Women and children constitute the majority of all victims of armed conflicts. Women and children often account for the largest percentage of displaced populations, and their flight is often a bellwether to the severity of conflict in a given country. They flee because they are often the target of horrific acts of sexual and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV), including but not limited to rape, forced abortion, forced marriage, sexual slavery, forced recruitment, and intimate partner violence. Their flight to safety is often also marred by assault at the hands of traffickers, smugglers, and border authorities.
Most alarmingly, women and girls continue to suffer while seeking refuge – subjected to continuing abuses and often denied access to lifesaving care. For far too long, the international humanitarian community has not assessed the level of threat to women and girls and ensured that their humanitarian assistance included care for gender-based violence - or worse, has done nothing to mitigate such violations.
The United States is playing a critical role in supporting this vulnerable population. In late 2013, the U.S. launched an initiative to prevent and respond to gender-based violence at the onset of a humanitarian emergency. The "Safe from the Start” initiative ensures that GBV prevention and response is included as an essential, life-saving intervention, of equal importance to shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene, and food. The Safe from the Start initiative changes the landscape of humanitarian aid. With Safe from the Start funding, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been able to augment its GBV capacity with six senior-level roving protection officers that lend their GBV expertise in emergencies throughout the world. Further, the initiative supports the development of guidelines and training materials that will ensure responsible actors at all levels have the skills and competencies needed to uphold their responsibilities. In the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Uganda, where more than one million South Sudanese refugees have fled (82 percent of whom are women and children), women reported to RI that they are grateful for access to services and relief materials that have enhanced their safety and allowed them to recuperate from the sexual violence they have endured in South Sudan.
GBV prevention and response had never received the attention or funding required until months – or even years – into a relief operation, until now. In concert with other initiatives such as the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, Safe from the Start and other U.S. strategies are leading to more effective humanitarian action and, as a result, the safety and resilience of those most adversely impacted by conflict – women and girls. As the world faces new and daunting refugee influxes, from Mexico to Bangladesh, to Nigeria, to where refugee women flee from unspeakable acts of violence, these initiatives must be protected and expanded.
At the close of this year’s 16 Days of activism against GBV on December 10, 2017, let’s recall that women’s bodies are often a battleground in conflict zones, and humanitarian aid areas must be a place for healing their wounds.
Francisca Vigaud-Walsh is Senior Advocate for Women and Girls at Refugees International.