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Sexual and gender-based violence: The time to act is now

07 May 2019


OCHA/Phil Moore

Together with the UN and other partners, OCHA is co-hosting an international pledging conference to strengthen efforts to combat sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in humanitarian crises. Hosted by Norway, the conference also aims to raise much needed funding to ensure that humanitarian partners are equipped to provide the necessary protection to not just assist survivors of violence, but also prevent such acts through ad hoc interventions. The conference will take place in Oslo on 23-24 May.

What is Gender-Based Violence (GBV)?

Gender-Based Violence (GBV), sometimes also referred to as Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) is any harmful act of sexual, physical, psychological, mental, and emotional abuse that is perpetrated against a person’s will and that is based on socially ascribed (i.e. gender) differences between males and females.

The numbers are shocking. An estimated one in three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime. Men and boys are often targeted as well.

In conflict, sexual and gender-based violence increases, often dramatically. Women’s bodies become battlegrounds, with rape used as a tactic of war and terror to humiliate, dominate or disrupt social ties and ethnic identity. Support networks and local services break down, and facilities are damaged and destroyed, living SGBV survivors to fend for themselves.

The impact of SGBV is devastating for survivors and their communities. Physical injuries, unwanted pregnancies, fistulae, sexually transmitted infections including HIV and death are among the most likely consequences of such senseless violence. Survivors often face social rejection that increases their vulnerability to further abuse and exploitation.

South Sudan: Brenda’s story

In Magwi, Brenda and other women can now use fuel-efficient stoves to make bread for selling, so they no longer have to walk in the forest to get firewood. Credit: CARE

Twenty-year-old Brenda Abee Martin lives in Nimule, South Sudan. She has been collecting firewood since she was a young girl, so her family could cook. In those days, firewood was plentiful, and Brenda could collect as much wood as she needed from a forest away from her home. Today, the once lush forests in her area are disappearing due to deforestation. “We don’t have any alternative to firewood,” says Brenda “so we have to travel long distances in search of firewood, which exposes us to many dangers.”

The reality is scary for women and girls in South Sudan as years of conflict have ‘normalized’ sexual violence. And walking in the forest exposes them to more risks. Sadly, in most cases, survivors of violence don’t have any recourse to justice and they just keep quiet, as they fear being stigmatized.

In December 2018, CARE, thanks to a $200,000 allocation from the South Sudan Humanitarian Fund, implemented a six-month protection project, supporting training of 80 women and adolescent girls at a Nimule woman and girl-friendly space, so they could learn how to make fuel-efficient stoves.

“I learned a lot about how to make energy efficient stoves,” says Brenda. “The stove doesn’t use much firewood now, and this for us means less walks in the forests.”

Using SSHF funding, CARE also trained 240 women and adolescent girls in the production of fuel-efficient stoves in Magwi, Nimule and Koch. According to Patrick Vuonze, CARE Gender-based Violence Manager, the training has helped women and girls not only save on fuel and feel safer, but also to empower them economically. “Some are now using the energy saving stoves to bake bread, which they sell in their communities” says Vuonze.

Women who received the training are now passing on the skills to other women in their community, creating a much-needed multiplier effect. “Most of our forests are gone,” says Brenda “so it’s very important that we teach as many women as possible how to make fuel efficient stoves to save the existing forests while avoiding dangers.”

Violence, abuse and exploitation the greatest risks for women and girls

Helen Gire, a mother of five, shares her concerns and fears with UN Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock. "Ordinary people are suffering on an unimaginable scale", Mr. Lowcock said during his last visit to South Sudan. "Belligerents use scorched-earth tactics, murder and rape as weapons of war. All these are gross violations of international law".

In South Sudan, the scale of SGBV is massive. Despite preventive actions by humanitarian actors, all forms of gender-based violence (GBV) continue to be reported in and near Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites as young men and armed elements acting with impunity often prey on, sexually assault, and loot from women and girls who venture to fetch firewood, cultivate crops or access markets. Therefore violence, abuse and exploitation remain the greatest protection risks to women and girls, reflecting continued gender inequalities exacerbated by the prolonged crisis.

Widespread GBV constitutes a significant impediment to women’s participation in recovery and development. In the first half of 2018, some 2,300 cases of GBV were reported, a 72 per cent increase in reporting of GBV compared to same period in 2017. During the same period, 97 per cent of reported cases in South Sudan affected women and girls, and 21 per cent of survivors were children, of which 79 per cent were adolescent girls, like in previous years.

Physical violence continues to be the most common form of gender-based violence in South Sudan, accounting for 42 per cent of reported cases. Sexual violence constitutes 20 per cent of reported cases. GBV remains severely under-reported due to stigma. Survivors are often abandoned, with most receiving no legal assistance to help them seek justice, and with children born out of rape facing multiple protection risks.

"We can do better"

"In my dozens of visits to countries caught up in crisis, the stories of women and girls have stuck with me more than any others", Mr. Lowcock said in a recent speech. "Stories of escape from violence and terror. Stories of barbaric acts committed against them. Stories of fear for their children and loved ones. But, stories also of resilience and hope. Women and girls defiant. Mothers determined to ensure that their children were safe and had the chance to go to school. Young girls with ambitions to be doctors, engineers and leaders. Heads of households who had resolved to take control of their lives, start businesses and provide again for their families. Brave survivors, not just helpless victims. (...) We can do better for them."

The upcoming conference will mobilize stronger political commitment to prevent incidents and protect people at risk of SGBV, including conflict-related sexual violence, ensuring that SGBV response is life-saving and timely, and promotes the needs, rights and dignity of survivors and those at risk