Can gender-based violence services find a foothold in humanitarian settings?

A survivor of gender-based violence has found work as a safe motherhood promoter with the help of the Danish Refugee Council and funding from the EU. Photo by: Barbara Minishi / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

SEATTLE — Revealing research has ushered the scourge of violence against women and girls out of the shadows and onto the global stage.

“I could make a full-time job out of attending conferences and speaking at events where I'm invited to represent International Medical Corps and GBV programming,” said Micah Williams, global adviser for gender-based violence programs with IMC, one of the frontline agencies providing services to survivors.

“When you have the leadership at the field level talking about this and putting it on the agenda, it does make a difference.”

— Jennifer Miquel, head, UNFPA's Regional Syria Response Hub

But after decades of work to combat the global epidemic, Williams and other longtime GBV experts have yet to see this increase in rhetoric translate into consistent commitment on the ground.

GBV prevention and response — such as providing safe spaces for women and girls to access services, post-rape care, counseling, and case management — remain piecemeal and reliant on a humanitarian system that doesn’t guarantee GBV-specific funding.

Of the $41.5 billion spent on humanitarian assistance between 2016 and 2018, $49.8 million — less than 0.2% — was spent on GBV prevention for women and girls. And in 2019, gender-based violence was the most underfunded sector in humanitarian appeals and response plans, according to the International Rescue Committee’s recent “Safety First” report.

In November 2019, those working to combat GBV celebrated the adoption of interagency minimum standards that establish common programming expectations for gender-based violence in emergencies. The standards signify another step forward, but the guidelines could fall flat without a boost in funding, coordination, and accountability, experts tell Devex.


The safety of women and girls continues to be treated as a "second-tier" priority in emergencies, said Nicole Behnam, senior technical director for the violence prevention and response unit at IRC.

Behnam described the work of GBV prevention and response as “subservient to the other sectors, in a way.”

“You're sort of at the mercy of: Will health integrate clinical care for sexual assault survivors? Will education include referral for social workers? … Or will they just, you know, be constrained by the level of budget?” said Behnam, who has worked on these issues for 25 years.

Research shows that disasters and displacement aggravate existing gender inequality and exacerbate violence against women and girls. A 2017 study conducted in South Sudan, for example, found that up to 65% of women and girls had experienced violence in their lifetimes.

Stronger leadership and greater collaboration between humanitarian sectors could help ensure the mainstreaming of GBV prevention and risk mitigation efforts — something that is already happening in the U.N. Population Fund’s Syria response, according to Jennifer Miquel, a GBV specialist and head of UNFPA's Regional Syria Response Hub.

This is illustrated in part by comparing Syria’s Humanitarian Response Plans, which are prepared annually by humanitarian country teams and based on a needs overview. 2018’s plan showed only about two sectors making reference to the risk of GBV, Miquel said. But in the 2019 HRP, “every sector talks about GBV,” she said.

It’s a good start, she added, although the UNFPA team is now advocating that all sectors go beyond acknowledgment to ensure that actions for mitigating the risk of GBV are also costed.

In Syria — where women and girls have been subjected to an escalation of sexual and gender-based violence during nearly a decade of civil war — Miquel credits the elevation of GBV work to the leadership of the regional humanitarian coordinator. “When you have the leadership at the field level talking about this and putting it on the agenda, it does make a difference,” she said.

Still, experts want to reduce any reliance on the goodwill of those in senior humanitarian positions and instead promote lifesaving GBV services as essential — not optional — in every emergency, Behnam said.

‘Whoever holds the purse strings’

Because there are so few frontline agencies focused on GBV prevention and response, many advocates see a balance of GBV-specific expertise and service integration as the way forward, although this model currently hampers accountability.

Money received through pooled funds, which combine donor contributions that are not earmarked, accounts for about 50% of investments in protection, according to Williams. But this type of contribution is often loosely tracked, she said.

“So we don't even know really what's going to GBV or what type of GBV. So that needs to be fixed, and OCHA could do that tomorrow,” Williams said, referring to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“Violence is easy to ignore because it thrives in shadows. It doesn’t want to be seen.”

— Nicole Behnam, senior technical director, IRC’s violence prevention and response unit

Ideally, accountability would begin with “whoever holds the purse strings,” according to IRC’s Behnam.

“There has to be an earmarked amount for violence prevention and response, and that should be tracked whether it's integrated into other sectors, used for standalone projects, or some combination of both,” Behnam said.

Donor flexibility and predictable, long-term funding is also key. One example is IRC’s strategic partnership with Irish Aid, according to Helena Minchew, advocacy adviser for women's protection, empowerment, and gender equality at IRC.

When IRC puts forward a proposal to Irish Aid amid a new emergency, the international organization can expect funding approval and release within 48 hours.

“We know that GBV is going to be a problem, and because of this partnership, we can deploy right away. And that means that we have a group of GBV experts who are part of our emergency response team who can be deployed with the rest of the team,” Minchew said.

Local organizations and those that are led by women, which are often the first responders following an emergency, receive just a small percentage of humanitarian funding. GBV experts want to see this changed, in part through capacity building.

“What the donors end up telling us is that they don't get proposals or the quality of the proposals aren't good enough,” Miquel said. “So then this is also why we work with [other] sectors but also with local women's organizations to build up their capacity to be able to get funding from the donors.”

Although recognition of the value of GBV programming is improving — at $163 million, the amount of funding requested for GBV in 2019 was higher than in previous years, for example — those working to combat violence must continue to challenge humanitarian aid’s established silos and the funding channels that support them, Behnam said.

“Violence is easy to ignore because it thrives in shadows. It doesn’t want to be seen. Unless you call it out in every facet of the work that we’re trying to do, it will stay invisible,” she said.

About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.