Eradicating sexual violence in conflict and crises
Baroness Anelay joined panelists at a British Red Cross event to discuss ways of translating international commitments to eradicate sexual and gender-based violence in conflict, into practical local action.
Nations have in the past been hesitant in making promises to eradicate something as intimate and abstruse as sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) in conflict.
This is now starting to change. With a huge increase in data on the phenomenon, more and more countries have committed to better understand, respond to and prevent what is emerging as a far too common tragedy in times of crisis and conflict.
As part of World Red Cross Red Crescent Week “Everyone for Everywhere” a panel event on Thursday discussed ways of driving this international consensus through into meaningful delivery at a local level, in particular the role played by humanitarian actors in translating international policy commitments into practical action on the ground.
“We recognise that while there’s been real progress made in the global effort, but the issue of sexual and gender based violence is still often shrouded in silence - unheard and unseen.” said event chair, and executive director of international at British Red Cross, David Peppiatt.
Baroness Anelay, Minister of State at the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO), and the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, opened the panel discussion by describing the international context.
“It was a sensitive area where so many had been unwilling to discuss openly the depth and the breadth of the problem because it was so personal,” said the Baroness, “and so many governments had been wary of tackling it because they knew that it was so easy to fail.”
Yet in 2014 the UK hosted a global summit aimed at energising states and NGOs into collectively eradicating sexual violence in conflict. As a result, well over 100 countries committed to tackle the issue.
“We’re now in the phase of delivering on these promises,” she added.
She described the three main aims of the FCO in the coming year: to eradicate the stigma suffered by victims of sexual violence; to bolster the justice systems “to provide assurance to victims, that the impunity they so often see, doesn’t exist;” and to train armed forces to recognise the needs of victims, treat them with respect and ensure their security.
“That’s the kind of thing we can do: to help people stay alive, to help people overcome stigma, to help people be believed, and long term, to help everyone feel that in conflict they shouldn’t be subjected to sexual violence.”
Central to the debate was the need for more reporting of gender based violence, to understand the context in which the crimes come about, and the best responses.
Working at the national level, Florence Mangwende of Zimbabwe Red Cross, shared the findings of her research of GBV in the aftermath of smaller natural disasters in Malawi and Namibia, where communities had been displaced by floods, or where drought had led to widespread food insecurity.
“What came out of the research,” she said, “was that there was an increase of SGBV especially among people who had been displaced.”
The research found that camp conditions were directly correlated with incidents of gender-based violence.
She described how the longer people spent in camps with inadequate shelter, lack of food supplies or sanitation, the more this “increased their frustration and anger within the households - husbands not being able to sustain their families - and we found more cases of physical abuse and verbal abuse.”
“We often forget the most important issues that are never talked about, the emotional issues.”
Areas that were often overlooked were the sanitary needs of women; women having to walk too far from their tent to the toilet in the night, which left them exposed; and food shortage which led families to marry their daughters much earlier and younger than usual. There were even cases of responders perpetrating the abuse, “either because they didn’t understand what they were doing or because they were in a position of power at that time.”
Too often women would retract allegations of rape, and too often the legal system would willingly withdraw them.
She added that more needed to be done to fill the ‘gaps in knowledge’ between the best practices gathered by international actors, and the national responders who often had no idea what to expect.
“We have the UN coming in and doing all the work on ground, and after the disaster they go back. But there are continually occurring small disasters that local organisations need to be able to respond to,” she added.
“We need to fill the gap of knowledge: we need more research, more capacity building, more training and more resources provided for local efforts. So when the international organisations come in, it would be ideal if they build the capacity of local organisations and make sure they understand what to expect and are able to work without them.
“Until this system is corrected, the people on ground will never be able to respond.”
From his experience working at the local level, Omah Odeh, ICRC deputy head of delegation in Somalia, stressed the importance of ‘complementarity:’ that these external actors - delegates of international experts and nurses - work hand-in-glove with a network of local volunteers, midwives, and health officers.
Without their local awareness and proximity, he said, it would be impossible to understand how the stigma around sexual violence is embedded, and even detect whether a victim is trying to report an incident.
“There’s such an intimacy to the interactions they’re having there’s so much nuance to the exchange that it’s almost impossible to do it if you’re not from the context or without the cultural awareness,” said Odeh.
“As important as the local level is, it’s a combination of understanding of sexual violence as a problem - that it’s a violation you need to be aware of - and the work and training of our nurses, with this really specific knowledge that the midwives and branch health officers were bringing.”
Fred Robarts, a humanitarian adviser working in Syria with the Department for International Development (DfID) echoed the primacy of working with local partners to tackle sexual violence.
“We know that survivors of SGBV often turn to others in their community rather than formal services where they exist,” he said. “Many local organisations have well established connections within their communities, giving them enhanced access to at risk groups. So they play really important, long-term and often innovative roles in responding to GBV, in challenging harmful social norms and promoting positive gender roles.
“But of course not everyone in such organisations is familiar with the tools they can use to help them in that work.”
DfID has been working in Syria to give local partners access to this internationally received wisdom, so they can offer ‘holistic case management’ to victims: psychosocial support, legal advice, safe spaces, dignity kits, reproductive health services and even cash and shelter in some cases. However, “the gaps have been enormous,” he said.
While local partners are showing commitment in maintaining a continuity of services, female participation has been highlighted as a challenge, girls are still not consulted enough and a shortage of technical capacity is increasing the risk of doing harm. Unstable governance and border restrictions were imposing definite limits to their scope and success.
Summarising the interplay between international commitments and national and local action, Baroness Anelay said: “One of the key challenges we face is ensuring we retain the patience to be able to deliver social change that is going to take generations.”
“At the international level we can provide the legal framework, and a system whereby we can hold each other to account,” she added, “But we must understand that doesn’t reach down to the individual.”
At the national level “it is not right for us to dictate,” she said, and advocated working across departments to empower and support nation states in leading the process of change themselves, “without interfering.”
“And locally, I would say that can be done by the international community working together to find ways in which to support the delivery of good governance.
“In that way we can make small changes that can have huge results.”