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Structural violence begets sexual violence
April 06, 2015

Structural violence begets sexual violence
A mural at the JRS Safe Haven center in Kakuma camp, Kenya, which provides services and protection for vulnerable women and their children. (Angela Wells — Jesuit Refugee Service)
Recognizing SGBV as a symptom of greater violence is an admission that humanitarian agencies and governments must be intentional about tackling root causes by developing an inclusive understanding of conflict.

(Nairobi) April 6, 2015 — Not only does it cause untold psychological and physical harm to individuals, sexual violence destroys the social fabric of societies. While protection from harm and support for survivors are essential, the elimination of sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) requires the adoption of a systematic approach. Communities given space to work together to change harmful norms and practices, and supported by governments implementing prevention strategies and enforcing judicial sanctions.

Conflict-affected societies are even more vulnerable than others. Families and communities are torn apart by violence. Support networks and structures are lost. Once-valuable skills become irrelevant, and livelihoods disappear. Families rely on international humanitarian aid to survive, or are forced to eke out an existence in informal labour markets. Ultimately, unequal power dynamics are extenuated.

Every day, Jesuit Refugee Service teams witness how whole communities live under constant threat of SGBV – early marriages, female genital mutilation (FGM), survival sex, sex trafficking and other sexual violations.

Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is probably one of the worst examples of how the absence of law and order affects displaced and marginalized communities. Nearly three million internally displaced persons (IDPs) live in constant fear of armed violence, forced recruitment and rape. This story of ongoing violence and depravation is also common in South Sudan, where the latest outbreak of conflict has paved the way for rampant sexual violence. Similarly, in the unstable Central African Republic, women are subjected to violence and exploitation.

Even in relatively peaceful regions, sexual violence remains a problem. In the more stable regions of South Sudan and in refugee camps in western Chad, forced marriage stops thousands of girls from attending school. Moreover, in cities, such as Nairobi, refugees –denied work permits – are frequently forced to rely on sex work for their survival.

Consequence of injustice. Conflict, oppression and violence in societies lead to a climate where sexual violence becomes another expression of unjust power dynamics. According to research on sexual- and gender-based violence published by the international NGO HIAS, in Chad, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda, those most at risk of sexual violence are those who already face high levels of discrimination – including single women, widows, and persons with disabilities. Displacement only increases that risk.

"The lack of autonomy granted to these individuals by parents, partners or societies at large limits their ability to make self-determined choices concerning their bodies and partner choices. Stigmatization discourages them from reporting when abuse occurs. SGBV becomes a consequence of displacement when individuals exploit the vulnerability of others and when communities can no longer protect those most at risk," said Beatrice Gikonyo, Jesuit Refugee Service Eastern Africa Advocacy Officer.

"Community and family networks IDP camps in Bangui [Central African Republic] have been destroyed by the conflict and subsequent encampment policies. Parents are no longer the power brokers. They are no longer able to protect their families from sexual predators who take advantage of children's vulnerability," said Isidore Ngueuleu, JRS West Africa Advocacy and Communications Officer.

Holistic understanding. Sexual violence generally occurs alongside many human rights abuses. Viewing SGBV as an isolated phenomenon is dangerous; it detracts attention and resources away from the underlying causes of violence and displacement.

"You can't compare people's experiences like that. You can't say that child recruitment or forced labour is somehow more or less harmful than SGBV," said Dr Maria Eriksson Baaz, senior researcher and associate professor at the Africa Nordic Institution, with many years of experience in the DRC.

"Journalists, humanitarian workers, researchers all come to talk to rape victims. Survivors often only briefly describe their rapes, before presenting their most urgent concerns: the pillaging of their villages or hunger facing their children. Rape is frequently one of the many abuses of their human rights, but the international community tends only to see it as an isolated issue."

Recognizing SGBV as a symptom of greater violence is an admission that humanitarian agencies and governments must be intentional about tackling root causes by developing an inclusive understanding of conflict. Community-based approaches – which start locally and should include all members – address the social fragmentation that gives rise to increased incidences of SGBV in the first place.

Community-based approach. These approaches are most effective when led by community members themselves. Many refugees mobilize their communities to address discrimination, harmful cultural practices, and, ultimately, sexual violence.

Amina*, a 24-year-old Somali refugee woman living in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, began an initiative to discourage community members from practicing FGM and early marriage after witnessing the detriment these practices had on young girls.

"I'd guess 80 percent of girls in Kakuma have undergone FGM, and many families live such a harsh life they marry their girls off at a very young age to men twice their age just so they can take the dowry money and survive," said Amina.

To address these issues, she showed videos about the complications that come with childbirth after a girl undergoes FGM. She educated young women on how they can access a free minor surgery in the camp to reverse the physical damage caused by the practice. Equally important, she brought in a local Muslim Sheik who used religious teachings to discourage early marriage and FGM.

"When I started, I was alone. Then my mother's friend joined me. We got women together, and they discussed their own horrific experiences. I told them 'your daughters will become women and go through what you went through but you can change their future.' After one year, I got 30 women and a few men on my side. I had mothers who vowed not to do FGM to their girls; they influenced other women," said Amina.

The biggest difficulty Amina faced was her own personal insecurity.

"I'm also a refugee so I also lack protection from people who want to hurt me for speaking out. If there was an NGO that could support Somali men and women to speak out in safe spaces; follow up with families; and educate children, that would be the safest way. 

Somali men must also be included, because they can influence other men much more effectively than women can," Amina said.

Justice. In addition to changing social norms within communities, governments need to both enact and implement legislation that ensures adequate protection and justice.

In Chad, where domestic legislation in not in line with international standards, refugee women face large obstacles to finding protection. Both cultural norms and domestic law condone the marriage of girls as young as 13.

South Africa is one of the few countries that has introduced legislation to protect all people within its borders from sexual abuses. Yet, in reality, refugee women in South Africa often face discrimination when they try to access healthcare or file a police report after abuse has occurred.

Moreover, in Congo, the combination of a weak judicial system and a focus on the survivors of sexual violence has created a conundrum. Funds are channelled to survivors – albeit in insufficient quantities – while prevention measures are all but ignored. Moreover, very few culprits are brought to justice; those who are indicted rarely receive a fair trial.

While it is important to bring those responsible for heinous crimes to justice, the lack of a fair trial and possible conviction of innocent people undermines faith in the judicial system and increases the likelihood that the women will be viewed as the problem, rather than as victims. 

Ensuring the judicial systems meet minimum acceptable international norms and standards is part of the solution to a complex phenomenon. International donors need to ensure the authorities establish comprehensive programs of support for the survivors of sexual violence, training and awareness campaigns on its real effects, and livelihood opportunities for both men and women are all ways to rebuild communities destroyed by war.

Strong communities, in turn, will be better equipped to address the social fragmentation that causes SGBV. Success will be determined by an overall reduction of the rates of SGBV.

by Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer and
Caitlin Hannahan, JRS Great Lakes Advocacy and Communications Officer


JRS seeks to address SGBV by mainstreaming gender balance into all education projects, promoting self-sufficiency by offering livelihood programs, and providing physical spaces of protection for women and children who have formerly been abused.

*Name has been changed for reasons of security



Press Contact Information
Mr Christian Fuchs
christian.fuchs@jrs.net
202-629-5946