Bridging the gap
These are also questions being asked by the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, which has pledged in numerous forums in recent years to make sexual violence a top priority in its humanitarian response. The challenge has been turning the rhetoric into reality on the ground.
In the last four years, there has been considerable progress and a range of new services is being offered. But, as ICRC Director-General Yves Daccord said recently, there is still a gap between the organization’s stated will and its ability to respond effectively in multiple contexts. The way to bridge that gap, he says, is not just “to put a few more specialists on the ground but integrate awareness around this issue into the entire operation”.
In addition, says Coline Rapneau, sexual violence adviser in the ICRC’s directorate of operations, the ICRC aims to challenge the invisibility of the phenomenon, due to victims’ fear of stigmatization, rejection or reprisals. ICRC staff must now assume that sexual violence occurs in conflict or other situations of violence regardless of whether there are specific allegations. The ICRC now no longer waits for evidence of sexual violence to emerge before preparing a response.
“What we’ve done is reverse the burden of proof so that ICRC staff members become proactive even if victims are not yet coming forward,” says Rapneau. “That paradigm shift, which was developed in 2013, also gives us a considerable push to do more to better understand the trends and patterns of sexual violence and to respond to the needs effectively.”
While the ICRC response in the past was relatively ad hoc, the organization is now “trying to more systematically address the issue”, she says. The response includes nine clinical psychologists working in the field specifically on this issue — a threefold increase over the past three years. These psychologists are developing programmes for survivors of sexual violence alongside ICRC medical activities, helping to raise the profile of the issue in each context, and are training and coaching local staff in the field.
Part and parcel
Similarly, within the IFRC there has been a growing recognition that sexual and gender-based violence is part of any crisis and that capacity to respond must be integrated into all humanitarian assistance operations, says Siobhán Foran, gender and diversity adviser for the IFRC in Geneva.
Backed by key policy documents, the approach seeks to integrate awareness about the issue, and capacity to respond, into basic emergency and post-crisis operations.
Part of that means hiring more experts. The IFRC’s recently hired gender and diversity advisers in Beirut, Kuala Lumpur and Nairobi, for example, are responsible for developing training sessions and approaches that fit local situations. The idea is not just to have specialists available to respond, but rather to increase the capacity of IFRC field staff and National Societies in addressing this very delicate issue.
“These training sessions and responses need to fit the local context,” says Foran. “If there’s something that doesn’t resonate with the local context, the advisers can take it out. And if something is much more important to one particular region, then they can put it in.”
Meanwhile, gender and diversity advisers from both the IFRC and National Societies are an increasingly common component of international relief efforts, including after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and the recent earthquake in Nepal, and in the countries taking in displaced people from Iraq and Syria. Some emergency response units (ERUs), such as the Canadian ERU, now routinely include a psychosocial delegate, while response to gender-based violence and child protection are key elements of their mandate.
A minimum standard
For Gurvindher Singh, the IFRC’s violence prevention adviser, a big part of the job is preparing all people on the front lines to understand the signs of sexual violence and to respond appropriately based on available services or referral pathways to other organizations providing complementary services.
“At a minimum,” adds Singh, “people in every National Society and within the IFRC should be able to handle the disclosure of sexual violence appropriately. Because we don’t want to make the situation worse. We should be able to tell them what options are available and where they can access support.”
But that is just one part of the solution, says Foran, who argues that a response to gender-based violence needs to be more fully integrated into IFRC emergency operations from the start. “We’ve got to have this response as part of our ordinary business,” she says.
That means having gender and diversity or protection advisers as part of the first assessment teams and psychosocial workers trained to address sexual violence as a normal part of ERUs. “Just as you have your water and sanitation person, your logistics person, you have a gender and diversity or protection person,” she says. “We need to build up a roster of Red Cross Red Crescent Movement people who can fill that role.”
A dangerous stigma
More important than the quantity of projects or programmes, however, is the quality of what humanitarians have to offer. If not done well, closely following the ‘do no harm’ principle, the response can have serious and potentially very harmful repercussions.
In the Middle East, where the conflicts in Iraq and Syria have led to widespread reports of sexual violence perpetrated against women, the risks of a poorly implemented response could be worse than doing nothing.
All too often, victims might not only face stigmatization or rejection, but they might even be killed to ‘cleanse’ the family’s honour. “It can be a big risk for women victims to seek healthcare support for sexual violence, so you need to make sure that you take all necessary measures, including confidentiality, otherwise you could be condemning that person to death,” says the ICRC’s Rapneau.
The matter is further complicated when laws in certain countries require health facilities to report cases of rape to authorities, something that might make victims wary about coming forward and which also makes the provision of confidential humanitarian services very difficult. Because of the cultural sensitivities and the lack of pre-existing partnerships around the issue of sexual violence, the Movement’s response in the countries affected by the conflicts in Iraq and Syria has been relatively limited, according to people interviewed for this story. Rather, services are discreetly offered within the context of more general activities such as community-based health and first aid provided by National Societies and the IFRC within camps or communities hosting refugees.
The ‘other’ invisible victims
Similar sensitivities must be taken into account when dealing with male victims of sexual violence, says Chris Dolan, the director of the Refugee Law Project, a community outreach project based at the University of Makere in Kampala, Uganda.
The problem is, he says, that little is known about the phenomenon of sexual violence by men against men. According to Dolan’s research, only 3 per cent of NGOs working on sexual violence provide services for male victims despite the fact that men may constitute up to a third of the victims.
“We screened men fleeing the conflict in eastern DRC and one in three had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime and 14 per cent in the year prior to screening,” Dolan says.
Dolan says that due to stigma, rape of men is dramatically underreported and, as a result, many victims of sexual violence are not getting the medical and psychological support they need.
“Counsellors need to better spot the signs of ill-treatment,” he says. “Doctors need training in dealing with the physical injuries caused by this type of violence and the aid community needs to respond to their specific shelter, food, water and sanitation needs.”
One way to deal with the specific needs of victims, and with the particularities of each context, is to take advantage of existing networks in which local people have faith and trust. “Ready-made, ‘cookie-cutter’ solutions don’t work,” says Singh. “It’s the localized solutions that are sustainable and effective.”
The recent survey of sexual and gender-based violence activities recommends enhancing and building partnerships on an ongoing basis, not just when crises occur. National Societies, whose volunteers understand local cultures, could make an even greater contribution.
More resources are also needed, particularly in training and raising the Movement’s capacity, according to the survey. This in turn means the Movement has to get better at quantifying the impact of its actions.
In the meantime, testimonials from people who have learned to cope thanks to these interventions make a powerful case for greater action. Consider the story of Maffa, who at the age of 11 was abducted by armed men while on her way to school in rural Colombia. She was drugged and sexually abused on a regular basis but was ultimately able to escape this nightmare and find help through the ICRC, where she could finally talk about what happened to her.
“I realized that this is not my fault and that I didn’t do anything wrong,” Maffa says, adding that talking about her story helped in her decision to go back to school, where she did well and became a nurse. “Now as a nurse I even take on cases in which people were also involved with armed groups and I am able to speak with them about their experiences.”