Back to Magazine

Guest Editorial


Everybody’s issue

Gender-based violence can occur at any time, anywhere.  But its prevalence is magnified during emergencies because of the absence of law and order, the lack of support services and the breakdown of community networks. This combination leaves women — and men — extremely vulnerable. Humanitarian organizations working in conflict zones or responding to natural disaster must make addressing gender-based violence a top priority — at the onset of any emergency.

Survivors of gender-based violence need immediate support in the form of medical care, police assistance, counselling, and legal aid. Often, few of these services exist before an emergency — and even fewer remain afterwards.

Humanitarian organizations therefore can and must do more — both before and after — to ensure that these services exist, and that they are trained and prepared to support survivors in line with international good practice. Survivors also need to be aware of, and gain access to, these services. Information campaigns and transportation support are a good start.

Prevention is also critical. This is a longer-term effort that could entail media campaigns, positive recreational, cultural or vocational outlets that promote non-violence, and integrating gender-equality messages into education curricula. In emergency contexts, security patrols can improve safety — particularly for those living in camps. Prevention work must be relevant and appropriate to the local context or it will not be sustainable.

Humanitarian organizations have an ethical responsibility to address these issues. Emergencies may lead women to engage in risky behaviours such as selling sex in order to survive and feed their children, thereby increasing the risk of gender-based violence. Without economic alternatives, women are also vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse. Relief organizations and development agencies involved in long-term recovery must do more in terms of training, zero-tolerance policies, and strict codes of conduct to prevent this kind of abuse. Clear messaging (‘Humanitarian aid is free!’ for example) and economic empowerment initiatives can reduce risk and expand choices.

These efforts need to be local, relevant, and sustainable. Otherwise, women might have to travel further for work, engage in riskier occupations, or work in unsafe areas. From the onset of the emergency, we can support women through vocational skills training and income-generating opportunities. We must also do more to ensure that women living in camps for the displaced have access to safe spaces and separate, lit, lockable facilities.

We also need to remember to ask women what they need. When I spoke to women in Haiti, the first thing they asked for was access to economic opportunity. We can do more to support and protect women working in the informal sector — including safe storage for cash earned. We could have done much better in Haiti to provide economic empowerment initiatives at the very beginning.

But women are not just victims — they are survivors who help countries recover more quickly from emergencies. Women can build bridges between warring communities and increase community resilience. Men are also a key part of the solution. Not all men are perpetrators and they need to be engaged as supporters and advocates.

The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is well placed to address gender-based violence in a more robust way. The Movement’s global reach could enable us to raise the profile of this issue, not just as a 'women’s issue' but as an issue that affects everyone in emergency settings.

Humanitarian organizations are increasingly recognizing the severity of this problem. Now they need to commit real resources and expertise, attract senior staff and experienced professionals, and give them the ability to act and affect change on the ground where it is most needed.

By Lina Abirafeh
Lina Abirafeh, PhD, has addressed gender-based violence in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea and various other countries. She is the author of Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan: The Politics and Effects of Intervention and worked recently as coordinator for the Gender-Based Violence Sub-Cluster of the United Nations Population Fund/UNICEF in Haiti.









The Movement’s
global reach could
enable us to raise
the profile of this
issue — not just as
a 'women’s issue'
but as an issue
that affects
in emergency












Your turn

If you would like to submit an opinion article for consideration, please contact the magazine at All views expressed in guest editorials are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement or this magazine.



Contact Us