Call to action: ending violence against women in emergencies

Today, governments, UN agencies, and NGOs are gathering in London to pledge action to address violence against women and girls in emergencies. Caroline Green asks, what is this all about? What’s the connection between violence, gender and emergencies? And what needs to happen?

Gender-based violence (GBV) covers any physical, mental, or social abuse committed on the basis of the victim’s gender. Rooted in unequal power relations between men and women, most examples are violence against women and girls (VAWG) committed by men or boys, but men and boys can also be targets of GBV.

Examples of VAWG include sexual violence, domestic violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), forced early marriage, and widow killings. According to the UN, one woman in three experiences physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.‘According to the UN, one woman in three experiences physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.’

Why is this high level event in London important?

VAWG often increases at times of crises, with increased impunity.

There are also added risks associated with displacement, in many refugee camps, it is often women who walk long distances from the camps to forage for wood where they are vulnerable to sexual assault. In Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, insecurity and sexual violence have been pervasive. 

In the food crisis in Yemen in 2012, and among Syrian refugees this year, rates of forced early marriage reportedly increased, as well as increased levels of domestic violence.

This high level event is an opportunity for all those involved in humanitarian response to declare that the prevention of, and active responses to VAWG, should be prioritised from the start of any emergency response (and in contingency planning beforehand).

With the current devastation in the Philippines at the forefront of our minds, addressing VAWG and gender equality should be central to the response.

We would like donors, governments and implementing agencies to pledge to take concrete action at today’s event, which is being co-chaired by UK Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening, and the Swedish Development Minister, Hillevi Engström.

What action is needed?

Commitment  to act  in three distinct areas: 

1. Helping survivors of VAWG access the services they need, and taking measures to keep women safe.Women in Jamam refugee camp, South Sudan, walk home through the mud. Credit: Ruby Wright/Oxfam

Responding to VAWG in the first 72 hours of an emergency is critical to prevent putting women and girls at further risk of a wide range of physical and psychological consequences. So services need to be funded, but also people need to know where to find them.To see how this can happen in practice, read about how our programme in DRC includes the promotion of informed self referral. 

It’s also critical that those engaged in humanitarian response mitigate risks of VAWG. Emergency responses should involve women in decision-making on issues like the placement and design of services – whether that’s water, sanitation or shelter facilities. Food distribution services, for example, can use ‘safe spaces’ and separate queues for women, and be timed to enable women to return home before dark.

2.  Ensure recovery and transition strategies complement efforts to tackle the root causes of VAWG. 

VAWG does not start or stop with an emergency. A society where women have inadequate rights and face high prevalence of violence in times of so-called ‘peace’, is likely to see increased VAWG in times of disaster.Therefore, to really tackle the root causes of violence and prevent it in the future, humanitarian responses need be complemented with long-term work with local women’s rights organisations with expertise to challenge cultural attitudes,
beliefs and behaviours and hold duty bearers to account. There needs to be greater investment in ensuring security and justice sectors are equipped and trained in this area, including by recruiting more women.

Our We Can campaign has done a great deal to tackle VAWG and our recent report outlines the need for more women in the Afghan police force.


3. Work to ensure that women emerge stronger, not weaker, from a crisis.

In addition to addressing VAWG in emergencies – much more must be done to ensure the needs of women and girls, as well as men and boys, are met as part of humanitarian responses. Humanitarian actors should carry out a rigorous and context-specific gender analysis of the populations they set out to support. Sex- and age-disaggregated data, as well as data on other social determinants of vulnerability, should be collected, in order to target assistance towards those most at risk.

Response programmes should also
look for opportunities to support women’s empowerment and the promotion of women’s rights over the long-term and address gendered vulnerabilities in building resilience to future crises.An example of this can be seen in Central America in 2009 when Oxfam worked with four women’s rights organisations based in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador to design responses that engaged with women as leaders and agents of change, ultimately advancing gender equality and women’s rights.

What about Oxfam?

Oxfam will also be making a commitment at the conference – to roll out our new Minimum Standards in Gender in Emergencies. This means consistently working with women to ask them what they need to feel safe, helping survivors of VAWG access services, and promoting women’s voices when we respond to humanitarian emergencies. We will also launch an internal Knowledge Hub on the elimination of violence against women and girls in order to build our understanding of what works, and to tackle the root causes of violence.

Author: Caroline Green
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.