Issue 60 - Article 5

Preventing gender-based violence: getting it right

February 12, 2014
Dale Buscher
A displaced mother and her family in Haiti, weeks after the massive earthquake of 2010

Gender-based violence (GBV) remains epidemic in situations of conflict, disaster and displacement. Despite the rhetoric, the new language around GBV, the UN Security Council Resolutions and the myriad of guidelines, women and girls, and to a lesser extent men and boys, continue to be raped, abused and violated in these contexts. Much is known about the facts of GBV and how to respond. It is known, for example, that incidents of GBV escalate, often dramatically, during conflict and displacement. It is also known that 50% of survivors are under the age of 16, UNFPA, State of World Population, 2003.  and that women and girls with disabilities are 4–10 times more likely to be targeted by GBV as those without disabilities. WHO and the World Bank, World Report on Disability, 2011, p. 59.  Humanitarian practitioners know how to set up healthcare responses and, to some extent, legal and psychosocial responses. Far less, however, is known about GBV prevention. How is it operationalised? How is existing guidance on lighting and separate latrines implemented? How are emergency responders held accountable for following globally agreed standards? How can the heightened and varied risks women and girls, in particular, face during conflict and displacement be mitigated?

One reason why prevention has received less attention and is not well understood is that it is complex and can be difficult to measure. Vital, life-saving response services for survivors, by contrast, are concrete and measurable. For example, we can say that 50 women who had been raped were treated with medical care and emergency contraceptives. Prevention activities are far less tangible; no one can state that, as a result of their rule of law programme, 15 girls were not raped. Enhancing physical security – the three ‘L’s’: lighting, locks and latrines – is one piece of prevention. Yet even this most basic level of protection, along with well-placed, well-lit water points and the establishment of neighbourhood watches and external security patrols, is unevenly implemented. The humanitarian community needs to assess why implementation is so haphazard and why basic guidance is not being put into practice. The answer, no doubt, is complex, and will include resource constraints, a lack of familiarity with existing guidance and emergency responders being left out of broader humanitarian discussions and guideline development processes and, hence, unaware of the guidelines that are to be followed. The lack of accountability mechanisms for ensuring that guidance is implemented no doubt also plays a role.

What is clear is that everything humanitarian workers do in the early days and weeks of emergency response either heightens exposure to risks or helps mitigate risks of GBV. Where the water point is placed matters; how food distributions are organised matters; which shelter materials are distributed matters. And, if these things are not done right at the beginning, some of the harm is irreversible. Water pumps placed near a boys’ soccer field, for instance, cannot be moved later, even when girls complain of harassment and intimidation when collecting water, because the funds have been spent and the WASH guys have moved on.

Addressing social and cultural norms, those beliefs and practices that allow for the subjugation of women and permit domestic violence, is another piece of the prevention puzzle, and one that is likely to get little traction during emergencies and protracted humanitarian contexts. Often when people have fled their homes and communities, their cultural practices become even more important as perhaps the only thing they can hold onto, the one constant. It is not just social-cultural norms and physical security, however, which need to be considered when mitigating the risks of GBV. It is important to identify the universe of risks that exist in conflict and displacement settings, which may be context- and situation-specific, and design targeted interventions to reduce or mitigate those risks. Research conducted by the Women’s Refugee Commission, for example, found that affected people, and women and girls in particular, face a variety of risks in these contexts – around many of which humanitarian practitioners can develop programmes to reduce or minimise vulnerability. Some of the risks identified include inadequate legal or policy frameworks; lack of basic/survival needs; and lack of economic, educational and social opportunities, as well as those previously mentioned – socio-cultural norms and insecurity and lack of physical protection. Women’s Refugee Commission, Preventing Gender-based Violence, Building Livelihoods: Guidance and Tools for Improved Programming, December 2011.

Addressing the legal and policy framework can be complicated. In refugee settings, host governments often do not allow refugees freedom of movement and the right to work, both of which create conditions for GBV by forcing refugees into the unregulated, informal economy and resulting in possible harassment, arrest, detention and deportation. The issue of impunity, too, can be challenging. Traditional systems of justice function in many rural, clan and tribal settings, are closely linked to existing sociocultural norms and are generally dominated by men, with little priority given to the needs and concerns of women and girls. Even when there are functioning government law enforcement and judicial systems, procedures can be excruciatingly slow, and personnel under-paid and influenced by bribes and corruption. This does not imply that rule of law and good governance programmes are not worthwhile interventions, but it does mean that attempting to reduce GBV by prosecuting offenders may not lead quickly to the desired outcomes. One international NGO, for example, has been trying to prosecute a perpetrator for the abduction and rape of a 13-year-old girl in Ethiopia for nearly ten years without success. The perpetrator has been released and acquitted by both lower and higher courts as a result of bribes and inherent gender discrimination within the legal system. See the work of Equality Now’s Adolescent Girls’ Legal Defense Fund,

Basic needs and opportunities

The Women’s Refugee Commission has identified two other broad areas of risk – lack of basic/survival needs and lack of economic, educational and social opportunities – which can be more readily addressed by humanitarian practitioners. The lack of basic/survival needs clearly creates conditions conducive to GBV. When populations are unable to meet their basic needs in situations where the social fabric has been ripped and traditional safety nets have been broken, people will do whatever they can and trade and sell the only things available to them in order to survive – girls exchange their bodies for food and clothes, women risk rape by journeying long distances to collect firewood for cooking and to sell, and women turn to prostitution as a source of income. When we, as the humanitarian community, do not or are not able to deliver enough aid to raise uprooted people out of desperation and misery, we are leaving women and girls with untenable choices for their own and their families’ survival. Adequate funding for humanitarian programming, however, can ensure that such conditions are not created, that those displaced by crisis and conflict have the basic necessities to survive – access to shelter, food and a means to cook it, and water – and that access is monitored to ensure receipt by those most in need. Furthermore, promoting self-reliance early could address ever-problematic resource constraints.

It is the final cluster of vulnerabilities – the lack of economic, educational and social opportunities – that humanitarian actors can further mitigate through thoughtfully planned, well-targeted interventions. The direct provision of firewood or alternative energy sources for cooking food can reduce women’s and girls’ risk of GBV as they no longer have to venture out into unsafe areas far from their shelters to scavenge for brush and timber. Establishing girls-only spaces for adolescent girls to meet, build their social networks and for use as portals for a variety of protection and empowerment programming, such as mentorship programmes, savings clubs and financial literacy classes, can enhance girls’ negotiation and decision-making skills and build their sense of agency and self-esteem so that they make better and safer choices for themselves. Getting and keeping girls in school is one of the best protections available, even though schools are not always safe places. And while the provision of primary education is part of standard humanitarian response, which girls attend and which do not is seldom taken into consideration. It is very likely that the most vulnerable and those at most risk of GBV, unaccompanied girls, young married girls and girls with disabilities, are among those not attending, thereby requiring special, targeted outreach efforts. Finally, providing safe, market-driven economic opportunities for women and female youth can mitigate their risks of GBV.

Economic programmes, when not designed and implemented with a protection and GBV prevention lens, can actually increase the risk of exposure to GBV. Accessing the public sphere in ways they have not before, for example, or travelling to and from work sites on foot or by public transport after dark can put women at risk. The workplace itself can expose women and girls to abuse by supervisors, business owners, fellow employees and customers. And yet it is vital that women are provided with these opportunities, as only then will they be able to leave abusive relationships and control resources that can be used for the betterment of their families. Humanitarian workers have a responsibility to provide equal access to economic opportunities to women and men and, in order to live up to the humanitarian imperative of ‘do no harm’, have an obligation to make these opportunities as safe as possible. This requires understanding how participation in them might increase exposure to risks, and then adapting the programme design to mitigate those risks as much as humanly possible. The Women’s Refugee Commission developed a safety mapping tool to help economic programmers understand the possible risks, and produced a two-minute video that explains the concept, asking not only where risks increase, but when, at what times of the day and week, and from encounters or interactions with whom. These resources can be accessed at: and

Engaging men and boys has been another much-touted but seldom realised approach to preventing GBV. Raising awareness among men and boys about GBV and the human rights that GBV violates, a common tactic for engaging males, may not be the most effective entry point for this work. At least some research indicates that starting with and reinforcing positive behaviours, men’s role as protector of and provider for their spouses and daughters, for example, may be more effective. A. Berkowitz, Working with Men To Prevent Violence Against Women, Applied Research Forum, National Electronic Network on Violence Against Women,  Identifying and engaging male role models and religious and formal and informal leaders as spokesmen on the issue may do more than an approach that labels men as merely perpetrators and problems. Additionally, when livelihood programmes that target women have parallel programmes that target men or engage men in other ways directly in womenfocused programmes, those programmes are safer for the female participants.

Lastly, the humanitarian system has to question whether our increased expertise by sector has led us away from collective action and collective responsibility. When humanitarian workers were by and large generalists, everyone worried about needs, not just those identified within their sector of work. Has it now become too easy to relegate GBV to the GBV experts, gender to the gender advisors and persons with disabilities to the disability organisations? Has our growing expertise led to growing segmentation and a relinquishing of responsibility? Making progress on the prevention of GBV in these complex humanitarian settings is going to require renewed collective action, comprehensive, cross-sectoral approaches, a GBV prevention focus and lens on everything we do and a system of accountability for organisations and individuals that do not adhere to globally agreed guidance. The humanitarian imperative of ‘do no harm’ requires no less, and means that the prevention of GBV is everyone’s business.

Dale Buscher is Senior Director for Programmes at the Women’s Refugee Commission.


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