The plight of displaced people--a global phenomenon fueled by conflict, natural disaster, and economic adversity--exacerbates certain types of violence against women and girls. Understanding that violence is essential to preventing it. My experience in the field suggests that too often humanitarian efforts are misplaced, despite good intentions.
The common discourse suggests that violence against women and girls is perpetrated by strangers, including military forces, rebel factions, or other similar groups. But my research and experience suggest that the greatest danger comes from relatives and family friends within their households, however temporary or transitional the settings may be.
Skewed data contributes to this incomplete narrative and can drive humanitarian efforts in the wrong direction. The information on which humanitarian organizations typically rely comes from formal records--patient records at healthcare facilities or police reports--and those records are more likely to capture incidents of violence perpetrated by strangers. Violence within households often goes unreported, because the consequences of reporting it are so grave.
I have worked in humanitarian emergencies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and I've long been struck by the extraordinary societal costs to women and girls who report violence perpetrated against them. I've seen this in settings ranging from refugee camps to communities that have been resettled after natural disasters or conflicts.
The stigma of being raped is life long; girls or women who acknowledge rape may be considered "damaged goods." Blaming the victim remains common, and girls and women who are known to have experienced a violent event may be dismissed, faulted or targeted for further violence by others. Even family members can turn on a survivor if she accuses the family's primary breadwinner and jeopardizes the entire family.
Part of the solution is to find a way to collect data that more accurately tells the story of what is happening to girls and women in humanitarian settings. Data systems that rely on population-based surveys rather than institutional reporting are better able to highlight the greatest risks to girls and women, both within and outside of their households.
Such systems can shed crucial light on the full scale of the problem, so that humanitarian assistance can effectively respond. Too often that assistance is focused solely outside the household - providing enhanced lighting, for instance, in certain areas, or offering alternatives so that girls and women do not have to go so far to collect water or firewood. Those initiatives certainly have value, but they do not address the problem where it is so often greatest.
Responding to gender-based violence in the most effective way will require more complex work. We will need to focus on changing the social norms that underpin such violence, working with men, women, boys, and girls to understand how gender dynamics exacerbate violence against women and girls. Strengthening households in multiple ways--economically and psychosocially--will also be a key feature of reducing violence against women and girls in humanitarian settings. Empowering women and girls, which is easier said than done, will need to be integrated into all efforts.
As global attention focuses increasingly on all-too-common displacement, let us also recognize that every one of us--man, woman, girl, or boy--has a role to play in ensuring gender equality. We have a long road to travel, and research and learning can guide our path.