Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: Acknowledging the Issue Is not Enough

The issue of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict and crisis has been featured prominently among scholars, organizations and institutions alike within the past few weeks. During the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a new US initiative, Safe from the Start, to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies worldwide. Similarly, on October 18 both the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Security Council adopted recommendations and resolutions regarding measures that states should take to ensure women's rights before, during and after conflict. The World Bank held a panel on development and gender-based violence on October 11, and the Brookings Institution hosted a discussion last week about the role of the US government, the UN and other key actors in combating sexual violence in conflict.

In each instance, the need to acknowledge the problems and costs associated with gender-based violence was emphasized, as well as the need to respond, act against and prevent the violence against women from occurring. To get a sense of some of the negative impacts of gender-based violence, particularly during conflict, the following are pertinent points taken from a Rutgers University fact sheet:

•The World Health Organization estimates that at least one of every three women globally will be beaten, raped or otherwise abused during her lifetime.

•In countries where armed conflict is rife, there have been reports of rape being used as a 'tool of war'. Amnesty International reported that between 1999 and 2000 in every armed conflict that they investigated, the torture of women was reported. In some cases, women have been intentionally infected with HIV, with the aim of causing a 'slow death'.

•Reports on rape during conflict detail profound brutality towards women and girls, including serious beatings, mutilation or removal of the genitals, rape with sharp objects and gunshots to the genitals. Others have witnessed the death of friends and family members from similar forms of brutality.

When a woman is violently attacked, raped and infected with HIV or another type of disease, and subsequently becomes pregnant, that child suffers as well, and eventually so will their subsequent children. Similarly, when a woman's husband and children are forced to watch their wife and mother get brutally raped, they become indirect victims. Thus, gender-based and sexual violence is an epidemic that has terrible consequences not only for the women who are abused, but for their family members, their communities and the regions surrounding them as well. Especially during a conflict or crisis, gender-based violence hinders the establishment of peace and security. It also inhibits development and perpetuates poverty, as women exposed to sexual violence have shown higher work absenteeism, lower productivity and lower earnings. Furthermore, the costs of providing medical treatment, police and legal support and counseling add to the overall productivity loss that a country or region can incur.

Ultimately, gender-based violence is an epidemic that infects the women, men and children of today and of our future and the fact that it has been given a platform by organizations and institutions like the UN, the US government, the World Bank and the Brookings Institution is certainly a step in the right direction. However, although these institutions are talking about the issue, as well as offering possible solutions to eradicating the epidemic, what has been done with regards to research and innovation, particularly on a college campus, especially within the academic circles of scientists, engineers and architects?

During the Brookings Institution's event on preventing and responding to gender-based violence in conflict, the US Institute of Peace's, Kathleen Kuehnast, who is the Director of the Center of Innovation for Gender and Peacebuilding, briefly mentioned that she believed a blind spot in our efforts to understand this issue -- specifically the refugee camps that exist in these conflict-prone areas -- exists with regards to education and the study and application of technology. As Kuehnast stated during the discussion,

"[The US Institute of Peace] recently did a very brief overview of how many universities and colleges who sponsor architectural and engineering programs include anything about gendered views of refugee camps. Very few. I think we counted two. We have a gap in our research, in our education, if we're not educating architects and engineers to think broadly in terms of the concepts of protection and power."

Universities provide an ideal setting for young, bright, and creative minds to cultivate their ideas and harness them towards creating positive social change. As technological innovation and access to information increases at an exponential rate, scientists, engineers and architects are playing an even more pivotal role than ever before in designing and implementing solutions to the world's most pressing challenges. A quick Google search can provide a wealth of information about successful student-led science, engineering, and architectural programs that focus on issues like food security, sustainability, urban planning, health care and terrorism.

With this in mind, Kuehnast's statement that we must close the gap of research through the education of architects and engineers provides a new dimension to how preventing and responding to gender-based violence should be perceived. Acknowledgement of the issue -- although a positive step -- does not fully eliminate the threat of gender-based violence. It is important for us, for our politicians, leaders, scholars and student engineers, architects and scientists, to act, whether through research, education or technological innovation, so that we can move in the right direction towards creating a world without gender-based violence.