Why is GBV so endemic within humanitarian settings?
Gender-based violence (GBV) – including physical, sexual, or psychological harm, threats, and deprivations of liberty – is endemic throughout society, with the UN estimating that one in three women will experience at least one form during their lifetime. For women living through humanitarian crises however, this statistic jumps to 70%.
This staggering figure has many causes, some of which are due to the crisis itself. A climate-related disaster or a conflict may cause the breakdown of services that would normally be a deterrent against intimate partner violence, the separation of women and girls from family members who may have protected them from trafficking, losses of income that mean girls are forced into early marriage for financial reasons, and sexual violence used as a weapon of war. Furthermore, there are many well-documented causes of humanitarian staff themselves being perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA).
While many causes of GBV are inherent to the disaster or crisis itself, some of the causes are due to the design of the resulting humanitarian response. Shelters that are poorly designed, with unlit areas and long distances between accommodation and essential facilities, create exposure to many forms of violence. As do toilets and showers that are not separated by gender, or do not have sturdy, accessible locks inside cubicles, and lighting along the access route.
Poorly planned distributions, whether of food, NFIs, or cash, can create the perfect conditions for exploitation from strangers, abusive intimate partners, or by aid workers themselves.
The good news is that humanitarian actors can address both sets of causes – and that guidelines and toolkits for doing this safely already exist.
Why aren’t humanitarian actors doing more?
The sector has made important progress in recent years, thanks to some of these guidelines and toolkits. Nevertheless, efforts to prevent and respond to GBV remain woefully inadequate in most humanitarian settings, almost 20 years since it was recognized as a life-saving humanitarian intervention through the original Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) GBV Guidelines.
There is a vicious cycle perpetuating a lack of awareness and a lack of funding, which means the issue stays largely hidden. From 2016-2018, just 0.12% of humanitarian funding was spent on GBV in emergencies, with even less spent on researching and highlighting the problem.
There is also a failure to grasp that the prevention of GBV in emergencies is a collective responsibility, in which every humanitarian organisation and every staff member must play their role. Perhaps organisations are fearful of getting this highly specialised area of programming wrong or believe GBV is sadly inevitable and do not realise how much can be prevented through better programme design.
Regardless, any organisation that considers itself ‘humanitarian’ should urgently assess whether it could do more. Here are four places to start:
1. Ensure all staff understand the prevalence and causes of GBV in humanitarian settings
The humanitarian sector relies on experts from diverse technical backgrounds. While resources and training on GBV now exist, they are far from mainstreamed across the sector. Leaders of humanitarian organisations must ensure that all staff do not believe myths about GBV, and feel confident in why and how they should prioritise it in their roles. This means everyone, including frontline staff who need to know how to use a survivor-centred approach when handling disclosures of violence, engineers who must know how to involve women and girls in shelter design, and grant managers who must know how to fund GBV response services as much as other types of programme.
At World Jewish Relief we recognise we are not a specialist GBV actor, but we still work hard to develop our collective understating of good practice: we attend trainings on GBV, share these with all staff and partners, and have hired local gender advisors to help design and evaluate our programmes.
2. Understand the different types of GBV programming and how to implement them effectively
GBV programming covers three strands:
- Prevention. Changing attitudes and behaviours through raising awareness among communities and local government service providers)
- Risk mitigation. Addressing how the humanitarian response itself is increasing the risk of GBV occurrence)
- Response. Providing health, psycho-social and legal support to survivors of GBV).
While prevention and response should be implemented by specialised, local women-led organisations (WLOs), risk mitigation is the responsibility of all humanitarian organisations. The IASC has produced guidelines on risk mitigation across each humanitarian cluster already. World Jewish Relief is doing as much as we can. In addition to GBV risk mitigation, we are facilitating GBV response by ensuring that if frontline staff do receive disclosures, they can handle this with a survivor-centred approach, and can make safe referrals to WLOs who can respond appropriately Again, the IASC has produced guidelines on this already.
3. Support local partners with GBV programming
WLOs have the most technical knowledge in prevention and response but feel excluded from traditional funding applications that are too bureaucratic. Even as funding for gender-specific programming has increased, the proportion going to WLOs has fallen from 4.8% to 3.1%. Donors must increase the proportion of humanitarian funding that goes to local WLOs. For risk mitigation, many guidelines have been created over the past decade. Donors can support partners by translating these into local languages and creating streamlined versions that are most relevant to the local context and can be digested rapidly in a crisis.
World Jewish Relief is supporting partners by creating capacity assessments to explore where they are already, providing training in different types of GBV programming, and creating simplified versions of IASC minimum standard checklists for risk mitigation in each cluster. It is also funding local gender advisors to inform programme design, implementation, and learning.
4. Build momentum around GBV programming
It is striking how rarely GBV is on the agenda at sector conferences.
Every humanitarian actor must play a role in changing this. World Jewish Relief has proposed panels and speakers at conferences, pitched articles, and raised the conversation with our partners.
We are not shying away from discussing this topic because while we are not a specialist GBV service provider, we understand that turning the tide on the epidemic levels of GBV in humanitarian crises will require all actors to show up and prioritise the issue.