The Conflict-Related GBV that the Humanitarian Community Ignores

by Sarah Martin

In humanitarian settings, there’s been greater attention paid to the issue of sexual violence in conflict thanks to the work of GBV activists around the world. There are more programs, more media and academic attention about the problem, and even an acronym (CRSV = Conflict Related Sexual Violence) created to allow us to refer to it in short-hand on power-point presentations. While, we still struggle to implement programs and get sufficient funding (CARE International UK released a report showing that only 3% of the U.S.’s humanitarian aid is spent on programs that focus on gender, including GBV) and GBV sub-cluster leads must still argue with other agency leads that GBV falls under CERF criteria for life-saving, progress has been made in acknowledging sexual violence in emergencies.

Rape is a horrifying fact of war for most people around the world. Yet women in non-conflict countries also experience sexual violence and not always at the hands of parties to the conflict. The latest data show that some 1 in 3 women globally experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner. Thirty percent of women worldwide experience violence perpetrated by husbands, boyfriends or other intimate partners and up to 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. Although Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) has been documented in humanitarian settings including refugee camps for over 10 years, IPV is rarely addressed in humanitarian response. Dr. Jhumka Gupta, a social epidemiologist and assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health, asks the question in today’s Huffington Post, “Why then are such private forms of violence against women largely an afterthought in settings impacted by humanitarian crises?”

Dr Gupta raises good questions – leading with a strong personal anecdote about a woman in Haiti during the coup against Aristide (pre-Earthquake) who wandered into the hospital she worked in with stab wounds from her husband. There were no services to refer her to and

“as a women’s health professional, all I could do was buy her food and see her in the hospital every day until she healed—at least from her physical wounds.”

Despite the assistance available during humanitarian emergencies (mental health, health care, shelter, protection and other programs), there continues to be a blind spot with regards to humanitarian attention to IPV.

Her anecdote reflects my personal experiences working for Medecins Sans Frontieres- Holland as an advisor on responding to sexual violence in the headquarters. MSF is known for working in the difficult places. They are known for drawing attention to neglected diseases and taking up issues that are ignored in humanitarian settings.  But when it came to arguing that MSF should pay more attention to IPV, I normally hit a wall. I often debated with conflicted team members in the field whether or not MSF should be treating domestic violence cases or trying to assist women who had been assaulted by their husbands. While I could normally get them to agree that it didn’t matter who the perpetrator was – that healthcare was needed and should be offered, I was not always very successful (particularly with non-medical personnel). I always ran up against the “culture” argument that IPV is “a cultural issue and we shouldn’t touch it” (although I had allies in operations including those who fought hard to open up Family Service Centers in Lae and Tari and now Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea that provide comprehensive services for IPV survivors.)

A review of published research  by Stark and Ager looked at studies conducted in conflict affected settings like Bosnia, East Timor, and refugee camps in Jordan and concluded that “rates of intimate partner violence tended to be quite high across all of the studies—much higher than most of the rates of wartime rape and sexual violence perpetrated by individuals outside of the home.”  Gupta points out that the International Rescue Committee released a report calling for the humanitarian community to consider intimate partner violence as a humanitarian issue in West Africa in 2012, and questions whether it is not addressed because it fails to capture the media’s attention. At the Cassandra Complexity, we also wonder why its not addressed with as much fervor as conflict-related sexual violence perpetrated by combatants (see the recent high level meetings hosted by the US Institute of Peace’s including one focused on “Men, Peace and Security”, a number of UN Security Council Resolutions specifically regarding sexual violence in conflict (as it relates to peace and security) and the UN Action against Sexual Violence initiative ). Stay tuned for more thoughts from the Cassandra Complexity community on this.

Ignoring IPV doesn’t make sense in humanitarian settings. The physical, emotional, social, and economic costs of IPV are staggering. Gupta points out:

“According to the World Bank, the economic costs of lost productivity due to partner violence are estimated to be around 1.2-2% of GDP. This is close to what the Democratic Republic of Congo spends on education. These health and economic tolls can threaten any chances of stability long after wars end.”

She also references a partnership with the International Rescue Committee and Innovations for Poverty Action in Côte d’Ivoire that shows how the humanitarian community can start to address this issue.  Her project observed reductions in IPV when combining women’s economic empowerment with a program that engaged men to challenge traditional gender norms. Gupta’s article calls for more US leadership on addressing this issue, but I believe that humanitarian organizations should take a lead in addressing this more concretely by speaking out about the impact of IPV on the clients, beneficiaries, and patients that they work with in conflict and humanitarian emergencies world wide. We have to stop using the culture argument to turn a blind eye to the suffering in the communities where we work.

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One thought on “The Conflict-Related GBV that the Humanitarian Community Ignores

  1. Pingback: Does Size Matter? Reflections on the Ending Sexual Violence Summit | Cassandra Complexity

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