Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence against Women Displaced by Conflict
Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence against Women Displaced by Conflict
Trump, Biden and the Future of U.S. Multilateralism
Trump, Biden and the Future of U.S. Multilateralism
Commentary / Global 20 minutes

Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence against Women Displaced by Conflict

In March 2010, the United Nations established the Civil Society Advisory Group on Women, Peace, and Security (CSAG) to advise the Secretary-General and the High-Level Steering Committee of UN agencies and entities on ensuring a coherent and coordinated approach to protecting women's rights during armed conflict and ensuring their full participation in all conflict prevention, peacebuilding, and post-conflict reconstruction processes.  CSAG’s co-chairs are Mary Robinson and Bineta Diop, and its members are Sanam Anderlini, Thelma Awori, Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, Lakhdar Brahimi, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, Swanee Hunt, Hina Jilani, Elisabeth Rehn, Zainab Salbi, Salim Ahmed Salim, Donald Steinberg, and Susana Villarán de la Puente.

In addition to recommending concrete, time-bound and accountable steps for commemorating the tenth anniversary of UNSC resolution 1325 in October 2010, CSAG is preparing a series of working papers with concrete recommendations for actions on the topics: (a) women’s participation and leadership in the UN and peace processes; (b) civil society involvement in peacebuilding; (c) preventing and responding to sexual violence against women displaced by conflict; (d) advancing National Action Plans, regional action plans, and twinning on women, peace and security; and (e) resourcing women, peace and security.

General Introduction

In October 2000, United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 called on all member states and the United Nations (UN) system to protect the rights of women in the context of armed conflict and to ensure women’s full participation in all conflict prevention, peacebuilding, and post-conflict reconstruction processes. The Civil Society Advisory Group to the UN on Women, Peace, and Security (CSAG) advises the High-Level Steering Committee of the heads of UN agencies and entities on ensuring a coherent and coordinated approach to implementing UNSCR 1325 and subsequent resolutions on women, peace, and security within the UN system. CSAG’s co-chairs are Mary Robinson and Bineta Diop, and its members are Sanam Anderlini, Thelma Awori, Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, Lakhdar Brahimi, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, Swanee Hunt, Hina Jilani, Elisabeth Rehn, Zainab Salbi, Salim Ahmed Salim, Donald Steinberg, and Susana Villarán de la Puente.

In addition to recommending priorities for commemorating the 10th Anniversary of UNSCR 1325 in October, 2010, CSAG advocates for the full participation of women’s groups and civil society in the implementation of the women, peace, and security agenda. In consultation with civil society, CSAG is preparing a series of working papers with concrete recommendations for action on the following topics:

  • Women’s Participation and Leadership in the United Nations and Peace Processes;
  • Civil Society Involvement in Peacebuilding;
  • Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence against Women Displaced by Conflict;
  • Advancing National Action Plans, Regional Action Plans, and Twinning on Women, Peace and Security; and
  • Resourcing Women, Peace, and Security.

Overview of this Working Paper

This working group was established to consider ways to enhance the capacity of UN agencies, host governments, donors, and civil society to prevent and respond to sexual violence against women displaced by conflict.  From March-May 2010, the working group reviewed a wide variety of reports and projects, engaged in three dozen interviews, and held group discussions with UN officials, government representatives, and women’s groups, including from affected countries.  This report presents key findings that emerged from the research, including identification of gaps in coverage in services, coordination, and implementation of guidelines.  It also provides key recommendations that should be part of an action agenda to address these difficulties.  An annex includes a proposal for an international partnership for a pilot project to prevent and respond to sexual violence against displaced women, involving governments in affected countries; bilateral donors, including the United States and the European Union; international agencies, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); regional organizations such as the African Union and the European Union; local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs); and most importantly, displaced women themselves.


  1. United Nations agencies, through the Inter-Agency Steering Committee (IASC) should ensure full dissemination of the IASC Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings: Focusing on Prevention of and Response to Sexual Violence in Emergencies in simple written form, and require that all UN officials, implementing agencies, humanitarian NGOs, host government and affected women are trained and tested on this guidance.
  2. The IASC should establish a compliance working group overseen by UNHCR and the NGO umbrella organizations, International Consortium of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) and Inter-Action.  This working group should meet regularly to review implementation of the IASC guidelines against clearly established goals and indicators.  A quarterly report of this working group should be submitted to all IASC and UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict agencies.
  3. In each new and existing situation of substantial conflict-related displacement, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator should negotiate a situation-specific memorandum of understanding among UN agencies, implementing bodies, humanitarian NGOs, host governments and affected women delineating which group is responsible for each principal service related to preventing and responding to sexual violence, such as livelihoods, camp management and design, education, psycho-social assistance and provision of fuel for cooking.
  4. Each UN agency charged with a specific responsibility should develop goals and indicators for its priority, and designate high-level individuals who will be held personally accountable for achieving them.  These agencies should identify the financial and personnel resources required for such purposes and ensure that they are included in emergency appeals.  Responsibility for the achievement of these goals and indicators should be written into agency and individual job description, and there should be rewards for their completion as well as sanctions for failure to do so.
  5. The UN Secretary-General and especially the UN Security Council should hold individual countries and non-state actors accountable for their actions in preventing and responding to sexual violence, including refraining from their own abuses, prosecuting individuals engaged in such practices, and taking affirmative action for protection.  There should be a watch-list of countries and non-state actors failing to meet minimum standards in this regard as a mechanism to “name-and-shame”.
  6. Women refugee and internally displaced persons (IDPs) must be fully incorporated in all protection and response programs, under the concept, “nothing about us without us.”  Lead UN agencies should help establish committees of affected women to serve as interlocutors with international and host government actors.  Such mechanisms should be backed by stipends and physical protection for women prepared to step forward into leadership roles.  Mechanisms should also be developed to ensure that local and national women’s NGOs are consulted and strengthened in this process, for example through the granting of contracts for providing services for displaced persons.
  7. Lead negotiators of peace processes and heads of peace agreement implementation bodies should insist that women in general, and refugee and IDP women in particular, have a seat at the table and are empowered to play their full role in such processes.  The UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA) and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) should take the lead in these situations, including through direct engagement of the Mediation Support Unit.  Affirmative action is needed in the form of formal or informal quotas for participation, provision of training, physical security, stipends and support from trained experts in gender-related refugee/IDP issues.
  8. The UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, backed by the coordination mechanism, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, should assume full responsibility for the collection of data on the prevalence and patterns of sexual violence globally and in specific settings.  Donors should provide new financial and personnel resources for this effort, based on the IASC principles of safety, confidentiality, respect, non-discrimination, and involvement of displaced women and local communities.  
  9. A comprehensive approach should incorporate psycho-social aspects throughout the interaction of humanitarian workers with displaced women, not just focused on those who have suffered sexual abuse.  The Secretary-General should identify a lead agency – often the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) – in each setting of major displacement to serve as the watchdog on this area.  Training and recruitment strategies for all agencies must ensure that ensure humanitarian service providers have the skills to address these issues.
  10. The ISAC should form a working group to urgently modify and expand its existing guidelines on gender-based violence interventions so as to more effectively address the special requirements faced by women during flight, in urban settings, in rural settings outside camps, and in the process of return and resettlement.  The DPKO should play a key role in this process, drawing on the expertise of force commanders who have substantial experience in dealing with such setting.  New guidelines should be broadly disseminated to humanitarian workers, national and international security forces, and other service providers, who should be trained and tested on them.
  11. UNHCR should be charged with greater responsibility for comprehensive long-term support for displaced women, particularly in the return or resettlement stage, rural settings outside of camps, and urban settings.   International donors, the UN Security Council and the Secretary-General should ensure that UNHCR has the capacity, financial support and political mandate needed to offer this comprehensive support.  Other agencies, including IOM, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and ICRC should be fully engaged in the planning and implementation processes, as should displaced women themselves.
  12. International and national security forces should have a rapid reaction capability to respond to urgent and impending situations involving large-scale sexual violence.  Robust mandates and rules of engagement in this regard should be included in all UN Security Council resolutions authorizing peacekeeping forces.  International and national security forces should be trained to provide this support, in addition to more comprehensive training in human rights and civilian protection services.  Host governments, countries providing peacekeeping forces, and the DPKO should establish and implement accountability provisions to end impunity for abuses within their own forces.
  13. Host governments in the case of refugees and national governments in the case of IDPs should ensure that displaced women have full access to livelihoods programs, including working in the local labor markets, and that girls have the right to attend local schools.  International donors should support programs to ensure that local communities are not adversely affected by such provisions.  Such governments should also provide additional personnel to serve as gender-based violence monitors as part of their contribution to effective partnerships.
  14. International and national policymakers should fully consider issues of human security, and in particular the potential impact of their security decisions on women, when formulating security policy.  Most significantly, they should refrain from ill-advised and ineffective actions against insurgent groups if they are likely to result in massive retaliation against civilian populations, including killings, rapes, and large displacement of women and women-led households.

Situation Analysis

  1. The international community has assumed specific and substantial responsibilities under UNSC Resolution 1325 and other resolutions for preventing and responding to sexual violence against women displaced by armed conflict.

    Resolution 1325 and subsequent resolutions and policy statements on women and armed conflict – as well as civilian protection in these settings – identify numerous responsibilities for the UN Secretariat, member states and non-state actors to displaced women.  These include commitments to protect women and girls from sexual abuse, ensure the humanitarian nature of camps for refuges and IDPs, protect human rights and international humanitarian law, train international forces, provide financial assistance and engage with civil society in these efforts.  Particular responsibilities occur when sexual violence rises to the level of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including rape used as a weapon of war and a tool for ethnic cleansing.  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes, Representative of the Secretary General for the Human Rights of IDPs Walter Kaelin and other senior UN officials have publicly committed to concrete actions to address this problem, as have senior officials of the African Union, the European Union, the United States, other key international donors and affected countries.
  2. The UN operational guidance on sexual violence in displacement is often excellent, but the knowledge of these guidelines is incomplete and the implementation is even weaker.  

    Guidelines for addressing gender-based violence in humanitarian settings was developed by UNHCR and OCHA, and adopted and disseminated by the IASC in September 2005 in the document, Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings: Focusing on prevention of and Response to Sexual Violence in Emergencies. The guidelines reflect years of institutional knowledge, a well-considered rights and community-based approach, strong understanding of the necessary interventions and a commitment to mainstreaming and concentrated planning.  Targeted sector include protection, water and sanitation, food security and nutrition (including fuel for cooking), shelter and site planning, health and community services, and education, especially for girls.  The guidelines stress accountability through stringent assessment/monitoring programs and the importance of coordination to identify agencies and individuals responsible for specific interventions.

    But knowledge of these guidelines is incomplete and sometimes non-existent among host governments, NGOs, peacekeeping forces, displaced women themselves and even implementing UN agencies.  Programs to disseminate the guidance and train UN officials, implementing agencies, humanitarian NGOs, host governments, and affected women in its application are sporadic, inadequate and under-supported by senior officials.  Systematic implementation of the guidelines is even sketchier, reflecting not only a lack of knowledge and familiarity with the guidelines, but inadequate financial and personnel resources, lack of high-level attention and prioritization, weak coordination, and the absence of goals and indicators needed to hold individuals and institutions accountable.  The current UN exercise at establishing indicators in support of Resolutions 1325 and 1820 is an important step forward, but must be backed by political will to take actions – including sanctions – against individuals, institutions, non-state actors and even governments who fail to combat sexual violence against displaced women.
  3. Displaced women are rarely engaged as planners, implementers and beneficiaries of programs to address sexual violence.

    Displaced women are viewed frequently only as victims and beneficiaries of protection efforts, but not as vital resources for designing and implementing projects.   This pattern of exclusion is part of a larger exclusion of women at all levels of the peacemaking and peacebuilding stage.  Recent research by Anne-Marie Geotz, chief of the UN Development Fund for Women’s (UNIFEM) office of governance, peace and security shows that only one in 13 participants in peace processes are women, and rarely are displaced women engaged, meaning that issues related to sexual violence, trafficking, livelihoods and education programs for displaced women and girls, and accountability for war crimes and gross human rights abuses are given short shrift in agreements and implementing bodies.  Participation of refugee and IDP women should be encouraged through provision of training, physical security, and stipends.  They should be supported by a UN roster of trained experts in gender-related refugee/IDP issues, who can ensure that displaced women and the issues of concern to them are reflected throughout the life-cycle of the peace process, from negotiation of ceasefires through post-conflict reconstruction.

    Similarly, UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs working in refugee and IDP settings rarely establish committees of affected women, even in camps that have existed for many years.  Such consultation in urban or non-camp rural settings is virtually non-existent.  An internal evaluation of UNHCR’s efforts to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence in situations of forced displacement (October 2008) acknowledged that women lack the authority to hold the UN agencies accountable, control few resources, and enjoy “little power in decision-making and in controlling their lives.”  Efforts to build effective women’s organizations in the context of displacement should focus on institutional support, consultation mechanisms, and granting of contracts for service provision.  Otherwise, programs to prevent and respond to sexual violence among displaced women will be ill-adapted to local traditional, cultural, and economic realities, and will likely be rejected by the very women they are designed to assist.
  4. System-wide institutional coordination structures within the UN to address sexual violence in situation of displacement are inadequate.

    At the broadest institutional level, the UN has multiple coordination mechanisms that in principle draw together the actors involved in combating sexual violence, including the IASC, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, and the OCHA.  Such mechanisms are essential, given the alphabet-soup of agencies charged with implementing protection services, health and education projects, water and food distribution, livelihood programs, shelter, and refugee and IDP camp management.  Such agencies include DPA, DPKO, OCHA, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCHR), the Peacebuilding Support Office, Joint Program on HIV/AIDS, the UN Development Program (UNDP), UNFPA, UNHCR, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UNIFEM, the World Food Program (WFP), and the World Health Organization (WHO).  Added to the mix now is the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict.  But in practical terms, agencies often engage in turf battles in New York in situations where there is adequate funding and a high political imperative, and a game of “hot potato” where these factors are absent.  This either means that agencies duplicate each other’s efforts or leave broad sectors uncovered.  The IASC should establish a compliance working group, overseen jointly by UNHCR, International Consortium of Voluntary Agencies, and Inter-Action to ensure application of IASC guidelines on preventing gender-based violence in humanitarian settings.
  5. On the ground, uncertain coordination and division of responsibilities in addressing sexual violence results in inadequate leadership, wasted resources, and gaps in services.    

    The UN remains torn between four often competing and contradictory ideas with respect to in situ coordination: (a) establishing gender-based violence areas of responsibility (AOR) in which a single agency has at least nominal over-all control; (b) mainstreaming sexual violence issues within key protection and service agencies; (c) establishing multifunctional coordination teams; and (d) relying on gender advisers or focal points to ensure adequate attention and coverage.  Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages, but the failure to have a consistent policy has spelled disaster in many situations.  For example, UNFPA was charged with leadership in the AOR role in Haiti, but is generally viewed as having lacked the personnel, resources, profile and leadership to play that role, resulting in a scandalous failure to prevent sexual violence in the wake of the earthquake there.  An internal review by the UN itself has judged mainstreaming a failure in its response to sexual violence against displaced women, citing a lack of leadership, attention, prioritization and political will among UN mission leaders.  Participants in multifunctional teams complain that they spend all their time in coordination meetings and little time in preventing and responding to sexual violence.  Focal points are over-worked, under-resourced, and tend to be filled by low-ranking officers, including UN volunteers, who have little training, expertise, authority or capacity to influence policies or events.

    Rather than trying to generate a single one-size-fits-all coordination approach, the UN should consider an approach in which it treats each situation of potential or existing sexual violence in emergency settings as sui generis.  This would require the negotiation of a situation-specific memorandum of understanding defining responsibilities among UN agencies, host governments, international security providers (including peacekeeping missions, where they exist), other service providers, and displaced women themselves for the various necessary elements of a protection strategy.
  6. The lack of data on the prevalence and nature of sexual violence in displacement seriously hampers UN responses.

    There have been few comprehensive studies into sexual violence in displacement, even in regions of great international attention, such as the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Darfur and Colombia.  The failure to generate data on the extent and nature of sexual violence in displacement has a number of negative effects.  First, it hampers international efforts to prioritize specific locations for action and undercuts efforts to foster political will to address the challenges in these settings.  Equally important, the lack of data hinders the development of interventions appropriate for specific cases.  For example, planners must identify the source of the violence, which could be government security forces, rebel groups, family members, other community members, authority figures such as teachers and employers, and even humanitarian workers and peacekeepers.  Production and dissemination of such data suffers from the understandable desire for anonymity from victims of sexual violence, who fear ostracizing or retribution; the reticence of program managers to report data; an absence of research capacity and funding; and continuing internecine debates about methodology among researchers.  Some communities are particularly neglected in reporting data, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of concern; boys and men; and children.  This leads to the absence of programs to address their abuse.   

    As elsewhere, IASC guidelines for collecting data are well-developed, and appropriately guided by principles of safety, confidentiality, respect and non-discrimination, and the involvement of displaced women and local communities.  They should be more broadly dissemination and utilized.
  7. A comprehensive approach to psycho-social services to displaced women is rarely adopted.

    The current structure of services to women sets up psycho-social services as a separate agenda item, and is typically limited to brief interventions for individuals who have identified themselves having suffered a sexual assault.  Not only are those providing such services from UN agencies and NGOs often unqualified to provide the sophisticated psychological counseling and support required, this approach undercuts the need for a comprehensive approach that incorporates psycho-social aspects throughout the interaction of humanitarian workers and displaced women, including past and potential survivors of violence.  For example, livelihood and education programs can be essential steps in creating or restoring self-esteem and a sense of purpose to women in these settings.  Internal UN surveys have called for recruitment strategies and training to ensure that humanitarian service providers have profiles and expertise in medical and psycho-social issues to address planning, monitoring and evaluation in these areas.
  8. Insufficient attention is given to displaced women in flight, in urban/rural settings outside of camps, and during return or resettlement processes.

    Guidelines and projects for displaced women tend to focus on the period of displacement in camps.  But much of the sexual violence against women occurs during the flight of women from their homes, prior to their arrival at camps or permanent urban settings, or in the context of their return and resettlement.  Officials from UNHCR, OCHA and the Representative of the Secretary-General for IDPs identify this as the most significant gap in the protection and response continuum.  Little guidance exists for these settings, such as guidelines for government security forces, local communities themselves or international peacekeepers and backed by financial support, robust mandates and strong training.  Especially with respect to national armies and police, training in human rights and protection is vital, backed by enhanced accountability provisions to end impunity for abuses.  With respect to local and international forces, a rapid reaction capable is essential.  International policy-makers should also factor gender-based violence considerations into security policy.  For example, the UN should not support ill-advised and ineffective attacks in the DRC on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which result in massive retribution in the form of killing, rape and displacement of local women.

    In terms of return or resettlement, national governments, humanitarian agencies and international actors must ensure that prevention and response capacities exist in regions of return or resettlement, including programs to prevent and respond to domestic violence and trafficking.  This is essential to ensure that the end of armed conflict does not result in a new and even more pernicious period of violence against women.  Similarly, the programs and existing guidelines now tend to focus on formal camp settings, notwithstanding that most displaced persons are in urban settings – living with families, in communal living situations, or in informal settlements – or rural settings outside camps.  Support in return, resettlement, and non-camp situations is hampered by the fact that UNHCR – the lead agency in most of these situations – does not have the capacity, financial support, or political mandate to offer comprehensive long-term support for women outside camp settings or for returnees and resettled populations.
  9. Host governments must assume greater responsibility for protecting refugees and IDPs from sexual violence.

    The vast majority of assistance to refugees and IDPs usually comes from the international community, which can create a dependency mentality and the sense that this population is the responsibility of foreign governments and international agencies and NGOs.  Host governments, which often feel a limited commitment and even hostility toward displaced persons who may come from dissident and/or marginal communities, often use the excuse of limited resources to shirk their legal and humanitarian obligations under international law.  This stance must be resisted.

    For example, the previously cited internal UNHCR study highlighted that a principal failing in efforts to combat sexual violence has been the unwillingness of host governments to support local integration solutions.  In particular, such governments may deny refugee women the right to work in local labor markets and girls the right to attend local schools – even though livelihood and education programs are seen as a key part of the protection continuum and are vital in empowering refugee communities in terms of self-help, self-management and self-reliance.  Even internally displaced persons – who enjoy full citizenship rights – are often denied access to local schools and forbidden to work outside the camps.  Host governments must alter those laws and support local communities who may feel threatened or disadvantaged by such steps.  Further, even in the absence of substantial resources, host governments should provide additional personnel to serve as gender-based violence officers and monitors.  The realization that all actors have a role to play is key to forming effective partnerships, drawing together host governments with international agencies, bilateral donors, NGOs, businesses under social responsibility projects, foundations and refugee/IDP women themselves.


The international community has committed to taking concrete action to prevent and respond to sexual violence against women, as evidenced by UNSCR 1325, subsequent resolutions, and a plethora of legal and policy documents. Nonetheless, the problem of sexual violence against displaced women is widespread and growing. This situation is particularly disturbing given that there is a good understanding of what needs to be done to address the problem, as exemplified by the IASC guidelines. Dissemination of these guidelines and adherence to them will go a long way towards preventing and more effectively responding to sexual violence against displaced women. Transforming the discourse regarding affected women to recognize that they are vital resources for the design and implementation of programs, rather than mere victims or beneficiaries, is also critical to improving the efficacy of responses. In addition, reform of coordination mechanisms within the UN system for addressing sexual violence is necessary to prevent women from falling through the cracks of multiple structures. Finally, the target population for interventions must expand to include the majority of displaced women: those who do not live within camp settings, but are in flight, integrated into communities, or in the process of resettling or returning to their homes. Achieving these policy and practice revisions and implementing the specific recommendations included in this paper will substantially ameliorate the situation of displaced women, and represent a step forward in fulfilling the promise that was enshrined in UNSCR 1325 ten years ago.

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