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We Need to Focus on Sexual Violence During Humanitarian Crises

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SAFIN HAMED via Getty Images
SAFIN HAMED via Getty Images

Girls raped at the tender age of seven, some made pregnant at nine. Young women sold as property. A 20-year-old burned alive because she refused to comply with sexual demands and three girls attempting suicide by eating rat poison instead of submitting to their captors.

These atrocities, perpetrated by the Islamic State, recently came to light as a result of a fact-finding visit to Syria and Iraq by Zainab Bangura, the UN's Special Envoy on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Bangura, who witnessed similar horrors in Bosnia, Congo, South Sudan, Somalia and the Central African Republic, said in an interview, "I never saw anything like this...I cannot understand such inhumanity," and has gone so far as to urge Canada and other Western nations to take in these girls and women to recover from this brutality.


Photo: Plan International / Dennis Sabangan

Sadly, while incidents of gender-based violence are now being widely reported, women and girls throughout history have always been easy and targeted prey. Sexual violence as a weapon of war dates back at least as far as biblical times. Particularly in societies, then and now, where men are expected to be women's protectors, this violation becomes an instrument of purposeful humiliation. Girls and women are often already at a disadvantage due to existing gender barriers and discriminatory practices and systems, so they become at increased risk during conflict situations or humanitarian disasters.

Yet, there is hope that the publicity surrounding these extreme outrages may finally spur much needed changes in how the world responds to the millions now displaced from their homes as a result of insurgencies, civil wars and other combat. At least half are women, and almost all are vulnerable.

In conflict-affected areas, and after natural disasters, donors and humanitarian agencies respond to basic needs: food, water, shelter, and medical care. But protecting women and girls should also be top priority. Dealing with their psychosocial trauma is rarely on the radar screen.

Victims of gender-based violence, especially if they have been raped, face cruel realities. Too often, they are shunned by their families and communities. They are considered damaged goods and struggle to re-integrate into society. Schools won't take them; employers won't hire them. And they experience a tremendous loss of self-worth, a phenomenon that applies to all sexual assault victims whether they live in combat zones or in otherwise peaceful societies.

I am a physician by profession but even with that training and experience, I felt unprepared to deal with the sexual assault victims I tended to in Bangladesh refugee camps years ago. It was more than very frustrating. I lacked the specific training to address this kind of trauma. Most aid workers still face that struggle today.

At Plan, we are constantly pushing ourselves to learn how to better respond to the post-conflict needs of women and girls who have been sexually violated.

In the aftermath of the Sierra Leone civil war about a decade ago, we trained staff in psychosocial counseling. We worked with communities to raise awareness about what kind of support and acceptance women and girls needed to overcome what they experienced. We worked with the schools to smooth their re-entry into the education system. We provided skills and job training for women and girls and worked with local employers to hire them. This is a humanitarian response we need more of today.


Girls sit on step of a house ruined by Typhoon Haiyan in the coastal village of Asgad, Eastern Samar in November 2013.
Photo: Plan International / Stuart Coles

Most NGOs working in post-conflict areas desperately need more trained and experienced staff who can develop and implement quality programs to not only prevent gender-based violence, but to address its far-reaching after-effects on girls and women. Partly, our hands are tied. When war or disaster strikes, our donors, whether they are international agencies, governments or individuals, prioritize provision of life's essentials -- food, water, shelter.

Obviously life essentials are critical. However, those of us involved in delivering assistance must persuade all development agencies, governments and other donors that preventing gender-based violence is also an integral part of any relief program, as is treating post-conflict trauma. We must elevate this effort to the same status as providing food, water and shelter. In the ongoing initiative to develop new targets to replace the expiring UN Millennium Development Goals later this year, we also urge governments to make ending gender-based violence a global priority.

The public attention brought by the UN on this issue is welcomed, but having countries take in more girls and women who are surviving sexual violence cannot be the only solution. Our experience teaches us that people are best treated and supported in their communities, not in a foreign, faraway place.

We should be looking at ways to step up humanitarian services to help girls and women survive, recover, and succeed in the very communities that belong to them.

Dr. Tanjina Mirza is the Vice President of International Programs at Plan International Canada.


Yazidis flee violence
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