Tag Archives: rape

Classic Cassandra: A Personal Reflection on World Humanitarian Day 2016 and women’s safety

Sarah Sudan

The author in happier times in South Sudan circa 2005/2006

 

Published in 2016, its time to reshare this Classic Cassandra post.

In 2012, I took a Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) course before I went to Libya with the British government for the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. I was really nervous as in mid 2011, there had been an attack on the hotel where I had been working in Kabul, Afghanistan days after I left and I realized I had never felt safe in that country and didn’t trust UNDSS to ensure my safety. I was most nervous about how I would react to the “fake kidnapping” part of the training- and as it turns out – I was fine, but one of my colleagues was not. She was a survivor and experienced a flashback during this section of the training. Our mostly male trainers had no psychologist on standby and were not prepared to support her so I was called in to help despite not having the relevant training or credentials.

This all came rushing back to me a few days ago when the AP report about the attacks on the Terrain House in Juba, Sudan and the rape of expatriate aid workers hit the news. The rage and sadness I felt about the UN’s refusal to deploy peacekeepers to protect these civilians threw me into a sad dark place. I then learned that the US Embassy (MY EMBASSY!) had also failed to protect these American citizens and had “made some phone calls.” Eventually the Government of Sudan sent in someone to rescue the people but the local staff of the hotel and 3 women were left behind to be rescued the next day by a private security force.

What must it have felt like to be the women “left behind”? And I couldn’t stop myself from immediately imagining myself as one of the three expatriate women left overnight with the rapist soldiers waiting to be rescued the next morning. I had to stop myself to save my sanity.

The most frustrating part for me is the false sense of security that being nearby the peacekeepers provided these aid workers. I am furious at the security officers who re-assured the people in the house that they would be fine. From the article: “One of the women gang-raped said security advisers from an aid organization living in the compound told residents repeatedly that they were safe because foreigners would not be targeted. She said: “This sentence, ‘We are not targeted,’ I heard half an hour before they assaulted us.”

Too often, our “security professionals” ignore women’s needs or have REALLY outdated viewpoints on how women can protect themselves. In Bangkok, at the recent women’s day- UNDSS told women that they should “smile more” to protect themselves and in Jordan, the UNHCR security personnel who was giving me a brief there said I should “dress decently” (to which I responded, since I’m a decent person anything I wear is, by definition, decent). Aid workers everywhere are deeply shaken by this event and what it shows about the lack of effective safety and security systems in the field.

Our so-called safety systems are not always going to be there. It’s obvious that we, as women, are often alone out there, and as every woman in the world has learned, in a world where rape culture is the norm and women are devalued, you have to take responsibility for your own safety and security.

August 19 is World Humanitarian Day where we remember our colleagues who were killed in the line of duty. Today, and every day, we should be thinking about the particular vulnerability to rape that women aid workers face in the line of duty.  Female aid workers everywhere are particularly deeply shaken by this event. Some are privately expressing how afraid they feel but that they feel worse for abandoning South Sudanese women who bear the brunt of the sexual violence. Will it be worse for them if we leave?

I’m too angry and sad to write a more professional polished piece – so I give you instead, a piece that I wrote about this in 2012.

Gender-based Violence and Security

This blog post was published by USAID to coincide with the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence event, “Who Takes Care of the Caregivers?  Providing Care and Safety for Staff in Gender-based Violence Settings,” taking place on Thursday, Nov. 29th 2012 in Washington DC, hosted by the Inter-Agency Gender Working Group, funded by USAID. It is no longer available online but a copy of it can be found here. Tips for female travelers that I wrote can be found here.

Gender-based Violence (GBV) is an issue that impacts aid workers – not just beneficiaries and not just staff that works in GBV settings. This post examines agencies’ duty to care for their workers by preventing and responding to GBV.

“Keeping International Workers Safe:  Preventing and Responding to Gender-based Violence”

Sarah Martin, Consultant and Specialist on Prevention and Response to Gender-based Violence

The sexual assault of the journalists Lara Logan, Mona Eltahawy and two unnamed British and French journalists in Egypt shocked the world and brought the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) against Westerners working in conflict areas to the forefront. Clearly GBV does not only affect the “locals” in these areas. Not only are journalists at risk but also aid workers–and not just in conflict settings or in GBV program areas.

I recently interviewed a large cross section of women travelers who work in a number of fields (including international development, human rights, humanitarian action and international business) about their experiences as women while traveling and working overseas*.  Many of them brought up their frustration that sexual harassment and sexual assault were never raised in security trainings and that agencies refused to address this as a real security concern. Increasingly, aid agencies are providing more “realistic” security trainings that simulate “hostile environments to prepare their employees for gunfire, kidnappings and other events in the field.”  While some of these trainings talk about sexual assault, there are no discussions of how to prevent sexual assault or how to react or support colleagues if they are assaulted. Sexual harassment in the workplace as a security issue is often ignored. In addition, the purveyors of these trainings are mostly male and show little awareness to the issue of sexual assault or the gender concerns of female trainees. I recently attended one such training where one of the participants relived her own sexual assault from years ago while undergoing a simulated “kidnapping.” While they took her out of the simulation, there were no psychologists or female trainers available to talk to her.

Female development and aid workers have the same security concerns as their male counterparts: crime and landmine accidents and armed robberies do not discriminate. Security measures, trainings, and manuals are the same for men and women, and most agencies take a ‘gender-blind’ approach to security. Most security officers are men, and many of them come from a military background. This gender-blind approach to security, however, leaves out a major issue.  Women also face another security threat that most men do not encounter – gender-based violence, namely sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Rape myths promote the false idea that women are only sexually assaulted by strangers. While this can happen, women are much more likely to be attacked by someone familiar to them – a co-worker, a driver, or a friend. Most of the women I interviewed shared stories about fending off sexual harassment by colleagues or actual cases of sexual assault in the field.

Rarely is their organization prepared to handle these issues. While there has been some action taken on “building safe organizations” – the focus has been preventing sexual exploitation of our beneficiaries by our staff. But there is not sufficient attention paid to sexual harassment of our staff by our staff or adequate support for staff that have been sexually assaulted. There is little information in the security manuals that I have reviewed about what medical care a survivor may need or what rights a sexual assault survivor might have. Nor is there guidance on reporting to local authorities, human resources or guarantees of confidentiality. Responsible employers must be prepared to understand and deal with the fact that their employees might become victims of sexual assault [1] and should be prepared to support them. This means bringing the issue of sexual assault up in security trainings and sensitizing the trainers and security personnel on how to address the issue – but not by restricting women’s access to “dangerous areas” but by making sure female employees are informed of the dangers, provided with information on how to protect themselves, and given sensitive and adequate support by their organizations in case the worst happens.

[1] Global statistics show that 1 out of 3 women has experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault.

* From the chapter I wrote entitled “Sexual Assault: Preventing And Responding As An International Travelers in the book Personal Security: A Guide for International Travelers, by Tanya Spencer, ISBN: 9781466559448 commissioned and published by Taylor and Francis, LLC.

 

 

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A Personal Reflection on World Humanitarian Day 2016 and women’s safety

Sarah Sudan

The author in happier times in South Sudan circa 2005/2006

In 2012, I took a Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) course before I went to Libya with the British government for the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. I was really nervous as in mid 2011, there had been an attack on the hotel where I had been working in Kabul, Afghanistan days after I left and I realized I had never felt safe in that country and didn’t trust UNDSS to ensure my safety. I was most nervous about how I would react to the “fake kidnapping” part of the training- and as it turns out – I was fine, but one of my colleagues was not. She was a survivor and experienced a flashback during this section of the training. Our mostly male trainers had no psychologist on standby and were not prepared to support her so I was called in to help despite not having the relevant training or credentials.

This all came rushing back to me a few days ago when the AP report about the attacks on the Terrain House in Juba, Sudan and the rape of expatriate aid workers hit the news. The rage and sadness I felt about the UN’s refusal to deploy peacekeepers to protect these civilians threw me into a sad dark place. I then learned that the US Embassy (MY EMBASSY!) had also failed to protect these American citizens and had “made some phone calls.” Eventually the Government of Sudan sent in someone to rescue the people but the local staff of the hotel and 3 women were left behind to be rescued the next day by a private security force.

What must it have felt like to be the women “left behind”? And I couldn’t stop myself from immediately imagining myself as one of the three expatriate women left overnight with the rapist soldiers waiting to be rescued the next morning. I had to stop myself to save my sanity.

The most frustrating part for me is the false sense of security that being nearby the peacekeepers provided these aid workers. I am furious at the security officers who re-assured the people in the house that they would be fine. From the article: “One of the women gang-raped said security advisers from an aid organization living in the compound told residents repeatedly that they were safe because foreigners would not be targeted. She said: “This sentence, ‘We are not targeted,’ I heard half an hour before they assaulted us.”

Too often, our “security professionals” ignore women’s needs or have REALLY outdated viewpoints on how women can protect themselves. In Bangkok, at the recent women’s day- UNDSS told women that they should “smile more” to protect themselves and in Jordan, the UNHCR security personnel who was giving me a brief there said I should “dress decently” (to which I responded, since I’m a decent person anything I wear is, by definition, decent). Aid workers everywhere are deeply shaken by this event and what it shows about the lack of effective safety and security systems in the field.

Our so-called safety systems are not always going to be there. It’s obvious that we, as women, are often alone out there, and as every woman in the world has learned, in a world where rape culture is the norm and women are devalued, you have to take responsibility for your own safety and security.

August 19 is World Humanitarian Day where we remember our colleagues who were killed in the line of duty. Today, and every day, we should be thinking about the particular vulnerability to rape that women aid workers face in the line of duty.  Female aid workers everywhere are particularly deeply shaken by this event. Some are privately expressing how afraid they feel but that they feel worse for abandoning South Sudanese women who bear the brunt of the sexual violence. Will it be worse for them if we leave?

I’m too angry and sad to write a more professional polished piece – so I give you instead, a piece that I wrote about this in 2012.

Gender-based Violence and Security

This blog post was published by USAID to coincide with the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence event, “Who Takes Care of the Caregivers?  Providing Care and Safety for Staff in Gender-based Violence Settings,” taking place on Thursday, Nov. 29th 2012 in Washington DC, hosted by the Inter-Agency Gender Working Group, funded by USAID. It is no longer available online but a copy of it can be found here. Tips for female travelers that I wrote can be found here.

Gender-based Violence (GBV) is an issue that impacts aid workers – not just beneficiaries and not just staff that works in GBV settings. This post examines agencies’ duty to care for their workers by preventing and responding to GBV.

“Keeping International Workers Safe:  Preventing and Responding to Gender-based Violence”

Sarah Martin, Consultant and Specialist on Prevention and Response to Gender-based Violence

The sexual assault of the journalists Lara Logan, Mona Eltahawy and two unnamed British and French journalists in Egypt shocked the world and brought the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) against Westerners working in conflict areas to the forefront. Clearly GBV does not only affect the “locals” in these areas. Not only are journalists at risk but also aid workers–and not just in conflict settings or in GBV program areas.

I recently interviewed a large cross section of women travelers who work in a number of fields (including international development, human rights, humanitarian action and international business) about their experiences as women while traveling and working overseas*.  Many of them brought up their frustration that sexual harassment and sexual assault were never raised in security trainings and that agencies refused to address this as a real security concern. Increasingly, aid agencies are providing more “realistic” security trainings that simulate “hostile environments to prepare their employees for gunfire, kidnappings and other events in the field.”  While some of these trainings talk about sexual assault, there are no discussions of how to prevent sexual assault or how to react or support colleagues if they are assaulted. Sexual harassment in the workplace as a security issue is often ignored. In addition, the purveyors of these trainings are mostly male and show little awareness to the issue of sexual assault or the gender concerns of female trainees. I recently attended one such training where one of the participants relived her own sexual assault from years ago while undergoing a simulated “kidnapping.” While they took her out of the simulation, there were no psychologists or female trainers available to talk to her.

Female development and aid workers have the same security concerns as their male counterparts: crime and landmine accidents and armed robberies do not discriminate. Security measures, trainings, and manuals are the same for men and women, and most agencies take a ‘gender-blind’ approach to security. Most security officers are men, and many of them come from a military background. This gender-blind approach to security, however, leaves out a major issue.  Women also face another security threat that most men do not encounter – gender-based violence, namely sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Rape myths promote the false idea that women are only sexually assaulted by strangers. While this can happen, women are much more likely to be attacked by someone familiar to them – a co-worker, a driver, or a friend. Most of the women I interviewed shared stories about fending off sexual harassment by colleagues or actual cases of sexual assault in the field.

Rarely is their organization prepared to handle these issues. While there has been some action taken on “building safe organizations” – the focus has been preventing sexual exploitation of our beneficiaries by our staff. But there is not sufficient attention paid to sexual harassment of our staff by our staff or adequate support for staff that have been sexually assaulted. There is little information in the security manuals that I have reviewed about what medical care a survivor may need or what rights a sexual assault survivor might have. Nor is there guidance on reporting to local authorities, human resources or guarantees of confidentiality. Responsible employers must be prepared to understand and deal with the fact that their employees might become victims of sexual assault [1] and should be prepared to support them. This means bringing the issue of sexual assault up in security trainings and sensitizing the trainers and security personnel on how to address the issue – but not by restricting women’s access to “dangerous areas” but by making sure female employees are informed of the dangers, provided with information on how to protect themselves, and given sensitive and adequate support by their organizations in case the worst happens.

[1] Global statistics show that 1 out of 3 women has experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault.

* From the chapter I wrote entitled “Sexual Assault: Preventing And Responding As An International Travelers in the book Personal Security: A Guide for International Travelers, by Tanya Spencer, ISBN: 9781466559448 commissioned and published by Taylor and Francis, LLC.

 

 

Words Matter

It is hard to find words sufficient to express just how terrible sexual violence is (in conflict and otherwise). The words we use, however inadequate, should still be chosen carefully. One word that is often used (in the media and now at ESVC) is especially problematic .

Scourge.

 

The origin of scourge is a whip that was used as an instrument of punishment. To imply, even inadvertently, that sexual violence is a punishment is highly inappropriate and verges on victim blaming. As people working on sexual violence, we should be more careful and aware of how we speak about sexual violence. We’ve chosen to use the word Survivor to promote healing. Let’s not undo this healing with our words raising awareness.

Policymakers, we need you! ….to pay attention to the evidence.

by Chen Reis

Last week Nicholas Kristof*, the popular NYT columnist, created a storm on twitter and facebook with his column “Professors, We Need You! “ which, among other points, decried the irrelevance of much social science research to policy-making. There have been a number of responses from academics on Twitter, Facebook, and in blogs with many pointing out that they and a significant number of their colleagues are actively working to produce policy relevant research.

Kristof makes some valid points about the obscurity of much social science research and the inaccessibility of the jargon. But he does not mention an important reality:  that even relevant, good quality, and well communicated research often fails to have much impact on public dialog and policy.  Some of the challenges may be inherent to the nature of policy-making itself, but the discrepancy is often seen when research findings do not conform to preconceived notions or agenda of  policymakers. When research demonstrates that pre-existing ’solutions’ are not applicable, it is likely to be ignored as well. This too is true both in the US national system and internationally.  For example, even though  the data suggest that most of the gender-based violence even in humanitarian settings is perpetrated by intimate partners, most of the focus in processes aimed at ending impunity and preventing violence remains on combatant perpetrated sexual violence.

Even in areas for which there is more of an evidence base, it is not clear how and whether the evidence is used. ALNAP, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action, is working to identify the quality and use of evidence available for the humanitarian sector.

The problem is not only that existing evidence is often ignored, but also that there is also little recognition or mention of the need for data on what works, even in key high level statements and commitments. The lack of evidence about what works speaks to not only the complexity of research in crisis settings but also to the lack of resources available for robust program monitoring and evaluation.  When it comes to prevention of and response to sexual violence in conflict, and to evaluation of humanitarian programming in general, it is only fairly recently that there has been a move to identify  evidence of what works. Humanitarian non-governmental organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are working with academic institutions to evaluate interventions for sexual violence in humanitarian settings. There are also initiatives to support the generation of evidence for action, such as the Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) initiative of the ELRHA.

It will be interesting to see whether this push for evidence-based action is reflected in the UK hosted Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict scheduled for this June.  I hope that support for building the evidence base and for using the evidence to inform policy and programming plays a greater and more integrated part of the global efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence in humanitarian settings.

———————————————————

* Kristof’s own work and actions related to sexual violence have been critiqued  as uninformed /naïve and potentially harmful.

GBV is not sexy

by Sarah Martin

Recently, on a humanitarian mission, I had the pleasure of running into several old and new GBV friends. Some of us got to talking at dinner one night about the way that people who don’t work in the GBV field sometimes talk about our work. One of my biggest pet peeves is when I hear “GBV is so sexy right now”.

Some people say this dismissively and often with a sneer, which implies that, it’s a made-up problem. It’s true that you hear a lot more about GBV nowadays and that the GBV field’s hard work and advocacy has paid off finally and now aid programs are being required to try to work GBV into their projects. I also know that the people that say this are not all cynical and opposed to our work. I think that what some of the good-hearted people might be trying to say is that talking about Gender-based Violence is “trendy” or on the forefront of donors minds and suddenly seems ‘fashionable”. It’s the hottest things – like “micro-credit” programming was in the late 90s.

But it’s deeply painful and upsetting to hear otherwise smart people associate the word  “sexy” with “Gender-Based Violence”. Perhaps because we use an acronym to discuss what we do conceals what it actually means to do Gender-Based Violence programming. We use so much jargon in our business- GBV this, VAW, M&E, SOPs, the acronym soup goes on and on and it is sometimes easy to forget what we are actually talking about. The topic itself doesn’t lend itself to easy discussions  – so we invent a language to refer to it without having to say what it really is.

In the trainings that I conduct, I sometimes do an exercise where I ask participants to think of every word they know for vagina, every word for penis, every word for sexual intercourse and every word for leg and arm. Of course there are a million slang words for our sex organs and sexual intercourse because society doesn’t like to talk about it directly. It’s not polite to talk about in “good company”. There are fewer slang words to describe legs and arms because we can talk about them explicitly. Just like we invent slang to avoid talking about sex, we use the acronym GBV to cover up what we’re really talking about.

GBV programming is about talking to women who have been physically, emotionally, and socially abused by those that they love and trust. GBV programming is about working with women who have deep dark secrets and fears having been forced to have sex with exploitative aid workers, soldiers, and others who prey on their vulnerabilities. GBV programming is about convincing women whose husbands have raped their daughters, not to abandon their daughter and keep their husband because he’s surely going to rape her other two daughters but she’s afraid if she leaves him then she’ll fall into destitution and no one will survive. GBV programming is about trying to create a bond of trust with vulnerable women who have been hurt and trying to help them move forward in an environment that is hostile to women.

I think of the women who have disclosed their rapes to me. I think of the counselors and service providers who have to listen to stories of incest, abuse, and self-hatred from GBV survivors. I think of the struggle we still have to implement even the most basic and proven interventions.  We still have to fight to get aid workers to put lights near toilets or locate women’s toilets away from the men’s to stop rapes at night in IDP camps, evacuation centers, and other places where the vulnerable have to turn for help.

And I think – gender-based violence is not sexy. It’s not sexy at all. So please, for the love of God, please don’t let people around you get away with saying “GBV work is so sexy right now.”

16 Days: Rogue Stats

by Chen Reis

As someone who works in the field of prevention of and response to sexual violence, I use data to advocate for more attention, more action, more resources and am always on the lookout for statistics that are both persuasive and based on sound methodology.  Every year, advocates and activists around the world time the release of fact sheets, infographics, and reports on violence against women to coincide with the 16 Days of Action. Unfortunately, every year, many of these repeat the following INCORRECT factoid about the impact of violence against women.  “Violence against women causes more death and disability among women aged 15-44 worldwide than cancer, war, malaria and traffic accidents combined.” This factioid, or some version of it, has been repeated in multiple reports including by  influential think-tanks,  in fact sheets and briefing papers produced for the UN  and popular campaigns  and even included in articles by magazines  notorious for rigorous fact checking.

This statement has often been wrongly attributed to the World Health Organization (WHO). When I worked for WHO, we would often send out corrections to those using this factoid, to indicate that it was wrong and that its source is not the WHO and yet the factoid persists. Is this a function of our Wikipedia world where we believe what we read without digging deeper to identify the primary source? Or is it simply that something repeated often enough as truth acquires that reputation?

More importantly, where did this factoid come from?  It likely first appeared in a March 1998 briefing by the Panos Institute. My WHO colleagues and I thought it was probably based on an inaccurate reading of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report published in 1996 or the World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR) in 1993, which includes the GBD data for 1990.  More recently I did a little more digging and I think it is based on a table (table 5) included in a discussion paper “Violence against Women: The Hidden Health Burden” authored by Lori Heise, Jaqueline Pitanguy, and Adrienne Germain for the World Bank in 1994. This paper extrapolates from and builds upon the analysis for the WDR 1993 and estimates that globally among women 15-44, 9.5 million Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) were lost to domestic violence & rape, as compared to 9.0 million for all cancers, 4.2 million for motor vehicle accidents, 2.7 million  for war, and 2.3 million for malaria.  The paper includes an appendix which clarifies the author’s approach to estimating the percentage of DALYs lost to women age 15 to 44 due to conditions that are attributable to domestic violence and rape. The exact methods for estimating these percentages are not specified in the paper but the authors indicate they are on file with World Bank staff.

20 years on, we now have a refined GBD methodology and more recent data from the GBD project, so I thought it would be interesting to look at the 2010 GBD data which are searchable online. In the 2010 report, intimate partner violence (IPV) is included as a risk factor (there are no specific data for rape). The current GBD estimates are that globally about 16.8 million lost DALYs are attributable to IPV as a risk factor for women for all ages.  For women of all ages, 37.8 million DALYs are attributable to Malaria, 80.6 million to cancer, and 20.9 million to transport injuries.

The 2010 GBD estimates are just one source of recent and reliable data on VAW. In 2013 there have been 2 major studies published on VAW. The first, a  report released earlier this year by WHO, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the South African Medical Research Council ,found that  one out of every three women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual  violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner. Other key facts from the study: 30% 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. A report released by Partners for Prevention earlier this year provided important multi-country comparative data for the Asia- Pacific region on men’s perpetration of violence against women.  We should be using these more recent data as the basis of our advocacy and awareness-raising.

Opponents of work on violence against women accuse anti-VAW activists of spreading misleading and exaggerated information. There are numerous websites aimed at challenging our work to prevent and respond to VAW. One of their key tactics is to highlight erroneous data used by anti-VAW advocates.  When we use data irresponsibly, we provide fodder for those seeking to undermine our work. As consumers and producers of information we have a duty to be responsible. We must examine the primary sources of the statistics we cite and make sure that we are using the most recent and accurate data available.

16 Days of “Action”: A Lament

Slacktivism
The second in a series of posts inspired by the 16 Days of Action. Cassandra Complexity co-editor, Sarah Martin, reflects on social media.

I get tired of social media sometimes. I recently read how the act of posting a charitable act on Facebook will actually make people LESS likely to donate money to a charity because in our minds, when we hit “like” or “share”, we’ve done our duty. We don’t have to DO anything. We’ve passively passed on the buck and “raised awareness” about the issue. It’s called “slacktivism.”

I’m guilty of this sometimes. I’m a social media junkie and love to read and share the different news pieces and articles that my many friends in Gender-Based Violence world post on Facebook and twitter. I know people working in the UN, in different NGOs, people working as journalists and in the human rights field, aid workers and people who have left the humanitarian field, and just smart interesting thoughtful people who like to read. As a consultant, it is very tempting to procrastinate and spend a big part of the day educating myself by reading all the interesting articles that I find when I jump on social media. But I know in my heart that it’s not “work”.

But as the 16 Days of Action against Gender-based Violence rolls around this year, I find myself turned off and almost feeling apathetic. So many tweets and beautiful ad campaigns and heart-wrenching ads, and orange colored clothes on my Facebook feed. In 2003 – 2010, I wrote so many pieces about 16 Days of Action when I worked for Refugees International and MSF. I begged with our comms people to post them and raise awareness. But now, I am seeing them and I feel a surge of sadness.

Maybe its because I spent this year in four different countries (Libya, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Egypt) where the response to violence against women sometimes seems to be limited to awareness-raising. Now don’t get me wrong – there is always someone on the ground TRYING to provide care. Trying but limping along. Maybe there is one organization – maybe 2 or 3 but always under-funded and under-staffed and over-worked.

Where is the link between the legions of twitter users and Facebook fans who like the good work that these organizations do and actual response to the needs of women living with the problem of violence against women in humanitarian settings? If we could even get a dollar for every click that we receive, we’d have enough money to buy dignity kits for adolescent girls to keep them from dropping out of school and from embarrassment when they get their periods. We’d have emergency contraception in all the clinics along with confidential spaces for interviews, and enough money to have training programs for helping nurses and doctors understand better how to interview a rape survivor. We’d have anti-sexual harassment campaigns on all the tvs, billboards, and radios. We’d have literacy programs for women trapped in the camps. We’d have more ability to teach aid workers what a livelihood program is and why its so crucial for women both as a prevention and a response strategy to intimate partner violence and rape in wartime.

But the work that we need to do goes beyond enough money and fundraising – that’s just the obvious link. It goes back to the quality that my co-authors and I identified in our Sexual Violence Research Initiative presentation in Bangkok last October. The “Je ne sais quoi” sometimes known as the Angelina Jolie factor or the CNN impact.

How do we move beyond the passivity of clicking “like” or “retweet” and move into actually generating more programs for women on the ground? A few humble suggestions:

  1. Donate your money to an organization that does actual work on the ground supporting survivors. Don’t be fooled by campaigns by organizations who say they do something – do your research!
  2. Get politically active and demand that your government to do more to support programs for survivors of gender-based violence, including granting asylum, funding abortion care, and providing sustainable care for all women vulnerable to violence – not just conflict-related violence or rape in war.
  3. Volunteer at or financially support a local domestic violence shelter in your home country- raise awareness about the impact of violence in your own community

Any other ideas, readers?