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Addressing Gender-Based Violence in Conflict Requires Focus on Prevention

Addressing Gender-Based Violence in Conflict Requires Focus on Prevention

July 31, 2014 — Summary of "Preventing Violence Against Women and Girls in Conflict," Hossain et al., The Lancet, June 14, 2014.

"[T]he international community faces a propitious moment to address the horrors of sexual violence in conflict and other forms of gender-based violence," according to a commentary by Mazeda Hossain, Cathy Zimmerman and Charlotte Watts of the Gender Violence and Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They note that stakeholders gathered to discuss the issue at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London in June.

New Perspectives on Violence in Conflict Settings

Historically, "most data on sexual violence in conflict have measured rape of women committed by combatants, using information from governmental, humanitarian, or human rights organisations or facility-based reports," Hossain and colleagues explain.

However, more recently, "population-based research is being used to document the wider scope of civilian women's and men's exposures to sexual and other forms of violence in different conflict settings," they write.

One finding that is "quietly emerging" is "that alongside conflict-related rape, violence by intimate partners is also highly prevalent and is likely to continue long after peace agreements have been signed," according to the authors. They cite their own research in 12 rural districts of Côte d'Ivoire that found that about one-third of women had experienced sexual violence since age 15, with 29% identifying a husband or intimate partner as the perpetrator. By contrast, only 0.3% said an armed combatant was the perpetrator.

A larger review that looked at experiences of "female refugees and internally displaced people in complex humanitarian emergencies across 14 countries" found that "21% of women had experienced sexual violence (intimate partner and non-partner rape)," Hossain and colleagues add.

"These patterns of violence against women underline the need for initiatives to respond explicitly to the breadth of sexual and physical violence in conflict settings," they write.

Focus on Prevention

The authors argue that the "scale of violence in conflict-affected settings highlights that alongside strengthened judicial, health, and social responses and accountability measures, we need to invest in prevention." They note, "Rigorous evaluation research from non-conflict settings suggests that violence against women is preventable."

Although "[g]ender-based violence prevention programming is in its relative infancy, ... innovative interventions are taking place," they continue. For example, interventions in Syria and other emergency settings focus on "improving the economic situation of refugees" as a means of "prevent[ing] sexual exploitation and forced marriage of young women."

The authors stress that "prevention measures need to challenge legal, economic, and social structures that uphold and foster gender inequality."


The authors note that "there are currently no robust evidence or consensus on what prevention approaches should be prioritised in conflict settings." Therefore, "[f]urther research is needed to determine what works and where investment is warranted," they add.

International efforts to address gender-based violence should include measures "not only to eliminate impunity for perpetrators, but also to respond to the health and safety needs of all victims," as well as investments in prevention "at all stages of a conflict," Hossain and colleagues argue.

"[R]hetoric must turn into action that not only addresses the immediate consequences of sexual violence in conflict, but also promotes gender equality and protects women from all forms of abuse," they conclude.