In-depth: Our Bodies - Their Battle Ground: Gender-based Violence in Conflict Zones

AFRICA-ASIA: What the humanitarians are doing

Coordinator of the NGO Synergy; Justine Masika Bihamba
NAIROBI, 1 September 2004 (IRIN) - Helping traumatised women raped in war is no easy task. It is something that involves a wide range of individuals and bodies, including humanitarians, non-governmental organizations and gender-based violence (GBV) experts.

"Because rape is so stigmatised and there is so much shame and blame, the basic principle of any rape service must be to guarantee confidentiality to women or they won't come forward," Sophie Read-Hamilton, GBV coordinator for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Liberia, told IRIN, highlighting just one of the many difficulties.

How GBV comes about is one of the basic questions experts in the field have explored extensively in recent years. Jeanne Ward noted in a report titled If Not Now, When? - first published in 2002 - that the stimulus for GBV, particularly for sexual crimes committed in armed conflict, varied.

"Sexual violence can be capricious or random, resulting from a breakdown in social and moral systems," Ward said in the report, written for the Reproductive Health for Refugees in Conflict Consortium (RHRC). "In addition, it may be systematic, in order to destabilise populations and destroy bonds within communities, advance ethnic cleansing, express hatred for the enemy, or supply combatants with sexual services," she said.

Ward highlighted the examples of Bosnia/Herzegovina and Rwanda in the 1990s. In Bosnia, she said, "public rape of women and girls preceded the flight or expulsion of entire Muslim populations from their villages," while in Rwanda, Hutu extremists encouraged mass rape of Tutsi women "as an expression of contempt, which sometimes included intentional HIV transmissions".

Ward said that up until a decade ago, most GBV committed during periods of armed conflict had been condoned or ignored - a function of deeply embedded cultural assumptions that "acquiesce to the inevitability of violence and the exploitation of women and girls". However, "recent international interrelated events have brought gender-based violence in armed conflict, as well as in refugee, internally displaced and post-conflict settings, into starker relief".

The humanitarians currently working at the grass roots level to directly address GBV are a relatively small group. They work for organizations such as the American Refugee Committee, CARE, Christian Children's Fund, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Medical Corps, IRC and Medicins sans Frontieres, and local organizations, to name but a few. These organizations often provide direct services to victims in the field. UN bodies often support them by providing financial, policy and other important services. They operate in countries at war or just recovering from war such as Afghanistan, countries in the Balkans, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Guinea, Iraq, Liberia, Myanmar and Sierra Leone. Their work provides the basis for understanding the challenges and limitations to confronting and reducing violence.

Collecting data

GBV specialists say one of the first questions concerned people often ask is what is the nature and extent of GBV and what is its impact on individuals and communities. Questions that involve data, such as 'How many women and girls are affected?' are, the specialists say, often the hardest to answer.

Read-Hamilton of the IRC said data collection was more about "getting an accurate picture of what women are facing," which is not easy. She says she always tries to find out what data is needed, why, and how its integrity will be guaranteed. There is also an ethical issue: "It's not OK to ask about experiences of rape if you're not prepared to help them," she told IRIN.

For Ward, an important issue revolves around who is gathering the data and how reliable it is. " There are few very good GBV specific programmes that collect data in a systematic manner and then monitor that data to try to inform programming," she told IRIN.

"What happens is that most programming is based on anecdotes and one of the challenges for programmes is that they have to define what they want to collect data on," she said, "and the employees need fairly sophisticated training on documentation, that includes, at minimum, what the definitions of gender-based violence are, what the critical components of the data collection are, and how to put that data together and monitor it. After the monitoring, how do you use the information to consider how to adjust programming?"

Ward said most information was collected by service groups who were not trained to collect prevalence data that would give a more accurate picture of what the entire population is seeing. "You have a service-specific sample …whilst service statistics are critically important, it's my feeling that population-based data leads more directly to policy changes so it needs to be done," she said.

Thus asking the simple question of what has happened to survivors often gives a complicated answer. Obtaining a simple answer to the question 'How many women have been victimised during the DRC conflict?' for example, is impossible.

According to Ward, it is possible to obtain data in a technically sophisticated way, and she herself has been involved in designing methodologies in a number of countries, from Rwanda to Colombia. Although it is expensive, she says that "good methodology builds local capacity and good data packs a huge wallop with policy makers and the public…".

The issue of confidentiality

Women's reluctance to report a sexual attack because of the stigma attached makes it difficult for the nature and scope of the problem to be understood, Read-Hamilton says.

Photo: Sylvia Spring/IRIN
Women at the DOCS centre for victims of sexual violence, in Goma, preparing food for patients
The experience of one 21-year-old rape victim from the town of Goma, in eastern DRC, illustrates this only too well. The woman told IRIN she wished she had not told her husband of her ordeal because after the gang-rape by "bandits", he abandoned her, leaving her and her children destitute.

According to Ward, "We're talking about coding information so you're not revealing things about the survivor. You have to be sure to impress upon people the need for confidentiality, not only for the survivor but for the service provider.

Ward would like programmes to standardise the use of 'release of information authorisation forms', which she says should be standard but are not. "In conflict settings it can be even more critical, in terms of survivor safety, to ensure confidentiality." This is because of the on-going risk to survivors by armed men and other perpetrators who may be acting with impunity.

Who is doing what?

According to Ward, most international NGOs, which may have access to the kinds of funds necessary to support or build local programmes, have only one or two GBV programmes on the ground. "Of all the NGOs, I would say that the IRC has the most programmes on the ground around the world. And they have only 10 or 11 programmes in humanitarian settings," she says. "Most international NGOs specifically targeting gender-based violence are providing psychosocial and health response to survivors, with community education components," she adds.

Of the situation in eastern DRC, where countless thousands of women have been victim of sexual violence, Juliane Kippenberg of Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IRIN: "It has taken a while for funds, whether from the UN or from a government level, to trickle down. …. It's taken a long time for it to arrive on the ground [to address GBV].

Small, locally-based NGOs do the best they can with few or no resources, according to Kippenberg, the co-author of a 2002 report 'The War Within a War' on sexual violence against women and girls in eastern Congo: "Smaller local women's rights groups are the actors on the ground who know the situation and who have networks, but they do not always have funding. It's sometimes shocking," she told IRIN.

"One woman victim [in eastern Congo] set up an organization to house women - she had several houses where victims who were homeless could stay. She approached me for about US $800 to pay the rent," she said.

In eastern DRC, three very committed groups provide first-hand support to survivors. But they are not part of the larger picture that informs policy makers.

PAIF (Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Feminines) in Goma and region is an association promoting women's rights. Its focus is in the provinces of North and South Kivu, Maniema and Orientale. The small organization carries out a number of functions, from research and training to offering support to victims of violence. It is part of a larger organization that offers women training in management, micro-credit and skills acquisition. Its small office is a gathering place for women who have suffered during the war and need a place to talk, share and receive counselling. The workers have served as mediators between couples, often when the husband has rejected his "violated wife" as being defiled and therefore untouchable.

Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles (SFVF) is based in Goma and works in the North Kivu area. It primarily works on three components of the GBV problem: the psychosocial - it has 75 counsellors providing therapy, training and family mediation; medical support with the help of other facilities such as the DOCS (Doctors on Call for Service) hospital, handling 1,450 cases in the past year; and research on subjects such as women's rights, preventative actions and judicial actions when the victims want to charge their violators in the criminal courts.

SOPROP (Solidarite pour la Promotion Sociale et la Paix) is also in Goma. Its activities include the provision of legal and psychosocial support to victims, education on women's rights, grassroot development programmes, including skills training, and ongoing monitoring of women's rights.

All of these groups receive small amounts of financial support from organizations such as Amnesty International, HRW and a variety of international donors. However, their work seems to be done on an ad hoc basis, with lots of local coordination, but little by way of international connections. According to GBV specialists, this is not sustainable in the long run.

"One of the challenges of the GBV community is to develop participatory and sustainable programmes that remain even after the humanitarian crisis is over and the international humanitarian agencies have left the area. The problem is that humanitarian funding is typically not linked to development funding, so when emergency funding ends, many GBV programmes run by international NGOs shut down. We saw this in Bosnia and East Timor," Ward said.

Kippenberg agreed: "I do forsee that if the situation [in eastern DRC] gets better, this might be a problem because the impact on women is so long-term, over several generations. It will be a huge challenge to assist the victims, their families and children," she told IRIN.

Working with judicial systems

A female magistrate in Goma described to IRIN the difficulties a woman faces in getting a complaint of rape through the court system. She said the accused could bribe a magistrate to drop the case - an offer that was all too often accepted. There could also be pressure put on women and girls to drop the charges. Justine Masika Bihamba, the director of Synergie, told IRIN how difficult it was for the organization to get a case through the court system. Nevertheless, she said, her workers persisted in trying.

Kippenberg , referring to the situation in eastern DRC, said one encouraging sign was the conviction last year by a military court of a soldier to 10 years in jail for raping a six-year-old girl. She said it was also very important that the International Criminal Court, established in 2002, had begun investigations into war crimes and crimes against humanity in the DRC, which would include crimes of sexual violence. One of the huge problems, she said, was that many attacks on women had been carried out by armed groups, and prosecuting these was impossible.

"Justice [for victims of sexual violence in eastern DRC] has a long way to go," Kippenberg said. "But it is worth investing in. Donors must think about how they can assist victims to go to court and take action. This is something the donor community can focus on."

Ward is blunt on the shortcomings of the legal sector in helping victims of sexual violence. "Theoretically the legal/justice sector has an obligation to respond to the cases reported and ensure safe prosecution. In many of these settings the statutory and civil laws are not necessarily supportive of women's rights so there may be no protections in the law or they are quite limited. And the system isn't often working in the midst of conflict…some countries have special courts like Sri Lanka and Rwanda that try war-related sexual violence. You have the international courts that try a very few cases, but survivor support is limited."

Ward says that in some countries, GBV projects have provided training and sensitisation for the judiciary, for lawyers and police, and have investigated how the laws are applied and how the judiciary functions. She points to an OSCE report on Kosovo that exposed the limitations of the judicial system in responding to the survivor: "There's lots of stigmatisation of victims, but after the kind of investigations like the one done by OSCE, there is the opportunity to make recommendations for change to the official bodies - like setting up advocates and protocols for protection. It's a place to start. What needs to happen is to have an emergency response protocol that involves reviewing legislation and its application in countries like Sudan, the DRC," she says.

If there is a functioning judiciary, Ward says, at the very least there have to be "free legal services or women can't even start the process…".

Related Links: Gender Based Violence (GBV) Resources, info@rhrc.ocg (If Not Now, When)

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