Sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian response

Why does the risk of SGBV increase in an emergency?

SGBV is present in communities before a crisis hits, but risks and vulnerability to SGBV increase during emergencies and their aftermath.

This can be due to a number of factors, including the presence of armed forces or combatants; weakened legal systems and law enforcement; abuse of power by individuals in positions of authority, including in aid distribution; inadequate access to shelter, food, water and fuel; increased economic vulnerability; and the sudden breakdown of family and community structures after forced displacement.

Certain groups in a population may be particularly at risk of SGBV: adolescent girls, female heads of household, children, older people, people with disabilities, and LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people.

SGBV may be perpetrated by anyone, including family members, armed groups, humanitarian actors, and individuals from host communities or refugee/IDP communities.

Those in positions of authority (police, security officials, community leaders, teachers, employers, landlords, humanitarian workers) may abuse their power. Changed social and gender roles or responsibilities, as well as the stresses of displacement, can cause or exacerbate tensions within the household, resulting in domestic violence. Economic stress and insecurity can increase negative coping mechanisms, such as survival sex and early or forced marriage, and increase vulnerability to trafficking. During armed conflict, sexual violence may often be used as a weapon of war.

What is the role of faith groups?

Harmful social norms, often influenced and justified by religious beliefs, in relation to gender inequality are widely recognised as the key root causes of SGBV. Addressing these underlying factors is therefore vital for effective prevention.

Faith leaders are key local opinion leaders, and faith groups are present even in remote, conflict-affected or displaced communities, which government and other agencies find hard to reach. In a crisis, churches and mosques often become places of refuge, and in practice faith leaders are often the first responders.

Currently, lack of knowledge or capacity, taboos and harmful beliefs among these leaders can mean they are unable to engage positively in SGBV issues. In particular, they may be reluctant to discuss sexual issues, and may in fact contribute to or condone harmful beliefs. Lack of understanding also hampers many humanitarian agencies’ engagement with faith groups, limiting effective coordinated prevention responses at community level.

How should we respond to SGBV in an emergency?

Preventing and responding to SGBV is life-saving, and is therefore a vital component of protection in humanitarian response. Programming should begin from the outset of an emergency, even without waiting for SGBV case data, as it is recognised that these issues are severely underreported.

Emergency responses across all sectors should be designed to ensure prevention of SGBV, and all humanitarian staff should respect codes of conduct in prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse.

Direct SGBV interventions can focus on:

  • providing access to appropriate medical and psychosocial support for survivors
  • sharing key messages on safety for women and girls in the community
  • supplying information on how to access available medical, legal, psychosocial services (referral pathways)
  • prevention activities promoting gender equality
  • addressing social stigma, which is a key barrier to survivors accessing services
  • creating safe spaces for women to gather and discuss issues affecting them, establishing mechanisms where violence can be reported and addressed.

Key resource: IASC Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence in Humanitarian Action

Key Resource: Minimum Standards for Prevention and Response to Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies (PDF 820 KB)