge together.

Alina Potts is Emergency Response & Preparedness Coordinator of the IRC’s Women’s Protection & Empowerment Technical Team. Virginia Zuco is the Emergency Response & Preparedness Manager of the Women’s Protection and Empowerment Technical Team.


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