Issue 60 - Article 3

Revising the 2005 IASC Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings: prioritising accountability

February 12, 2014
Jeanne Ward
Women in El Fasher, Darfur, march against gender-based violence

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings The 2005 edition of the Guidelines is available at  were published in 2005 to establish standards across all areas of humanitarian response related to preventing and responding to gender-based violence, particularly sexual violence in the early stages of an emergency. The immediate impetus behind the Guidelines stemmed in large part from the failure of humanitarian agencies to institute basic protection against sexual violence in Darfur, with the longer-term goal of establishing essential steps all humanitarian actors could take in their areas of operation to reduce the risk of exposure to GBV. Following publication, the Guidelines were rolled out in humanitarian settings globally via training and other information-sharing activities. In many settings the recommendations in the Guidelines are often consolidated by GBV actors into sector-specific one-page ‘action sheets’ that are distributed across humanitarian sectors or clusters as a summary reference of key responsibilities.

Why a revision now?

The Guidelines represented an important step forward in articulating the need for a holistic approach to GBV prevention and protection in the early stages of emergencies. However, many recommendations still go unheeded; in the maelstrom of emergency response, basic safeguards related to GBV – locks on latrines, for example, or targeted food distributions and monitoring and preventing GBV in learning centres – might be considered non-essential rather than life-saving interventions. Those working in humanitarian response may also feel they do not have the expertise to undertake the recommendations outlined in the Guidelines, assuming this is the domain of GBV specialists. While targeted GBV specialist programming (e.g. programming that requires specific training and expertise in the area of GBV prevention and response) is essential during an emergency, it is also essential that non-specialists understand the important contribution they can make in ensuring basic protection against GBV. The ongoing scope of the problem of GBV in humanitarian settings suggests that the Guidelines have not been wholly successful in delivering this message. In addition, the 2005 Guidelines predate the Humanitarian Reform and Transformative Agenda processes and therefore do not reflect the Cluster System and other changes in humanitarian coordination, leadership, accountability and partnership, while a number of important lessons, strategies and tools have been generated in the years since 2005.

The revision process: a focus on accountability through inclusion

In November 2012, the global Gender-based Violence Area of Responsibility Working Group (GBV AoR) See  initiated a two-year process for revising the Guidelines, with funding from the US Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. The project is facilitated by two consultants and overseen by an advisory group (the Task Team) within the GBV AoR. A central theme from the outset of the project has been ensuring the accountability of humanitarian actors to the revised Guidelines. A multi-pronged approach was developed to try to ensure ownership of the revisions process and, ultimately, the finalised revised Guidelines.

The first component of the revision involved intensive and broad-based consultation with sector/cluster actors at the global level in order to solicit recommendations for the content, design and distribution of the revised Guidelines. This preliminary consultation process included direct dialogue with over 100 individuals representing all regions of the world, all clusters and AoRs, all crosscutting areas, 26 international NGOs, 11 UN agencies and other entities (e.g. Red Cross/Red Crescent) and five donor agencies. In addition, two surveys were distributed globally in four languages to approximately 160 individuals and organisations and eight interagency distribution lists, which resulted in 428 completed responses.

Based on the feedback during the preliminary consultation, the Task Team overseeing the project agreed that the revised Guidelines would serve specifically as a mainstreaming tool focused on building the capacity of non-GBV specialists working in humanitarian settings to meet their responsibilities with regard to GBV prevention and response. The revised Guidelines will underscore the importance of addressing multiple types of GBV, rather than focusing solely on sexual violence in emergencies, and will cover natural disasters in addition to conflictaffected settings. Recommendations will consider shortterm interventions to maximise immediate protection, as well as longer-term, sustainable interventions that can be taken up at the national/local level, and that move beyond risk mitigation and work towards the elimination of GBV.

The content will be organised in terms of a broad introductory section covering key theoretical aspects of GBV prevention and response (e.g. definitions, programming principles, ethics and safety), followed by a series of sector-/cluster-specific sections (referred to in the revised Guidelines as ‘thematic areas’) which will link to the Transformative Agenda by outlining the key responsibilities of sector/cluster actors in terms of the programme cycle (assessment and design, resource mobilisation, implementation and monitoring and evaluation). Each thematic area will also highlight key coordination partners and provide a two-page sector-specific ‘checklist’ that can be removed from the Guidelines and used as a quick reference tool. Voluntary focal points within each sector have been called upon to facilitate ongoing reviews of drafts of the Guidelines by providing direct commentary, as well as encouraging colleagues to provide feedback.

The second component of the revision involved taking the draft thematic area sections to the field for review and input. The consultants visited five countries in mid-2013 (Kenya, Jordan, Pakistan, the Philippines and El Salvador) to conduct group consultations with local, national and international representatives of each of the key sectors covered in the thematic sections. The information gathered from these consultations will be incorporated into the draft, which will be piloted, along with associated training tools, in at least four additional field sites in 2014 before being finalised.

The third component will involve developing an accountability strategy, a process that will be overseen by the Task Team. This strategy will be based on a review of various accountability mechanisms, for example the Gender Marker, to determine how they might be adapted and applied by different actors to encourage uptake of the revised Guidelines. The strategy will also consider how to engage donors, governments and senior managers in the implementation of the revised Guidelines’ recommendations. The strategy will be piloted along with the contents of the Guidelines in 2014, and then amended according to field and global feedback. Its development will run concurrently with the development by the GBV AoR of an advocacy strategy that will seek to underscore the importance of all humanitarian actors undertaking basic protection work against GBV, from emergency preparedness through to recovery operations.

The way forward

These strategies for accountability represent a starting point, rather than an endpoint. Once the revised Guidelines are released (anticipated for the end of 2014), the real task of accountability will begin. The GBV AoR intends to develop a monitoring mechanism for the uptake of the Guidelines, as well as supplemental tools to assist sector-specific actors in implementing the summary recommendations. As with the development of the revised Guidelines themselves, the process of capacity-building will be as participatory as possible, guided by those whom the Guidelines intend to serve: humanitarian actors and, ultimately, GBV survivors and those at risk.

Even with these additional tools, some humanitarian actors may still believe that GBV is not a critical concern. Because of the hidden nature of GBV (including the high rate of under-reporting of sexual and other forms of violence), as well as the lack of GBV experts deployed in the early stages of emergencies to assess GBV issues, it is often a challenge to counter this view until well after the emergency has subsided and data can be more routinely collected. Some humanitarian actors also maintain that responding to acts of GBV (particularly those not directly related to conflict and displacement) is the preserve of culture, and therefore outside the scope of humanitarian intervention.

As articulated in the 2005 IASC GBV Guidelines, humanitarian actors should not wait until data is generated to undertake basic protection against GBV; the assumption should instead be that GBV is occurring regardless of the availability of evidence. By not instituting basic protection, humanitarian actors may be inadvertently causing harm. The responsibility for addressing GBV is central to the humanitarian responsibility to promote and protect the rights of everyone affected by conflicts and natural disasters; accountability to the recommendations within the revised GBV Guidelines is a critical step in this process.

Jeanne Ward is an independent consultant on gender-based violence in emergencies.


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