The hidden side of humanitarian crisis: Gender-based violence

by Yeva Avakyan, World Vision on February 19, 2016
The hidden side of humanitarian crisis: Gender-based violence | World Vision Blog
Photo: Ralph Baydoun/World Vision

During humanitarian crises like armed conflict and natural disasters, violence—especially against women and girls—has been shown to increase. This culture of violence can be one of the greatest challenges for people like refugees who are affected by crisis.

In these situations, some parents marry their young daughters off early to protect them … but in reality, child marriage is just another form of this violence. Our gender expert explains:

Gender-based violence (GBV) crosses culture, economic status, and ethnicity. It occurs in every part of the world and happens in developed and developing countries, stable and fragile contexts, during war and in peacetime.

In its extreme form, GBV is manifested through crimes such as rape and honor killing, harmful cultural practices such as early marriage and prenatal sex selection. But many of its forms are often subtler and more pervasive, such as restriction of behaviors and control over resources. 

Studies show that violence increases during emergencies and can become one of the most challenging issues for populations affected by armed conflict and humanitarian crises. When existing social networks and protection mechanisms are disrupted, it is often women and girls who are most exposed and particularly vulnerable.

Data and statistics about individuals affected by gender-based violence in conflict are difficult to obtain since abuse is hidden from the public eye and goes significantly underreported. Estimates suggest that:

  • At least 200,000 women and girls have been raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 1998. In the first half of 2013, 705 cases of sexual violence were reported in North Kivu province alone; the survivors included 288 children and 43 men.
  • In the former Yugoslavia, from 1992 to 1995, up to 60,000 people were raped.
  • The vast majority of more than 100,000 estimated girl child soldiers in the world are subjected to sexual violence, many of them giving birth to children as a result.
  • Between 100,000 and 250,000 women and girls were raped during the three months of genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
  • In Syria, respondents reported an increase in girls marrying before the age of 18 since the start of the conflict. 63% of respondents in Homs and 56% in rural Damascus reported this. 
  • Despite a gap in data about the numbers of men and boys affected, we do know that from DRC to Central America and from the Caucasus to Cambodia sexual violence against men and boys is common, just largely unreported[1] 

Experiences of rape and other forms of sexual violence can be different. Girl soldiers are forced to have sex with their commanders. Boys held in detention camps are sexually assaulted. Women and girls are raped by their neighbors and other community members. Fathers are forced at gunpoint to rape their wives and daughters. Young girls are forced to marry their rapists.

When anyone can be sexually violated and anyone can violate, seemingly with impunity, lives and communities break down. Survivors of rape and sexual violence face medical, psychological, and economic challenges. They are often severely stigmatized, as are the children born of rape. When survivors do not have the right kind of support, the cost of seeking justice outweighs its benefits, and perpetrators remain free. Grievances can deepen and communities fracture. Ceasefires break and conflicts endure.

“S.L.”, 18 years old, lived in Gerald Batille Camp near Mais Gâté 88 in Haiti. While taking out the trash, she found herself surrounded by six men. They dragged her to a nearby house where they raped her, covering her mouth and threatening her with a gun to keep her silent. Too ashamed to tell anyone in her family about what had happened, she went alone to see a doctor two days later. Although she has since told her aunt and mother about the rape, she begged them not to make a fuss about it. S.L. never reported the rape to the police because she doesn’t think they will do anything.[2]

The terror of sexual violence can be unimaginable, but the trauma associated with it doesn’t have to be unbearable. Individuals who have suffered the most unthinkable sexual crimes can go on a journey from “victim”—feeling powerless and dehumanized—to “survivor”: strong and able to rebuild their lives.

To address this problem, World Vision works on empowering girls, boys, women, and men; providing safe spaces for children and women; providing economic support for families to prevent negative coping mechanisms; strengthening community based child protection mechanisms, including community watch groups and child protection committees; and mobilizing community and faith leaders to promote the rights of women and girls.

World Vision’s report Journey of a Survivor documents stories of survivors—whether they are a forty-year-old woman, a nine-year-old girl, or a seventy-year-old man. By responding to their personal short- and long-term needs with specific treatment and care plans, we can enable survivors of sexual violence to rejoin their families and communities and live normal lives. By sharing the stories of adults and children who have been affected by sexual violence, we look at how—through prevention and protection strategies—sexual violence can be stopped from happening in the first place.

In our work in emergency settings, we have also seen how early marriage is used as a perceived means of protection for girls. Research conducted by World Vision UK “Untying the Knot: why early marriage should be seen as violence against women” identified a strong link between humanitarian emergencies—like refugee crises—and an increase in child marriages. This harmful traditional practice is the cover behind which violence against girls takes place and is itself a form of violence.

Gender-based violence in emergencies | World Vision Blog
Refugee family. (Photo: Laura Reinhardt/World Vision)

Amira, a mother of five and seven months pregnant, is facing the prospect of marrying off her 12-year-old daughter due to the conflict in Syria. Amira thinks it is the only way for her 12-year-old Sheereen to have a decent life. While carrying similar hopes of millions of parents, 13.5 million girls around the world were married before their 18th birthday last year.[3]

While half of all girls living in the least developed countries marry before their eighteenth birthday, girls who live in countries facing humanitarian crises are the most vulnerable. Our research in Somaliland, Bangladesh, and Niger as well as our work with Syrian refugees indicates that early marriage is often used as a community response to crisis in hopes of protection from rape and abuse, and for reducing the cost of providing food and shelter for large families.  The marriage of a daughter is perceived as a way of alleviating potential poverty and providing a form of income for the family.

As a result, girls who are married early are denied their right to education, are isolated from family and friends, and are more likely to experience domestic violence and serious negative health outcomes as a result of early sexual activity and, in many cases, early childbirth. Married girls experience much higher rates of maternal morbidity and mortality, and are more likely to have children with low birth weight, inadequate nutrition, and anemia. In addition, sexual violence is inherent within child marriage as it is still sex with a child under minimum age, regardless of whether it takes place within the context of marriage. 

The impact of gender-based violence is devastating and far-reaching. Preventing and bringing an end to GBV in conflict is critical not just for individuals, families, and the countries affected, but also for world peace and security. Supporting survivors, breaking the taboos around wartime rape, and creating a culture of zero tolerance against perpetrators is vital in order to enable individuals, societies, and countries traumatized by conflict to heal, find peace, grow, and move forward.

Yeva Avakyan is the Senior Gender & Evaluation Advisor for World Vision USA. This article was originally published on the World Vision blog

Your church can respond to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today by hosting a Refugee Sunday.



[1] UN Background Information on Sexual Violence Used as a Tool of War, UN; ‘Bosnia War Rapes Must Be Prosecuted’, Washington Post, 26 November 2010; Sexual violence on the rise in DRC’s North Kivu, UNHCR, Briefing Notes, 30 July 2013

[2] World Vision UK, Preventing Violence Against Women and Girls in Emergencies, 2014

[3] World Vision UK, Preventing Violence Against Women and Girls in Emergencies, 2014

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