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Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Putting Care of Survivors of Sexual Assault in the Hands of Local Communities

When Hillary Clinton arrived in Burma (Myanmar) on November 30, she became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit in 50 years. Her visit underscored the United States’ support for the country’s recent governmental reforms. It also called attention to a country in which sexual violence is rife. Decades of war and military rule in the border regions–home to the country’s ethnic minorities–have systematically destroyed the fabric of society, impoverished and uprooted hundreds of thousands of people and left the health and education systems in complete disrepair. In these border states in particular, women and girls have been increasingly targeted by government forces, who use rape as a weapon of war and operate with complete impunity.

This situation is horrific, but not unusual. Women’s and girls’ risk of being sexually assaulted increases during conflict and postconflict periods. Those who are displaced from their communities are even more likely to be victimized. And sexual violence can be devastating for its victims. Women and girls may be brutally assaulted or contract a sexually transmitted infection, including HIV. Survivors may also suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. In some cultures, if a woman or girl is known to have been sexually assaulted, she will be shunned by her community or even accused of committing moral crimes under local laws.

To compound the problem, care for survivors is extremely limited in some crisis-affected contexts. Health-care workers in humanitarian settings often lack the training to treat survivors. And the worse a crisis becomes, the more difficult it is to travel to a health clinic and for that health clinic to keep trained providers or sufficient supplies.

For over a decade, the Women’s Refugee Commission has worked to prevent sexual violence against displaced women and girls and to ensure care for those who have suffered from it. In 2009, we began an initiative aimed at strengthening the ability of local communities to deliver basic medical treatment—including emergency contraception and psychosocial support, among other services—to survivors of sexual violence. Our premise is that by putting care into the hands of the community, more women and girls living in isolated areas will be able to safely access care in emergencies. In situations of protracted conflict, such as Burma—where so many areas lack any health professionals at all—this is essential.

Working with international and local partners, the Women's Refugee Commission is piloting work in Karen State in eastern Burma, an area of continued conflict in which more than 100,000 people are internally displaced. Our partners are training local health-care workers in villages without any services for survivors. While providing training to community health-care workers, we are raising awareness among community members on the benefits of seeking medical care after sexual assault and on where to access services. If our premise is correct, this program is placing local people in the driver’s seat and establishing desperately needed community-based care for survivors of sexual assault.

We are working to create a world where there is sufficient funding, staffing and services to meet the pressing reproductive health needs of women in any humanitarian emergency. In more isolated areas, such as the border states of Burma, this will require creative and flexible approaches, including finding ways to establish health programs that can be delivered and sustained locally.

Read more about our reproductive health work.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence