CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Gender-based violence: stop looking for 'proof' and put survivors first

Tuesday, February 18, 2014
The Guardian
Central Africa
Central African Republic
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Time is a luxury and those without money, safety and security don't have it. What the current situation in Central African Republic, the crisis in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012 and the response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010 have in common is that lives were lost, and bodies and minds irreparably damaged, by the wasting of precious time looking for 'proof' of violence against women and girls.

International research conducted in countries hit by crises has provided ample proof that gender-based violence (GBV) occurs in each and every emergency. As conflicts and natural disasters rupture the social fabric of community support systems, civilians, especially women and girls, are at risk of exploitation and abuse.

This research has resulted in internationally accepted standards that recognise we have enough information to safely assume that GBV is occurring in every emergency, every time, and therefore we must act swiftly to provide lifesaving assistance to survivors of violence.

Yet, the focus is still on searching for 'proof' of GBV and the prevalence of 'how bad the situation really is' before supporting services in the first stage of an emergency. The United Nations asks for data, international donors ask for data, non-governmental organisations are pressured to deliver data. When it comes to GBV, some predicate humanitarian aid on data.

This translates to GBV services being relegated to later stages of an emergency, causing delays of months, and often not funded to the scale needed. With five days to prevent unwanted pregnancies, three days to prevent HIV, and sometimes only a matter of hours to treat critical injuries – delaying lifesaving care can be too little, too late.

We at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have found that women and girls do not come forward to disclose the violence they have experienced until specialised services are in place, and only then if they are trusted to be safe and confidential. Time and again, when services are established, women and girls seek help, sometimes the very same day those services are put into place. This is our evidence.

The response of the international humanitarian community to the crisis in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo at the end of 2012, reveals that a swift response and adequate funding for services is not assured even in places where there have been extensive prevalence studies indicating epidemic-levels of violence against women and girls.

Governments, UN agencies and aid organisations must prepare ahead of emergencies to ensure services are available immediately for survivors of violence. When the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo reignited at the end of 2012, the IRC was able to respond immediately because we had invested in healthcare training, made sure post-rape kits were available and trained local organisations. At the onset of this crisis, community-based counsellors used shovels and plastic bags to bury sensitive case files to protect identities.

Once you establish services, survivors of violence will access them, and in the process of providing tthe specialised care they need, critical information can be gathered on the type of violence faced by women and girls, as well as details on perpetrators, locations and motives. Service-based data gives a picture; an important and informed picture that may not be there otherwise. Collected safely and ethically, service-based data can inform us what services and programmes we need to respond to, mitigate, and prevent such violence from occurring.

It can also never be stressed enough that this is not just about data collection – these are not just percentages, statistics, and figures – there is a survivor behind every number. How we use that information? It can save lives, help women and girls heal and recover from this violence and trauma, and restore dignity.

What would the women and girls we help think about the time and resources wasted on verifying incidents of violence? Services save lives and limited resources need to fund what works. Our mantra must become "survivors first, services first."