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Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

On World Refugee Day, let's commit to make the prevention of violence against women and girls in conflict a priority

The scale of violence committed against women and girls, mostly by men, constitutes a global crisis affecting all people and all societies. From physical and psychological abuse, rape and genital mutilation to exploitation and human trafficking, gender-based violence (GBV) has profound and long-lasting consequences for individuals, families and communities. Some of the worst atrocities may appear in the headlines, but the majority of survivors' stories go untold.

The global summit on sexual violence in conflict, convened last week by UK foreign secretary William Hague and UN special envoy Angelina Jolie, provided an important platform for survivors to be heard and propelled the issue to the top of the international news agenda – at least for a few days.

Having worked in the humanitarian community with refugee and displaced women and girls for 25 years, the Women's Refugee Commission knows all too well that GBV can escalate dramatically in conflict, disaster and displacement situations where the moral and social order has disintegrated. We've seen firsthand, for example, the tragic impact of rape as a weapon of war, used to perpetuate social control, destroy communities and redraw ethnic boundaries.

While this tactic is not new, proper documentation of these crimes has only recently taken place, in conflicts like the wars in Bosnia and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Bosnia, careful recording of the stories of some of the 50,000 women who were raped, coupled with the testimonies of unimaginably courageous survivors, led to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) being the first tribunal ever to prosecute war rape as a crime against humanity.

So it's encouraging that the new protocol that emerged from the London summit on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict addresses this head-on – setting a standard for the collection of information and evidence and witness protection.

However, though this progress is welcome, what struck me as I attended sessions at the summit was the scarcity of discussion about how to prevent GBV, including sexual violence, in the first place. For humanitarian agencies working with women, girls, men and boys in crisis-affected areas, programs that directly address the root causes of and aggravating factors for GBV are hugely important. Unfortunately, in the humanitarian community and the broader political sphere, not nearly enough attention is being paid to prevention.

The Women's Refugee Commission's ongoing research in places like DRC shows that the unequal position of women in societies and the normative use of violence to resolve conflict are strongly associated with GBV. And low levels of education, sparse economic opportunities, exposure to child maltreatment, witnessing family violence, accepting attitudes towards violence and gender inequality, and weak legal sanctions for violence against women and girls all make GBV more likely. This is a complex web that requires a breadth of responses and more research. Yet humanitarian efforts to implement even basic protection measures, for example, at the start of an emergency, remain weak.

Poor decisions are still made about where to place water points, how to distribute food and which shelter materials to use in a refugee settlement. The three “L's” – lighting, locks and latrines -and the establishment of neighborhood watches and external security patrols are still unevenly implemented.

The humanitarian community needs to assess why implementation is so haphazard and why existing guidance is not being put into practice. If these things are not done right from the start, some of the harm is irreversible.

The Women's Refugee Commission wants to see GBV protection and risk mitigation emphasized and built into all areas of humanitarian work, including making sure that livelihood and education programs for refugee and displaced women and girls are designed with protection and GBV prevention in mind, and that the needs of high-risk groups, such as displaced people with disabilities and adolescent girls, are met to better protect them from GBV.

At the same time, governments must strengthen their legal systems, so that men do not think they can act with impunity, and peacekeeping practices must be changed to extend soldiers' mandate to include protection of women and girls.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to engage men and boys in efforts to prevent GBV, building on research that shows good outcomes from reinforcing positive behaviors, supporting men's role as protector of and provider for their spouses and daughters, and empowering individuals to take back control over their lives.

Ultimately, the global community must seek a better understanding of the social, economic, political, ideological and cultural factors that drive men to commit violence against women and girls. This is about having a more frank conversation about GBV, both in crisis-affected situations and also in peacetime.

When better to start than today, World Refugee Day?

This blog originally appeared on Huffington Post. 

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence