Unseen but not unheard
Sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian crises
As many people prepare for joyful year-end holiday celebrations, disparate images of war-torn cities, makeshift camps and misery continue to flash across screens.
The world is facing a humanitarian crisis, as a record 65.3 million people have been displaced by armed conflicts, violence and natural disasters. This is the highest number since the Second World War.
The days between 25 November and 10 December, which is Human Rights Day, are known as the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV). It is a time to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls around the world. The international campaign originated from the first Woman’s Global Leadership Institute, coordinated by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership in 1991.
Through resolution 54/134 of 17 December 1999, the United Nations General Assembly designated 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. It invited Governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations to facilitate activities designed to raise public awareness of the issue on that day.
Protracted crises continue to devastate the lives of so many people, but accounts of sexual and gender-based violence are increasing, indicating that an alarming number of women and girls have become targets of nefarious attacks including rape, sexual assault, forced marriage, domestic violence and the denial of basic resources. One of the greatest challenges in preventing GBV, responding to survivors and bringing perpetrators to justice is the inadequate reporting and evidence. The reasons are manifold, but they often include survivors’ fear of stigma and repercussions, especially in societies where gender roles are set in culture and traditions. Despite the challenges, international commitment to implement existing legal frameworks that bring perpetrators to justice must be a priority.
In fact, unequal power relations, differential value systems and structural inequalities, which also affect men and boys, exacerbate the experience of women and girls in conflict and displacement settings. An estimated 35 per cent of women globally will experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Fifty per cent of these assaults are against girls under age 16.
During a humanitarian crisis or emergency, the rate of sexual and gender-based violence increases. An estimated one in five displaced women will experience sexual violence.
Anecdotal evidence points to a worrying increase in child marriage, as families facing extreme conflict-related economic stress are negatively coping by trading their daughters to the highest bidders just to survive. Girls who are forced to marry often do not complete their education and are at increased risk of bodily harm, including fistula.
In armed conflicts, where rape has been used as a weapon of war and terror, the situation has degenerated so much that the question is no longer “if” a woman or girl will be assaulted, but “when”.
Stephen O’Brien, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said: “Sexual and gender-based violence is now perpetrated as a weapon of war in armed conflicts the world over, with devastating impacts on the health, mental health and socioeconomic status of women and girls. This narrative needs to change.”
In Syria, where the ongoing conflict has destroyed the fabric of society, 67 per cent of women reported receiving some form of “punishment” from their husbands, 87 per cent of which was physical violence.
Sexual and gender-based violence was already widespread in South Sudan prior to the start of the conflict in December 2013, but it has increased fivefold in recent years. In Leer, Mayendit and Koch counties of Unity, an estimated 1,300 women and girls were raped and 1,600 women and children abducted between April and September 2015.
In Yemen, the reality of violence against women is rooted in gender inequality and discriminatory practices, which are further exacerbated by the current conflict. According to UNFPA, 3.1 million people have been internally displaced since the conflict began, and at least 17,277 GBV incidents have been reported.
The continuing crisis has resulted in a threefold increase in female heads of households. However, women seeking employment are at an increased risk of exploitation and abuse, as their access to basic humanitarian services, such as food, water and health care, is hampered by pre-existing perceptions and societal attitudes about gender roles.
It is essential to prioritize the distinct needs of women and girls when planning for and responding to humanitarian emergencies, including prevention of and response to GBV.
Providing safe spaces, shelters with well-lit passages and sufficient privacy, especially where pre-crisis gender inequality and discriminatory norms exist, can potentially mitigate the risk of assaults.
Recognizing and respecting the different needs and priorities of women and girls must be a non-negotiable basis that informs humanitarian action. Including women’s voices and knowledge in leadership and decision-making processes is critical to finding solutions and ensuring the peace and security of future generations. Sexual and gender-based violence is one of the greatest protection challenges of our time, yet the resilience of women and girls is clear, as they continue to play vital leadership roles in their communities during humanitarian emergencies and crises. They hold their communities and societies together, even as chaos and the risk of violence are ever present.
The responsibility to protect and help survivors of sexual and gender-based violence must be placed at the heart of the humanitarian agenda, and it must expand beyond the 16 Days of Activism to every day of the year, in every part of the world.