Sexual and gender-based violence: what can be done?

Gender-based violenceSexual violence

Footsteps 106 - Sexual and gender-based violence

Footsteps 106 explores how we can end sexual and gender-based violence and provide holistic support to survivors.

Sexual and gender-based violence: what can be done?

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) threatens the human rights, safety and dignity of millions of affected individuals. It also has negative effects on the public health and security of the communities in which it happens.

Empowering women economically can help reduce their vulnerability to SGBV. Photo: Tom Price/Tearfund
Empowering women economically can help reduce their vulnerability to SGBV. Photo: Tom Price/Tearfund

The problem

SGBV is violence directed against anyone based on their sex or gender, where sex refers to the biological differences between males and females and gender to society’s ideas about what it means to behave as a man or woman. It includes physical, sexual, verbal and psychological violence. 

SGBV affects one out of every three women around the world, while one in every 33 men suffers SGBV. It is therefore closely connected to violence against women. Unequal power relationships and differences in social standing between men and women are the main reason for SGBV. 

Many people associate sexual violence with war and armed conflict. Sexual violence in conflict is a key challenge, and we need to ensure that all efforts are made to prevent this brutality. This includes bringing perpetrators to justice, and developing programmes to respond to SGBV from the outset. But while the extent of sexual violence during war and conflict is heightened, we must not forget that it happens in peacetime too – in homes, schools, places of work and the wider community. It is important to know that the majority of violence against women and girls is perpetrated by an intimate partner– someone they are or have been in a romantic relationship with.

What can be done to prevent SGBV?

SGBV is a result of the problem and pain of broken relationships. Prevention is possible, but it requires a change in hearts, minds and behaviours. 

Silence is a barrier to ending SGBV. We need to be able to speak out about it and understand that stigma and lack of support keep survivors silent, which in turn increases their vulnerability. In order to create safe communities, we need to work together across the education, health, social and justice sectors. This must include leadership at all levels. When survivors are empowered and organised, they too can be a powerful force for change. 

We must also ensure that our governments stand against violence through signing up to key international laws, developing systems that support survivors and ensuring that perpetrators do not escape punishment. Laws need to be backed up by adequate processes that can bring them into practice. Our leaders themselves should be role models in the way they respect and treat women.  

It is important to involve men and boys in preventing SGBV. Photo: Cally Spittle/Tearfund
It is important to involve men and boys in preventing SGBV. Photo: Cally Spittle/Tearfund

What is the role of faith communities?

Faith communities have a vital and urgent role to play both in the prevention of and response to SGBV. To prevent SGBV, we need to change harmful social norms – the unwritten rules that shape people’s values, attitudes and behaviours. Faith groups have a considerable influence on social norms and traditional practices. They are also often the ones providing education and health services in local communities, and can actively seek ways to reach out to survivors of SGBV. 

The survivors we have listened to have always asked for the church and its leadership to speak out and to provide care and compassion. Church leaders need to understand that SGBV happens in the church, too. They should stand up for the most vulnerable, ending stigma and discrimination and championing survivors’ need for support and justice. 

There are many practical things that local churches (and other organisations) can do: 

  • Become educated about SGBV and speak about it openly in sermons and meetings, addressing harmful ideas about gender from a theological and cultural perspective. 
  • Provide services such as counselling and health care, or accompany survivors to access these services. 
  • Create safe spaces for women to speak openly about SGBV. Support groups for women can be a powerful approach. 
  • Encourage members of the local community to form an action group that will provide seamless support to survivors (see Community Action Groups). 
  • Create emergency funds to support women in crisis. 
  • Invest in the empowerment of women, including income generation activities, so they do not feel trapped into living with perpetrators of SGBV for the sake of basic needs. 
  • Mobilise men to be champions for the rights of women and girls. 
  • Advocate with local authorities to make sure they too become safe spaces for survivors to find compassion, care and justice. 

What can individuals do?

As individuals, it is important that we do not feel powerless to do anything about SGBV. There are many things that we can do both to prevent and respond to the problem: 

  • Understand that every community, whether rich or poor, is vulnerable to SGBV. 
  • Start with the young. Ensure you treat both boys and girls as being of equal value, giving them equal access to education and other opportunities. 
  • Make violence unacceptable! Let people know that you stand against violence against women and girls. 
  • Encourage both men and women to have ongoing discussions about mutual respect. Ensure people recognise that it is important to involve men and boys. 
  • Make sure people know where to go to seek help. 

SGBV is preventable. We all have to play our part in ending it. We can start by breaking our silence, beginning conversations in our homes, places of work and worship. We need to model the change we want to see and inspire others to do the same. 


What causes violence against women? 

by Arlene August Burns

A man may offer many excuses for hurting a woman – that he was drunk, that he lost control or that she ‘deserved it’. But a man chooses to use violence because it is a way he can get what he needs or what he feels is rightfully his as a man. Power and control are key reasons for violence against women. Violent or abusive relationships often happen when one person has more power over the other. 

There are many different ways that a man tries to gain power over a woman. Physical violence (beating, slapping, kicking etc) is only one of them. Other types of violence against women include: 

Emotional abuse The man insults the woman, puts her down or makes her think she is going crazy. 

Sexual abuse The man makes the woman do sexual things against her will, or physically attacks the sexual parts of her body. He treats her like an object. 

Controlling money The man tries to keep the woman from getting a job or making her own money. He makes her ask him for any money she needs. Or he may force her to work and then take the money she earns. 

Isolation The man controls everything the woman does – who she sees and talks to, and where she goes. 

Making threats The man uses a look, action or tone of voice, or makes threats, that make the woman feel afraid that he will hurt her. 

Using children The man uses the children to make the woman feel guilty, or to hurt her. 

Adapted from Where women have no doctor by Arlene August Burns. Visit www.hesperian.org to buy a copy or download the book free of charge.

Veena O'Sullivan
Veena O’Sullivan leads Tearfund’s work on SGBV and peacebuilding. Web: www.tearfund.org/sexualviolence Email: veena.osullivan@tearfund.org