The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly 1 in 3 women aged 15 and older have been subjected at least once in their lifetime to physical or sexual violence from a current or former intimate partner, a non-partner, or both. However, access to services and supports for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is becoming more constrained in a growing number of situations across the world. Recent coups and ongoing conflicts, high levels of displacement, political oppression—including internet disruption and other tactics of regime control—and the destruction of state institutions, combined with restrictions on movement and the interruption of services due to COVID-19, are taking a toll on the ability of local communities and civil society organizations to respond to SGBV. Like conflict, COVID-19 has also been shown to have an exacerbating effect on gender-based violence.
Sexual and gender-based violence can have serious short- and long-term implications for physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health—including lasting injury, unintended pregnancy, higher rates of sexually transmitted infection, depression, and fatal outcomes such as homicide and suicide—as well as enormous social and economic costs for survivors, their families, and societies. In 2019, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2467, affirming the rights of survivors to access services, supports, and justice. Survivor-centered services at the community level are essential but can be difficult to safely access and safely provide.
The pandemic has seen the delivery of some services in innovative ways, including remote assistance and, crucially, employing greater numbers of local community members to deliver services. However, even these adaptations may struggle to secure survivors’ rights in unstable political contexts where the state has territorial control and impunity is entrenched. Ethiopia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Sudan, and South Sudan are among the places where it will be difficult and dangerous to collect data on women’s experiences of violence and intimidation and to provide urgently needed survivor-centered care.
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Condoned by States
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 16 Days Campaign—commencing on November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ending on December 10, Human Rights Day—which calls for an end to all forms of gender-based violence. The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda has also brought global attention to the issue of SGBV, particularly in conflict-affected settings and in its use as a weapon of war. In September 2021, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten stated that “sexual violence is less tolerated and more regulated. It is less silenced, and more systematically reported.”
Yet, there are contexts where SGBV continues to be widespread and condoned by the state, and services and reporting channels are limited. In Myanmar, sexual violence has long been a deliberate strategy of Tatmadaw in ethnic armed conflicts across the country. Since the military coup on Feb 1, 2021, SGBV against political prisoners has been frequently recorded. Similarly, in Afghanistan, a rise in gender-based abuse against women and girls has been recorded since the Taliban took control of the country in August this year. The UN has recently reported on the deliberate use of rape, gang rape, and other forms of assault against women on the basis of ethnicity in Tigray, Ethiopia. In South Sudan, women and girls continue to be abducted and subjected to rape, forced marriage, and sexual slavery. Since the coup in Sudan in late October this year, women in the front line of the resistance movement were attacked—a continuation of violence used in the past against women protesting the militarization of the state.
Delivering Services through Community-Led Providers
Where governments are unable or unwilling to provide services to survivors of SGBV, civil society organizations (CSOs) often act as first responders, and there is growing recognition of the need for the representation, inclusion, and leadership of local CSOs in humanitarian action and similar contexts. WPS Resolution 2242, adopted in 2015, highlights the importance of collaboration with local civil society and women’s groups while implementing the WPS agenda. And Resolution 2467 specifically calls for supporting local efforts to assist survivors of sexual violence in conflict.
The pandemic has been recognized as both a necessary and opportune time to build local capacity to sustain the service delivery structure for survivors of SGBV. Prior to the pandemic, local CSOs, especially those led by women, already played a crucial role as they do not face the same barriers—such as being unfamiliar with local languages, cultures, and customs—that may inhibit national, regional, or international actors from understanding the needs of survivors and adopting appropriate measures.
However, under conditions of increasing political repression and conflict, as seen in Ethiopia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Sudan, and South Sudan, many local responders are operating “under great uncertainty and significant stress,” In many instances, recognition and representation for CSOs is minimal, they have limited technical and financial freedoms, and they live under the same brutal oppression as survivors.
In Myanmar, human rights defenders and humanitarian organizations have been targeted by the regime, forcing many of them into hiding even as they continue to attempt to provide assistance to those directly affected by the violence. In Afghanistan, right defenders are living “under a climate of fear” and some are forced to constantly relocate. And in Ethiopia, many human rights defenders are living in fear of arbitrary arrest. Under such conditions, the international community must look for opportunities to support local responders to effectively and safely deliver essential survivor-focused services, while minimalizing risks.
How Can International Actors Provide Support?
Within the competitive donor funding environment, local providers under oppressive regimes are more income-vulnerable due to their limited capacity and limited access to financial institutions. The pandemic has also placed immense strain on the budgets of women’s groups and CSOs, as well as creating additional burdens for local civil society actors.
With growing dependence on local responders due to the lack of access afforded to international organizations—both as a result of the pandemic and ongoing violence in unstable contexts—there is a need to consider how to prioritize the context-based needs and safety of local CSOs in order to meet the needs of survivors of SGVB. The pandemic and global vaccine inequity will likely continue to limit the opportunity for first responders to safely travel outside of these situations and report their experiences.
There is a need for the international donor community to urgently prioritize gender-based violence service delivery in these fragile contexts and establish with local partners the minimum conditions that local CSOs need to safely deliver survivor-focused supports and services.
Phyu Phyu Oo is a HDR candidate at School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, Australia. Sara E Davies is a Professor of International Relations at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University and an adjunct research fellow at the Gender Peace and Security Centre, Monash University.