by Emily Shrair,
The two young girls were looking for firewood when the insurgents attacked them. They had left the refugee camp at six in the morning and begun their trek through the desert in search of scraps of wood or roots that could be used as fuel; firewood rations distributed by the United Nations had long been used up, and in the camp, no fuel meant no food. Five miles and several hours later, the two thirteen-year-olds had found only a few small sticks, hardly enough to keep a fire going. As a last resort, they knelt in the dirt near the shriveled stump of a tree, digging with their hands in search of hidden roots, littering the small patch of earth around them with holes. When they saw the five soldiers approaching, they tried to run away, but the men were too fast.
This story, reported in a local African newspaper less than one week ago, could be the story of any number of the 22 million refugee girls, youth and women around the world who have been displaced by conflict, and are at risk of gender-based violence (GBV)*. From the Democratic Republic of Congo to Syria, forms of GBV such as rape, sexual exploitation and forced prostitution turn women's lives upside down, leaving lasting physical and emotional scars.
Today, policy-makers, nongovernmental organizations and activists gather at the United Nations for the first day of the 57th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). During the two weeks of CSW, the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) will engage in a social media initiative, the Power of Prevention, to raise awareness about the prevention of gender-based violence in crisis settings and highlight tools and resources the WRC has developed to help keep displaced women and girls safer.
GBV is widespread around the world. In crisis-affected settings, the threat of violence becomes even more acute, particularly for women and girls. Nearly 50 percent of all sexual assaults worldwide are against girls 15 years or younger, according to a 2003 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report. With the breakdown of moral and social order that occurs during emergencies, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to physical abuse and exploitation, rape and human trafficking. Perpetrators may be family members, neighbors or others in the community, members of armed groups or, in some instances, humanitarian workers. Instead of dropping off in the immediate aftermath of an emergency, incidents of violence against women and girls tend to rise further or plateau for a period of months or years.
To date, the majority of practical, operational GBV-related programming has tended to emphasize GBV response—that is, caring for survivors of violence after it has occurred. Programs aimed at preventing GBV are less common and are fairly recent. While there is still a good deal of work that must be done to provide survivors with the care and services they need to rebuild their lives, we must also intensify efforts to prevent the violence from occurring the in the first place.
Since it's founding in 1989, the Women's Refugee Commission has been a leading proponent of efforts to promote women's empowerment, gender equality and protection against GBV. WRC's model of research, guidance development, working in partnership and sustained advocacy uniquely places the organization as one that can lead and change practice. Our goal is to put much more emphasis on the prevention of GBV, thereby reducing the number of survivors requiring response services. We do this by identifying concrete actions to operationalize prevention and mitigate the risks faced by women and girls in emergency, protracted, urban and camp settings.
Our groundbreaking 2002 report If Not Now, When? documented the shortcomings of previous efforts to address GBV. This report and others by the Women's Refugee Commission influenced the development of such standard-setting guidance as the Inter-Agency Standing Committee's Guidelines for Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings and the Gender Handbook in Humanitarian Action. We have also worked closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on development of its Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls.
Highlights of Our Current Work
The prevention of GBV continues to be a signature element of the Women's Refugee Commission's work that cuts across many of our programs. Current initiatives include efforts to ensure humanitarian agencies and partners:
• Improve protection by providing safe access to cooking fuel.
• Address GBV through strong reproductive health programs.
• Create safe economic opportunities for women.
• Build the self-esteem, social networks and skills of adolescent girls.
• Work with refugees with disabilities.
• Ensure the safety of migrants and asylum seekers in the United States.
Each day of the Power of Prevention campaign we will highlight a different WRC program and the ways in which GBV prevention methods are being utilized in each of our areas of work. From disabilities to sexual and reproductive health to adolescent girls, the campaign will demonstrate how WRC's prevention approach to GBV is creating lasting change for girls and women in crisis situations around the world by stopping violence before it starts. Follow the campaign on Facebook and Twitter to learn about GBV prevention in crisis settings, hear first-hand accounts of women and girls, read testimonials from NGO partners and get practical tips for getting involved in GBV-prevention.
*Gender-based violence is an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person's will and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between men and women. The nature and extent of specific types of GBV vary across cultures, countries and regions and can include rape, sexual exploitation, forced prostitution, domestic violence, trafficking, forced or early marriage, and harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation and honor killings.