Each year on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women kicks off 16 days of activism against gender-based violence.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is present in every society around the world and takes many forms. As a violation of human rights, we have a moral imperative to stop all forms of violence against women and girls. In crisis, whether conflict or natural disaster, the risk of GBV increases, and so – therefore – does our collective need to act to prevent GBV before it happens or respond to the needs of women and girls when it does.

The IRC has been working specifically to prevent and respond to GBV since 1996, meaning we have over 25 years of experience. 

Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by all forms of gender-based violence. Below, we consider why this happens, and what we can do to prevent it. 

What is gender-based violence? 

Gender-based violence (GBV) is an umbrella term for harmful acts of abuse perpetrated against a person’s will and rooted in a system of unequal power between women and men. This is true for both conflict-affected and non-conflict settings.

The UN defines violence against women as, ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.

Over one-third of women and girls globally will experience some form of violence in their lifetime. However, this rate is higher in emergencies, conflict, and crisis, where vulnerability and risks are increased and most often family, community, and legal protections have broken down.

Harm caused by GBV comes in a variety of visible and invisible forms—it also includes the threat of violence. 

GBV can manifest in a variety of ways. Some of these include: physical violence, such as assault or slavery; emotional or psychological violence, such as verbal abuse or confinement; sexual abuse, including rape; harmful practices, like child marriage and female genital mutilation; socio-economic violence, which includes denial of resources; and sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse.

Two women sit on the floor. One of them draws a flower on a piece of paper while the other watches.
Nur Jahan, 15 years old, attends a women's center run by Razia Sultana who helps to empower Rohingya women and enable them to understand their rights. She works tirelessly to ensure that the crimes against the Rohingya by the Myanmar military - particularly rape against thousands of women - are brought to justice.
Photo: Habiba Nowrose

What is Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)?

Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), or ‘domestic violence’ is an all-too-common form of violence against women and girls. It refers to any behavior from a current or previous partner that causes harm—including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviors.

Globally, the UN reports that one in four women have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner at least once in their lifetime, and IRC research has shown that it is the most common form of violence against women and girls in humanitarian contexts.

Who is most at risk?

Gender-based violence can happen to anyone. However, it disproportionately affects women and girls. Those in crisis settings are at a double disadvantage due to their gender and their situation.

Women and girls from other diverse and marginalized communities face an even greater risk where gender inequality intersects with other forms of oppression.

Those at higher risk include:

While we reference these different identities separately, each person holds multiple identities at once. For example, a woman who lives with a disability might also be an older refugee. 

This is why it’s important to understand the concept of intersectionality that a person faces different kinds of discrimination and risks due to a combination of their identities like gender, race, religion, age.

It is crucial to understand intersectionality when working to determine and provide prevention and response services. For instance, research has found that adolescent girls living in displacement are particularly at risk of being overlooked in emergency settings, where they may fall between the cracks of child protection services and those aimed at adult women.

Two young girls, wearing matching headscarves, hold hands by a wall in Yemen.
Young Yemeni girls participate in the Girl Shine program. Girl Shine has been designed to help contribute to the improved prevention of and response to violence against adolescent girls in humanitarian settings.
Photo: Will Swanson

What causes gender-based violence in crisis settings?

Gender inequality, and the norms and beliefs that violence against women and girls is acceptable, cause gender-based violence. There are also many factors that increase the risk of GBV, with women and girls living through crises experiencing an increase in both the frequency and severity of GBV.

This is because the same conditions that contribute to conflict and forced displacement also accelerate GBV. These include:

1. Poverty

Research from What Works found that when families are pushed into poverty, harmful practices like child marriages increase. Young girls may be pulled out of education for marriage, to help with domestic tasks or to generate an income. Unemployment and economic distress in the household can increase instances of IPV, as well. 

2. Breakdown of services

A collapse of community structure and the rule of law means women can find themselves without social support and protection systems in violent situations. It can also result in women and girls traveling great distances in search of food, water or fuel, further increasing risk of sexual harassment and assault.

3. Conflict and war

Rising numbers of conflicts globally are driving an increase in conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). Without the rule of law, CRSV is often carried out with impunity. Armed forces may use rape as a weapon of war. Other forms of CRSV include sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and other forms of sexual violence. 

4. Displacement

Women living in refugee camps and other temporary accommodation can face safety issues that put them at greater risk. This can include having no locks on bathroom doors, joint male and female facilities, and inadequate lighting.

Women living as refugees may have to find new livelihoods, which can lead to an increased risk of exploitation. 

Displaced women and girls in emergencies are often less visible. They’re not always included in national surveys or reports, which means their needs go unmet. 

5. Stress in the home

Intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence women experience in humanitarian settings. IRC research suggests that IPV and child maltreatment and abuse occur more frequently when families experience an inability to meet their basic needs, alcohol and substance abuse and inconsistent income.

Two sisters pose for a photo outside of a clay building in South Sudan. One sisters stands in the foreground while the other a few feet behind her.
Muna Tutu (right) and her older sister fled their home in the Nuba Mountains, Sudan. Now, the sisters live in a refugee camp in Jamjang, South Sudan, where they participate in IRC-supported Women's Protection and Empowerment programs which provide material and emotional trauma support to participants.
Photo: Adrienne Suprenant for the IRC

Effects of gender-based violence

Violence has a long lasting effect on survivors and their families. Impacts can range from physical harm to long-term emotional distress to fatalities. Rape and sexual assault can result in unwanted pregnancies, complications during pregnancy and birth, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Social and economic fallout from GBV can lead to a loss of livelihood and increased gender inequalities in the long term. Reporting or seeking services for GBV can lead to further threats of violence, social stigma and ostracization. GBV is also a key barrier to women and girls accessing other lifesaving services, such as food, shelter and healthcare. 

Crises are not short-term occurrences. Climate-related disasters can create recurrent crises and many women and girls who are forcibly displaced can end up living in temporary accommodation for years. 

This exposes women and girls to GBV for longer and can draw out and compound the effects of that violence for decades, hampering long-term resilience and empowerment.

Two women and a man sit in a circle and share a conversation.
The IRC-supported Togoletta women’s group engages men in education and counseling services in Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. The engagement of men is critical in addressing the root causes of gender inequality.
Photo: Esther Mbabazi for the IRC

Preventing gender-based violence

While GBV continues to be a huge risk that women and girls face daily, there are ways to prevent it. Some of these include:

Comprehensive GBV services need to be established quickly in times of crisis to protect women and girls and reduce their exposure to violence, while increasing their chances of recovery and resilience.

Humanitarian organizations should bring a feminist approach to programming, that takes into account the unequal power balance between genders when designing support and interventions for crisis-affected populations. 

Yet, despite knowing the scope of the problem, the serious and at times fatal effects of GBV, and that we can prevent and respond to it, GBV is still not prioritized with enough urgency during humanitarian responses. In 2021, just 28% of GBV funding requirements were met, the lowest proportion reported over the previous four years and down from 32% in 2020.

A young girl in the classroom poses for a photo while writing in her notebook.
A young girl learning at an IRC-supported Safe Healing and Learning Space.
Photo: Stefanie Glinski/IRC

The IRC response

The IRC prioritizes the needs of women and girls across its programming. We work to support the resilience and dignity of women and girls exposed to violence in crisis settings in over 50 countries worldwide. 

The IRC delivers essential healthcare, GBV case management and psychosocial support to survivors, including through safe spaces and outreach teams. In 2022, we provided 177,404 women and girls with psychosocial support and registered 43,817 GBV survivors for case management, ensuring that they receive necessary emotional, medical, psychosocial and other support services throughout their recovery journey.

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