Preventing Gender-Based Violence Among Displaced Women in Sub-Saharan Africa : A Participatory Approach to Designing, Constructing, and Maintaining Refugee Camps by Brandi Walker
Refugee and displacement camps are dangerous places for women. This notion seems incongruous with the idea that camps are places of safe haven for those driven from their homes by violent conflict. But provision of food and shelter are not enough to make women safe.
International Women’s Development Agency
I. Background: According to the Inter Agency Standing Committee, the coordinating agency for humanitarian assistance in response to complex and major emergencies, due to systematic and exceptionally violent gang rape, doctors in the Democratic Republic of Congo are now classifying vaginal destruction as a crime of combat. Thousands of Congolese girls and women suffer from vaginal fistula—tissue tears in the vagina, bladder and rectum—after surviving brutal rapes in which guns were used to violate them. Other women from war-torn areas of Sub-Saharan Africa suffer similar fates. Approximately 50,000 to 64,000 internally displaced women in Sierra Leone have histories of war-related assault, while fifty percent of those who came into contact with the Revolutionary United Front reported sexual violence. Refugees International estimates that up to 40 percent of women were raped during Liberia’s 14-year civil war; teenagers were the most targeted group (2005). The majority of Tutsi women in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide were exposed to some form of GBV; of these, between 250,000 and 500,000 were raped (IASC 2005).
Sexual violence perpetrated by wartime combatants is an age-old phenomenon. Today, however, there is also evidence of sexual exploitation, domestic violence, and other forms of GBV in populations affected by armed conflict. It is indeed well documented that GBV is a widespread international human rights issue and public health issue, and that prevention and response interventions are inadequate in most countries worldwide. Gender-based violence is especially problematic in the context of complex emergencies and natural disasters, where civilian women and children are often targeted for abuse, and are the most vulnerable to exploitation, violence, and abuse simply because of their gender, age, and status in society. During a crisis such as armed conflict, institutions and systems for physical and social protection are often weakened or destroyed. Police, legal, health, education, and social services are often disrupted. Women and children become dependent on humanitarian aid for basic survival. This “dependence and powerlessness, compounded for women and children, makes them extremely vulnerable to abuses of power and exploitation” (Vann 2002, p. 14).
GBV increases in conflict-affected settings, and throughout history has been an integral component of armed conflict. Sexual violence is often systematic, for the purposes of destabilizing populations and destroying bonds within communities and families, advancing ethnic cleansing, expressing hatred for the enemy or supplying combatants with sexual services. Evidence suggests that the use of rape as a weapon of war has increased dramatically in recent years in conflict areas in Africa. Other forms of GBV that may be of concern during war and its aftermath include early and/or forced marriage, female infanticide, enforced sterilization or pregnancy, domestic violence, forced or coerced prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, trafficking in women, girls, and boys, and intentional HIV transmission (IASC 2005).
In addition to obstetric fistulas, mentioned above, sexual violence can result in undesired pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection and HIV transmission, additional injuries including broken bones, and in the most violent cases, being crippled for life. On a psychological level, it often results in severe anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating or sleeping, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, inappropriate guilt feelings, and emotional numbness or irritability (WHO 2006). The social impact, however, is often the most debilitating, as victims (especially unmarried victims) are often stigmatized and ousted from their communities. Rejected by their families, or, in the case of war-torn areas, with no family members left, these women are often forced to become prostitutes, marry their rapists, or join in the fighting and become combatants.
II. History of GBV Interventions and Successful Empowerment/ Participatory Projects:
Only within the last decade has substantive dialogue on the issue of addressing sexual violence against refugee women begun to take place. In 1994, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children released a ground-breaking study, Refugee Women and Reproductive Health: Reassessing Priorities. This study revealed that even the most basic reproductive health services--including those to address violence against women -- were not available to women displaced by war (UNFPA 13). At the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, responding to violence against women was identified as one of four basic pillars of reproductive health programming. At this same conference, minimum health standards for refugees were expanded to include reproductive health services and, by extension, treatment for victims of sexual violence. The need for these services was reinforced by media coverage in Bosnia and Rwanda, “illustrating for the world the extent to which women and girls were targets of sexual violence during war and stimulating donor attention to the issue” (UNFPA 2006, p. 13). Sexual violence was finally and officially on the agenda of donors and humanitarian agencies charged with responding to the needs of the conflict-affected.
The second major document on the issue was Sexual Violence Against Refugees: Guidelines on Prevention and Response (1995), which was the UNHCR’s first attempt to establish standards for GBV prevention and response in refugee settings. Also in 1995, the Reproductive Health for Refugees Consortium was formed, and within a few years, it began to collaborate with the UNHCR. The lessons learned through early programming efforts were reviewed at an international conference sponsored in 2001 by UNHCR and attended by international and field-based UNHCR personnel, as well field staff working in anti-violence programs. Conference activities culminated in the publication of Prevention and Response to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Refugee Situation:, Inter-Agency Lessons Learned Conference Proceedings.
Initially, GBV interventions were more responsive than preventive and were carried out mainly on an ad-hoc basis from one sector. In some camps, for example, GBV was considered a social services problem; organizations that did not provide psycho-social programs paid little attention to GBV(Vann 2002). In this case, community services workers handled GBV incidents on an ad hoc basis, and there was no interagency planning or action to comprehensively prevent and respond to GBV. In other cases, the issue was addressed merely from the reproductive health side, and women had little access to psychosocial or legal services. Interagency and multi-sectoral coordination and decision making at headquarters (national) levels in UNHCR, NGOs, and key government agencies was notably lacking from GBV efforts. However, as Beth Vann cogently argues, GBV is a problem, not a sector (2002). Deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and practices, this complex problem requires complex action by many different sectors. In recent years, this recognition has gained momentum as more organizations have begun to include multi-sectoral coordination components in their interventions.
The need to increase participation of and ultimately empower displaced women themselves to prevent and respond to GBV also began to garner international support in the last few years and culminated in the publication of the IASC Guidelines for GBV Interventions in Humanitarian Settings: Focusing on Prevention of and Response to Sexual Violence in Emergencies . This work has quickly become the primary reference for GBV in conflict programs. A tool for field actors, it contains concise action sheets which demonstrate how to establish a “multi-sectoral coordinated approach to gender-based violence programming in conflict-affected settings.” It also highlights the importance of participatory approaches by community women, calling for increased community participation at all levels of planning and across every sector. The protection of women and girls places a high focus on prevention and response to sexual violence through promotion of gender equality and recognizing women’s capacities, their right to participate in decision making, and their contributions to management and transformation of conflict. Indeed, ultimately the decision about the best protection option must rest with the threatened person/group: the displaced women themselves.
However, men generally make up the majority of people who plan, implement, and manage humanitarian assistance with varying degrees of participation from women (Vann 2002), therein disempowering refugee women, who place their security and well-being exclusively into the hands of male outsiders. While the UNHCR and other organizations are increasingly promoting the equal participation of women in decision making and refugee-governing bodies are gradually including more women, this rarely translates into a greater stake in designing, building, and maintaining the environments in which they live and find themselves at-risk. This lack of women’s empowerment and participation in their own protection constitutes one of the most major gaps in the field. In particular, little attention has been paid to increasing displaced women’s decision-making power in the actual design, construction, and maintenance of refugee camps. This process in itself constitutes prevention intervention and is the focus of this paper.
In its Guidelines, UNHCR states that at least 50 % of representatives in all management committees and other bodies representing refugees in camp settings should be women (2003). However, in most cases, women’s participation, influence, and power are very limited. Increasing women’s involvement in their own protection via increased community participation has had relative success in development (non-conflict, stable) settings, and lessons learned could be translated into GBV prevention interventions in conflict settings. The AMKENI Project, a partnership of EngenderHealth and PATH, from October 2002 to March 2004, used a community empowerment, participatory approach to implement activities to address GBV in Western Kenya. The project worked in 50 villages around 8 health facilities to increase awareness of GBV and test community-generated GBV interventions. AMKENI brought women, men, youth, elders, and health care providers together to define GBV in their own context and develop appropriate solutions.
After the initial phase described above, AMKENI mobilized 368 villages to form village health committees (VHCs), which are the leaders in overseeing the welfare of the community’s health and have a sense of ownership of and responsibility for their local health facilities and outreach services. Village women are equitably represented and have their opinions heard and represented in the VHCs and health centers. Traditionally, women have lacked the power and authority to make these decisions, but by facilitating their participation, this project has empowered women in Kenya to make decisions regarding their individual and collective health and security.
A similar intervention could be applied in a refugee or IDP camp, where camp management committees often exist and include women, and yet decisions regarding camp lay-out, construction, and maintenance continue to remain in the hands of the international NGOs and male refugee leaders.
The participatory / women’s empowerment approach has also been successfully used in a limited number of prevention and response interventions in conflict settings. From October 1999 to September 2000, the International Rescue Committee (the IRC) implemented a Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) program in Guinea. The primary goal of the SGBV program was to address the physical and mental health impact experienced by survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, and to change communities’ perception of SGV through the implementation of a community-based health referral system and SGV education program. The participatory component is especially evident in the role of community workers and trainers in the intervention. Community workers were paraprofessional social workers who lived in the refugee camp in which they worked. Each community worker provided camp-specific services for individual women, women’s groups, and the community. They also served as a focal point for their communities’ sensitization to gender-related issues and organization of gender-related activities. Community trainers were educators and facilitators, moving within a designated region to provide sensitization and education to those communities which did not have community workers. Community trainers also mobilized communities through a participatory problem-solving process to establish their own systems for prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence (UNHCR 2001).
The International Rescue Committee has also launched a project on sexual abuse and gender-based violence using participatory research and peer outreach to improve refugee camp security among Burundian refugee women in camps in the Kibondo district of Tanzania. From the start, IRC program managers collaborated with elected women’s representatives at the camp, who were able to overcome victims’ fear of being ostracized and punished if they spoke about their experiences. These women refugee leaders designed and conducted interviews and a survey that revealed that 27% of women aged 12 -49 had experienced sexual violence since becoming a refugee.
After bringing the results of the survey to the community during women-only meetings, the women’s representatives, empowered to design their own interventions, decided that a 24-hour support service for the survivors of violence was needed. The program created a drop-in center in the maternity wing of the medical center at each of the four refugee camps. The centers, which are staffed by trained refugee counselors, give women a safe, confidential setting in which to seek help. The counselors refer the women for medical care, social services, and legal guidance. Upon realizing that they needed the support of men, beginning with the elected male refugee leaders and volunteer security leaders at the camps, the women leaders asked these men to reflect on how their own experiences of ethnic persecution as refugees paralleled the violence women suffered because of their sex. These leaders, in turn, raised awareness of the problem among men in the community. Men and women then joined together to reach a consensus on how assailants should be punished.
Over a two-year period, program staff have helped women in 394 cases of rape, 438 cases of domestic violence, 84 cases of abduction and early marriage (under the age of 18), and 66 cases of sexual harassment. Most refugees now know that violence against women is a criminal offense, and women are more likely to report incidents and press
III. Theories Used: Women’s Empowerment and Participation:
The interventions described above incorporate the theory of women’s empowerment: empowering individual women and communities of women through social action to take control over their lives and their environment. According to Glanz et. al, women gain mastery over their lives by changing their social and political environment to improve equity and quality of life (2002). The UNFPA offers a more detailed description of the theory of women's empowerment, describing its five components: women's sense of self-worth; their right to have and to determine choices; their right to have access to opportunities and resources; their right to have the power to control their own lives, both within and outside the home; and their ability to influence the direction of social change to create a more just social and economic order, nationally and internationally. For refugee women, engaging in decisions which translate into making their environment (their camps) secure and their lives therefore free from violence embodies all five components of this definition.
Indeed, the 2003 UN-supported Commission on Human Security is founded on the premise that achieving human security requires not only protection but also a strategy to empower people (here, women) to fend for themselves. Theorists argue that if a gender dimension is not included in practice, the consequence will be to increase gender inequalities. With respect to women and armed conflict, it has been accepted by international practitioners, most notably the United Nations in its adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security in 2000, that women’s empowerment is central to peace-building and reconstruction (WARD 2004).
Empowerment is often attained through participation, another key concept, which reflects a fundamental principle: “starting where the people are” (Glanz, et. al 2002). Participation is a planned process whereby women in the displaced community identify and express their own needs and where collective action is taken to meet those needs. A fundamental component of developing or re-building a well-functioning community, participation allows displaced persons to regain influence and control over their lives, which, in turn, will have a positive impact on their personal well-being (Norwegian Refugee Council). Founded on the realization that the displaced women best know their own needs and interests, this theory, when applied to GBV interventions in conflict-affected areas, underscores that women know best when and where they are at risk of violence. Assistance strategies can therefore only be successful when the vulnerable group—the women themselves—have a voice in how to address their particular security needs. This recognition was voiced as early as 1993 by the UNHCR, in the aforementioned Guidelines, which highlight the intrinsic relationship between protection of women refugees and humanitarian assistance, and the notion that the participation of refugees in the decision-making process promotes protection (UNHCR 2003).
The concept of community organization also suggests that the needs or problems around which community groups are organized must be identified by the community itself and not by an outside organization or change agent (Glanz et. al 2002). Therefore, outside organizations--international NGOS and UN agencies--must allow women’s security needs to guide policy and practice, rather than having pre-existing frameworks imposed on refugee women and on camp design, construction, and maintenance. Beginning with women’s perceived needs, rather than an agency-dictated agenda, is far more likely to effect change and to foster real ownership.
When applied to the contexts of refugee or IDP camps, community participation in the form of consulting with women on matters such as house construction and camp layout or water and sanitation, can promote empowerment and make a critical difference in the restoration of a sense of normality. Ultimately, as women transform their conditions, they become further empowered to tackle the root causes of gender-based violence, predominantly the subordinate status of women.
IV. Theories Applied:
The participatory approaches inherent in the projects discussed above can easily be extrapolated and applied to the inclusion of women in preventive measures built into the design, construction, and maintenance of refugee camps. One group needing urgent protection against gender-based violence is Sudanese women who are victims of the conflict in Darfur. Violence against women and children by warring groups in Darfur is reaching alarming levels. Extreme violence has been a feature of the civil conflict since it erupted in 2003. However, in the past months, attacks on women and girls, both within and outside camps for the displaced, have soared. For many women who been subjected to sexual violence as part of violent conflict, as in the case of those fleeing the systematic sexual violence of the Janjaweed in Darfur, arriving in a displacement or refugee camp does not end that experience (UNFPA, Nov. 2006).
In October 2004, UNFPA was mandated by the United Nations to coordinate prevention and care for gender-based violence in Darfur. However, UNFPA’s activities center around response and minimize the role of prevention activities. While UNFPA has taken some strides to increasing participation in IDP and refugee camp design, construction, and maintenance, its current framework seems imposes pre-existing frameworks on the current situation. By increasing women’s participation in three sectors in particular—Water / Sanitation, Shelter and Site Planning, and Fuel—UNFPA could achieve greater protection of displaced women at minimal cost. Without empowering the displaced women of Darfur, gender inequalities, including perceptions of women which precipitate GBV, will only worsen.
I. Water and Sanitation: Safe drinking water and proper sanitation and hygiene practices are critical for survival in all stages of an emergency. However, when using communal water and sanitation facilities, women and girls are vulnerable to sexual violence. Despite this, it is generally men who design and build in the water / sanitation sector. Women are not empowered to make these decisions. Latrines, for example, are most often designed by men and do not consistently lock from the inside; they are notorious for being high-risk areas for rape (IASC). To minimize such risks, it is important to actively seek women’s participation in water supply and sanitation programs, especially when selecting sites, and constructing and maintaining the facilities. Design of water and sanitation systems, including information dissemination, must be based upon thorough understanding of the community, including sex-disaggregated data, gender analysis, and security considerations (Vann). Moreover, protection and security measures such as lighting and security patrols must always be in place to complement water and sanitation programs.
In Sudan, the only measures taken in this sector appear to be providing security at many water collection points. I have found no record of a participatory appraisal ever having been performed in IDP camps in Sudan. The first step for UNFPA is to create a forum for allowing displaced women to identify safety and security risks that are relevant to water and sanitation systems so that location, design, and maintenance programs maximize safety and security of women and girls. Women should be highly involved in this process, and special attention should be paid to the risks and needs of vulnerable groups of women and girls, such as single female-headed households, adolescents, and unaccompanied girl children. After security risks have been identified, women should be mobilized to participate in the location, design, and maintenance of water and sanitation facilities; latrines, bathing, and washing facilities, in particular, should be designed in consultation with women and girls to maximize safety, privacy, and dignity. Moreover, water and/or sanitation committees should be comprised of at least 50% women (IASC). The numbers, location, design, safety, appropriateness, and convenience of facilities in should be decided in full consultation with the users. After systems have been designed and implemented, timings of information sessions in consultation with the intended users, particularly women, should be decided so as not to conflict with their other responsibilities. Water points should be located in areas that are accessible and safe for all, with special attention to the needs of women and children. Also, times for usage should be set which are convenient and safe for women and others who have responsibility for collecting water.
II. Shelter: Shelter is another sector which, without proper planning and inclusion of women into the planning process, can leave women and girls extremely vulnerable to gender-based violence. Many cases of sexual violence in Darfur can be prevented and overall protection of women and girls improved if there is adequate planning of sites where displaced populations live, and if shelters are safe and meet internationally agreed-upon standards. An extremely vital principle in this sector is to not make women and girls dependent on men for shelter construction or shelter allocation because this often results in sexual exploitation, with women forced to trade sex for shelter. Currently, however, UNFPA has no such preventive measures in place in Darfur, and the displaced women themselves have yet to be consulted regarding shelter.
Firstly, during registration, women in need of shelter assistance should be identified (IASC). In particular, female-headed house-holds, single women, elderly women, and all-female families should be identified. Secondly, the following need to be given special consideration during site selection: proximity to borders (to reduce risk of cross-border attacks) or other specific high-risk areas, including the local environment; proximity to fuel collection and other activities that involve movement outside the designated site (this will be discussed further in section three). Most importantly, shelter committees at each displacement camp in Darfur with equal female and male participation should be established, and it should be ensured that women participate in the decisions and that their needs are met. Again, meeting times should be established which do not conflict with the women’s other responsibilities. Indeed, the participation of women should be encouraged and facilitated by reviewing their other roles (child-care, cooking, fuel-collection) and implementing community mechanisms to address concerns or impediments to women’s equal participation.
The physical layout of the site should be planned in collaboration with the community shelter committee, incorporating prevention of sexual violence; also, the location of shelter areas should be planned to promote a sense of community and reinforce community-based protection. The planners should consider designating space for community centers and safe spaces for women/girls, child-friendly spaces, as well as confidential access to sexual violence care at health centers as well as other services and facilities related to prevention and response to sexual violence that allow for physical access, privacy, and confidentiality/anonymity. After the initial site-planning stages, full participation of women in the management of sites should be ensured. Women and girls need to have sustained participation in managing the spaces and activities which they have helped to design. Regular consultations with women, girls, and groups with special needs on shelter issues should be conducted to ensure protection concerns are highlighted and solved early, and any high risk areas could thus be identified early on for preventative measures.
III. Fuel: In emergency settings such as Sudan where communities are displaced and/or the surrounding environment is insecure, women and girls are at increased risk of sexual violence when they leave the relative safety of a camp or village. In most communities, women and children are responsible for collecting fuel for cooking and heating, and often, this involves walking long distances in isolated areas where guards, militia, military, and general predators may be opportunistically lurking. Indeed, fuel collection can be an opportunity for sexual exploitation and abuse. Vulnerable single female-headed households, pregnant women, elderly, and disabled women are particularly at-risk because they are unable to walk long distances or carry heavy loads, have no money to purchase fuel, and must find other ways to maintain their fuel supply.
UNFPA seems to have made the most progress in this sector in Darfur. UNFPA and partners are working with African Union Civil Police to set up escorts to ensure security for women and girls during firewood collection. Moreover, UNFPA and NGOs have established distribution and training programs on the use of fuel-efficient stoves (to reduce the demand for firewood) and are providing security at many water points.
However, as with water and sanitation and shelter, women have not been adequately consulted in the planning stages of fuel allocation and collection. They should have full participation in giving and analyzing information about the location(s), routes, means, and personal safety for collecting cooking and heating fuel. Moreover, if fuel-efficient stoves, which reduce the amount of fuel required, are supplied by aid agencies, women should be consulted with to determine which type is most viable. Such consultation has yet to happen in Darfur. Female community leaders could also play a great role in promoting the use of energy-saving stoves and training women in their use, but such a peer education program is not in place in Darfur.
Women leaders could help reduce fuel consumption by teaching the women in the community how to implement general saving measures such as reducing cooking times for food rations. Other options to increase protection if fuel collection is necessary include mobilizing the community into mixed groups of men and women to collect fuel and to stay together throughout the fuel collection journey and establishing regular patrols with reliable security personnel, including UN peacekeepers, to designated areas where organized firewood collection can be done at specified times (IASC).
Despite calls for greater participation of women in the planning, design, and decision-making processes involved in the above three sectors, and in humanitarian aid in general, the reality is that most women in conflict settings remain uninvolved in creating secure spaces from which to conduct their daily activities. The majority of women have no participation in the processes which can either predispose them to or protect them from gender-based violence. As long as males continue to dominate the above sectors and the women for whose protection they are responsible remain uninvolved, these settings, instead of protecting vulnerable populations, will merely serve as additional threats to their safety and dignity.
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