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Gender-based violence in emergencies

Time (GMT +00) 14:00 16:00
Hero image description: A woman in a camp in Maban, South Sudan Image credit:Jesper Guhle/Danish Refugee Council Image license:ODI given rights


Clea Kahn – Humanitarian Advisor, Conflict Humanitarian and Security Department, Department for International Development (DFID)

Aurélie Lamazière - Gender Issues Coordinator,Geneva Call

Sarah Cotton - Public Affairs and Communications Advisor, International Committee of the Red Cross 

Aisha Bain - Advocacy Advisor for the Women’s Protection & Empowerment Technical Unit, International Rescue Committee

Alina Potts - Emergency Response & Preparedness Coordinator, Women’s Protection & Empowerment Technical Unit, International Rescue Committee


Wendy Fenton – Humanitarian Practice Network Coordinator



How can humanitarian agencies better prevent and respond to gender-based violence (GBV) in emergencies? On 18 February 2014, the Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN) held an event to examine the challenges associated with prevention and response programming, the different forms of violence facing women and girls and the ways in which the needs of survivors can be better addressed in humanitarian crises.

Two publications were launched at this event: Humanitarian Exchange 60, on Gender-based violence in emergencies, andNetwork Paper 77, Preventing and responding to gender-based violence in humanitarian crises. The chair, Wendy Fenton, noted that, while there is a lack of good evidence on what works in preventing and responding to GBV, there are lessons to be learnt:

  • Awareness-raising activities such as cinema or radio programmes can help to decrease community acceptance of gender-based violence, reduce the tendency to blame victims and improve knowledge of women’s rights.
  • The findings also suggest that discussion groups that include or target men can improve empathy for women and reduce tolerance of violence against women.
  • However, these examples are context-specific and may not work in all crises, which is why a larger body of evidence on GBV in emergencies is needed.

Aisha Bain from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) argued that, while more information is needed to improve services, prevalence studies should not be required for prioritising funding for gender-based violence services. She noted that aid agencies did not come across any incidents of GBV while conducting needs assessments after mass displacement in 2012 in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, once support centres were established, GBV survivors came forward to report incidents on the first day the centres opened – every time, in every camp.

Existing data can also help inform agencies on the most prevalent types of gender-based violence. While there is a perception that armed groups make up the majority of perpetrators of GBV in conflicts, intimate partner violence (IPV) is often the most frequent form of violence. However, there is little consensus on who is responsible for addressing IPV – is it a development issue or a humanitarian issue? Confusion has meant that it has become ‘nobody’s issue’, said Aisha.

Despite the prevalence of IPV, a significant proportion of perpetrators of GBV are from armed groups. Aurélie Lamazière of Geneva Call discussed their work on engaging with armed non-state actors on issues of sexual violence. One innovative project is the Deed of Commitment, which prohibits sexual violence in the context of armed conflict and seeks to affect behaviour by securing commitments from the command level of armed groups.

Alina Potts, also from IRC, discussed her agency’s efforts to improve preparedness and response to gender-based violence. Some aid agencies can be reluctant to engage on GBV, believing that they do not know enough about how to address the issue, but small changes can make a significant difference. Minor steps such as sufficient lighting in camps or the appropriate location of water and sanitation access points can affect women’s and girls’ exposure to violence. IRC has developed a model to train aid workers on how to reduce the risk of GBV and ensure that survivors have access to appropriate services – the GBV Emergency Response Program Model. Alina also stressed the importance of working with local staff or partners to prepare for crises and ensure that services are culturally appropriate.

Sarah Cotton from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) highlighted ICRC’s work to support listening houses or ‘maisons d’écoute’ in the DRC, which provide services to survivors who have experienced any type of violence, not just sexual violence. This ensures that those accessing the services are not automatically identified or stigmatised as victims of sexual violence.

Clea Kahn from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) ended the event by calling for aid workers to engage with those affected by violence – ‘Just talking to women and girls is essential’, said Clea. Some types of gender-based violence can be a result of a trade-off between difficult choices, and the decisions that people make depend on the environment and the situation; girls can be put into early marriage if there are few other options, wives may be more willing to expose themselves to the risk of GBV rather than have their husbands risk being killed. By understanding the choices and dilemmas facing those exposed to or who have experienced gender-based violence, humanitarian agencies can better prevent such violence in the future.