We need a holistic approach to tackle sexual and gender-based violence

This year Nadia Murad and Dr Denis Mukwege were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their efforts to end the use of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) as a weapon of war. Nadia Murad was recognised for her work as a human rights activist bringing attention to the struggle of Yazidi women and children victimised by genocide, mass atrocities, and human trafficking, and Denis Mukwege for his work as a gynaecologist specialising in the treatment of victims and survivors of conflict-related SGBV in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The recognition of their work is both significant and timely, when globally violent conflict is on the rise, resulting in millions being displaced, killed or injured. As conflicts become more complex and protracted, civilians all around the world are the ones paying the heaviest price, with violence being inflicted against women, girls, men and boys.

SGBV covers various forms of violence against individuals or groups based on their gender identity. It includes but is not limited to rape, other forms of sexual violence, abduction, killings, emotional and psychological abuse, and can occur in conflict and non-conflict contexts. Victims and survivors face additional burdens in trying to access livelihoods and sexual and reproductive health services whilst having to contend with discrimination and stigma from the wider community. Perpetrators can include civilians, armed groups, government security actors, and even UN peacekeepers and aid workers.

The focus on conflict-related SGBV by the Nobel Prize committee has drawn attention to the devastating impact of such violence committed during conflict. However, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it is also important to highlight that SGBV, sexual exploitation and abuse does not only occur in conflict, nor does it end when conflict ceases. In fact, a recent UN report found that over fifty percent of women who were intentionally killed in 2017 were killed by intimate partners or family members.

More often than not, SGBV during conflict is a symptom of wider societal and gender inequalities, which can lead to the normalisation of violence that makes it acceptable to denigrate women, girls and sexual and gender minorities.

International Alert’s research in Somalia highlighted some of the limitations of looking at SGBV as a result of conflict or rape as simply a weapon of war. Despite the country transitioning into a period of relative peace, extraordinarily high levels of SGBV still exist in some areas. This is attributed to the wider context of Somalia’s history and the continuum of violence experienced by the country over the past decades.

Additionally, SGBV in Somalia was found to be deeply rooted in unequal gender power relations and social exclusion resulting in a range of cultural and socio-economic factors such as illiteracy, poverty, family breakdown and unemployment. The continued culture of violence fuelled by gender and societal inequalities permeates various levels of Somalian society, making it socially acceptable to devalue women and girls.

Additionally, the culture of stigma surrounding sexual violence, such as in northeast Nigeria, has added additional burdens of reintegration to the women and children escaping Boko Haram. Here, International Alert’s transformative programming – which aims to promote gender equality – has focused on working together with the affected communities to reduce the stigma faced by women and girls who are victims of Boko Haram violence, as well as their children born out of rape. The programme also addresses the challenges faced by families during the reintegration of victims and survivors.

Addressing the root causes of SGBV in all its forms means designing gender transformative programming, like in Tajikistan, where we engaged with men and women in the household and the wider community to tackle domestic and intimate partner violence. By working to empower women economically and engaging with men to promote positive masculinities and attitude change, levels of domestic and intimate partner violence were reduced by almost fifty per cent.

Unless we adopt a holistic approach to policy and programming that deals with both the root causes of SGBV and its consequences, we risk simply being reactive, by which point it is already too late for the millions of victims and survivors.