Gender-based Violence in Development and Humanitarian Settings | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 10, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:51 AM, December 10, 2018

Gender-based Violence in Development and Humanitarian Settings

Accountability of Stakeholders and Policymakers


  • Create awareness and leadership among the adolescent girls to combat the gender-based violence during humanitarian crisis

  • Build individual houses instead of cyclone shelters to accommodate the highest number of people and to create more sanitation facilities

  • Incorporate the concept of GBV into the mandate of every organisation

  • Coordinate actions among relevant stakeholders to minimise the intensity of GBV

  • Facilitate collaboration among several actors such as, government, NGO, INGOs, media, policy makers etc. to formulate concrete GBV-related policy

  • Active roles from media to raise awareness on gender-based violence are needed



Gender Based Violence (GBV) is not uncommon in humanitarian settings or humanitarian emergencies, i.e. armed conflicts or natural or man-made disasters. GBV is increasingly reported in situations of emergencies. Study conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh shows 71% of women faced more torture during the flood than what they were facing before and among them 52.3% of women respondents complained about physical violence (2007). GBV is an umbrella term that comprises not only rape and attempted rape, but also sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, physical and psychological/emotional violence, domestic violence, intimate partner violence (IPV), early child & forced marriage (ECFM) and trafficking. These acts of violence can lead to serious consequences to physical and psychological health and social well-being.

Due to existing inequalities, gender discrimination and unequal power relations, emergencies hit women the hardest and the recovery period is also the longest for women.  Emergencies have more profound adverse impact on women than men. Studies show that women and young children are at most risk during a humanitarian crisis. In times of emergencies, maternal mortality rate, sexual violence and sexual exploitation against women increase drastically. During emergencies, women lose access to health services such as family planning, prenatal care, postpartum care, etc. The heightened risk of female health and safety makes them vulnerable to disease, violence and death. In addition to above restricted mobility and opportunities to earn money make women and girls economically vulnerable.

The reasons for the occurrence of GBV in emergency context may vary from one setting to another. In refugee camps, for example, living in crowded shelters, accessing latrines and bathing spaces at night, going to marketplaces and lack of lighting in the camps put women and girls at risk of harassment and/or GBV. In addition, a large number of women suffer from sexual and psychological abuse in the relief shelters and relief queues. Displacement can increase the incidence of GBV, both in initial temporary shelters and when displacement becomes protracted. Disasters cause impoverishment which can induce some people (mostly women) to adopt negative coping mechanisms, including transactional sex.

In order to achieve gender equality before and during a humanitarian crisis and to maximise the contributions of humanitarian responses, it is crucial to keep women and girls at the centre of the planning. A gender-integrated approach that empowers women and girls and also engages men and boys, is crucial for achieving long-term positive change, transforming deeply entrenched inequalities and developing resilience. Considering Bangladesh's current humanitarian priorities, ActionAid Bangladesh, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and The Daily star have jointly organised a roundtable discussion on "GBV in Development and Humanitarian Settings: Accountability of Stakeholders and Policymakers" on November 29, 2018.

Here we publish a summary of the discussion.




Farah Kabir, Country Director, ActionAid Bangladesh       

We have come together for this roundtable to have a conversation and raise awareness on gender- based violence against women in humanitarian settings and also to look at the issue of accountability of different stakeholders.

This is not the first time that gender-based violence (GBV) is occurring in a humanitarian setting. It's not that we don't know about it but we need to discuss how much we know, how aware we are, and what we can do. Incidents of gender-based violence do not happen in isolation; it's a reflection of the gender discrimination that exists in society.

In humanitarian settings or emergencies, it is one of the primary duties of stakeholders and policymakers to address gender-based violence following a comprehensive and multi-sectoral approach so that we can address gender-based violence through interventions for prevention, mitigation and response. We have to do this work simultaneously, because there is an existing scenario and there is also the traditional norms and practices in a community, and women are being further disadvantaged because of the emergency.

It is very important to promote women's equal participation at all levels. The humanitarian actors should recognise women's rights as a non-negotiable agenda, develop strategies and design programmes to include the most vulnerable and marginalised women, build on women's existing capacities, address barriers to women's leadership, strengthen women's access to resources, and create safe spaces for women and girls to organise and mobilise. At every level, we need to hear women and children's voice in an effort to make this process more gender sensitive.

Grassroots women rights organisations are usually the first responders in emergency settings, and hence it is important to ensure that these organisations or local organisations are not only engaged on the periphery, but are also encouraged and funded to deliver gender-based violence response and prevention programming.

All stakeholders, including the government, UN agencies, law enforcement, and development organisations, need to have certain policies, operating procedures and standards, and they need to be very aware of the sexual exploitation and abuse. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) should be in place for submission and receipt of complaints, reporting, investigation and victim assistance to Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA).

Since 2013, ActionAid Bangladesh has been promoting women-led emergency response across its all humanitarian programme which also includes playing watchdog role in reducing gender-based violence in emergency. Drawing from the concept of building back better, AAB is investing in women, particularly in young women, to take leadership in responding to humanitarian crisis in a way that helps community to rebuild considering future disasters.

Since 2014, AAB has been implementing resilience intervention through women leadership setting indicators including women's social economic, instructional, infrastructural and environmental capacity to strengthen localise resilience action. 

Gender-based violence (particularly domestic and intimate partner violence) in emergency is largely neglected. These kinds of violence are considered universal and prevail in women and girls' lives prior to, during or after a crisis.

Collecting data to demonstrate the prevalence of GBV is challenging. Mainly due to underreporting, there are difficulties in capturing and recording incidents, and discrepancies between different data collection and analysis methodologies appear. Reporting and law enforcement mechanisms, as well as services for survivors of GBV, are often disrupted by the crisis, which also hamper the collection of data on GBV's prevalence.

Looking at the comprehensiveness of building resilience including humanitarian response, the process of advocacy and programming requires the actors to bring ideas to reduce the gender-based violence into designing and implementation. ActionAid Bangladesh has been championing the integration through sharing examples of good practices of reducing gender-based violence across all sectors of the society.


Eiko Narita, Deputy Representative, UNFPA

As we now come across various humanitarian settings, including the recent Rohingya crisis, one thing that has always been consistent is that people most frequently report the shelter, water and food needs. We get so many requests providing evidence of the needs of all these aspects, and yet when it comes to gender-based violence, it somehow gets the least importance. This is because of the shame and stigma attached to GBV. I am so happy that we are having this conversation because I believe that we really need to talk about this issue.

We have to look at this issue in terms of the context in Bangladesh, as it is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. While there are annual natural disasters like floods and cyclones, the country is also now laced with a humanitarian crisis.

Bangladesh has one of the highest child marriage incidences. According to a report, during Cyclone Roanu, which hit around seven districts, 38 percent of women were exposed to some sort of gender-based violence. It's not that gender-based violence only spurs during humanitarian crises, but the problem exacerbates during such times, and we have got to do something about it. I hope to have an honest and frank discussion amongst the allies present here. Even if it may be difficult to talk about it, we need to talk about it. I also hope that it will charge us to move forward in a much more proactive way, from speaking about it to actually doing something about it. I would like to reemphasise that one of the first things we need to do is raise our voices on this issue, especially because women, girls and even young boys, are often not able to voice their problems in these situations. We need to maintain confidentiality in handling the data of GBV so that people feel safe sharing their experiences. For every woman and girl who share their story, there are many more who remain silent, but each shared story gives the silent majority more hope, courage and confidence. Hence, we should work with the media to take these stories to the world.


Elita Karim, Editor, Culture & Entertainment, and Star Youth, The Daily Star

There is a high-risk area near Benapole where young girls are illegally trafficked across the border. Their parents themselves sell these children to the traffickers so that they can earn a livelihood. Even after they were rescued, they can't return to their regular life or play like other kids because of the stigma now associated with them.  

Little things shape up the way we think; this starts from when a girl child is born in a family. Discriminations begin right from the beginning, and that's how a family is shaped and that's how the children of the family are taught to think. Many educated women, in fact, are conditioned to think that they deserve less when it comes to property in comparison to their brothers. If we need to address gender-based violence in any setting, we need to address the way both men and women are conditioned to think.



Shashanka Saadi, Head of Emergency Response, BRAC International

Gender-based violence is underestimated in most disaster settings. Even five years back, not much specific attention was paid to protection mechanisms in the preparedness process for an emergency setting whereby humanitarian or grassroot organisations could measure or prevent gender-based violence in such settings. At present, guidelines exist but because of our socialisation, gender-based violence continues to be a lower priority issue especially in humanitarian settings. If we had integrated protection in our preparedness mechanism from the beginning, the first step would have been to create a safe zone for women and children. We only realised the need for this after six or so months.

During the floods in 2004, women faced increased violence and they were afraid to stay in the flood shelters. It's the same scenario for cyclones, flash floods or any kind of disaster. If we do not integrate the protection process in the preparedness, orientation and awareness building of humanitarian workers, it will be very difficult to even address the issue.

Domination and coercion are aspects of power, and that's where social change comes to play. Many women in humanitarian settings don't think that it's a crime that they are beaten up, as they think it's their husband's 'right'. When women and girls share their experiences in child-friendly and women-friendly spaces in Rohingya camps, they express how the male adults of the family discourage them from attending these spaces because they feel that they will learn things that are not 'permitted in their society,' which is a challenge to men and to the existing power relations. We need to first initiate social change to ensure protection for women and children in humanitarian settings. Social change needs to begin at schools and at the policy level. Trainings and awareness on their own will never be sufficient if the state and law enforcement bodies do not act accordingly or strongly to combat GBV. 


Dilruba Haider, Programme Specialist, UN Women

Across all humanitarian organisations, most programmes are designed and implemented by men. It's natural for men to not understand women's plights. Despite all good intentions, therefore, humanitarian programmes fail to understand the real issues of gender and equality dynamics. In fact, many development workers lack understanding and knowledge about what violence means.

Gender-based violence in humanitarian settings is least thought about, and hence the need for us to pay more attention to accountability with regards to violence and sexual abuse. There has been a staggering amount of cases of GBV in Rohingya camps but not that many reports have come up highlighting this issue. UN Women, with ActionAid, runs multiple women centres where women are encouraged to talk and seek support for trauma and violence, but we don't seem to get a lot of women standing up. There is stigma but there is also the inherent issue of the way women are raised. Women are raised as beings who are supposed to contain all the problems that they face. We have to create an environment where women are encouraged to speak out about the atrocities committed against them.

Refugees are most at risk and vulnerable against sexual exploitation and abuse when compared to victims of natural disasters or other humanitarian disasters. Victims of floods or cyclones still have their social network and social capital as they are within their own village. In refugee situations, you don't know anybody and have zero power to report anything to anybody.


Rahima Sultana Kazal, ED, AVAS

We are working at the southern part of the Barisal division to reduce the intensity of gender-based violence. A series of natural disasters like Sidr, Aila, Mahasen and river erosion incurred significant damages to this territory. Gender-based violence reached its peak during Cyclone Sidr and the salinity crisis, but it became less apparent during Cyclone Aila. People did not seek shelters during the tropical storm Mahasen, and therefore, large scale gender-based violence was not reported.

Men in the region move to cities as the natural disasters impede their livelihoods. Due to the fear of land grabbing, women and girls are left behind, thereby giving miscreants the chance to abuse them.

During natural disasters, menstruating adolescent girls often face harassment at the shelters. They are forced to sit in a corner of the shelter as they are considered 'unclean'. Additionally, the toilets are situated outside the shelter, creating opportunities for further abuse.

Like national elections, natural disasters result in the widespread practice of early marriage in these regions. Parents fear that agitation in the post-election period will lead to the trafficking, rape and murder of adolescent girls, and so they get their daughters married off as early as possible, even without completing registration formalities. 

Before Mahasen, we encouraged the participation of young women volunteers for our programmes with a view to controlling harassment in the disaster-prone area. During Mahasen, we introduced women-led emergency response projects to reduce gender-based violence. As part of the women resilience project, we facilitated women to build financial capability and taught them skills to confront the disasters. They later dispensed their learnings to other women.

We are now collaborating with ActionAid to enlighten girls about good and bad touches. We believe that gender-based violence can be reduced if we create awareness and leadership among adolescent girls.


Gawher Nayeem Wahra, Convenor and Member Secretary, Disaster Forum

Humanitarian workers employed by organisations are also often responsible for gender discrimination and abuse. Granted that development organisations like ActionAid has a gender-related policy in its mandate, but they lack the mechanism to monitor the people working with them for humanitarian response. We should remember that these people grow up in a setting where abuse is common. HR departments should be a part of such discussions as they extensively deal with recruiting, monitoring and dismissal.

We are guided by the misconception that having a women-led workforce will generate a gender-sensitive response, but the reality can be very different. If we develop a mechanism to listen to the affected people, we can probably generate a solution for GBV.

We are looking for an alternative solution for cyclone shelters. The construction cost of a cyclone shelter is equivalent to the cost of 32 individual houses. A cyclone shelter can accommodate 1,200 people, whereas over 2,000 people can seek shelters in the individual houses. We saw a similar project in Patuakhali that creates safe space for disaster-affected people and have contributed in reducing the number of child marriage. The government has received a fund to build 500 cyclone shelters; we believe it'd be feasible to use the funds to construct individual houses instead.

We also noticed the widespread practice of GBV in the Rohingya community. Our experience tells us that we need to have a concrete plan for intervention. We also noticed that some foster parents are interested in adopting unaccompanied and separated girl children who are later trafficked to an unknown destination. This is a very alarming issue and needs to be strongly addressed.


Kashfia Feroz, Manager, Women Rights and Gender Equity, ActionAid Bangladesh

When the development actors responded to the landslides in Rangamati, they could not step outside the traditional concept of humanitarian assistance. We consider the distribution of foods and management of shelters but we do not take the special demands of the community into account. When we went to provide dignity kits to the female victims of the landslide, we had to enlighten them about the importance of these kits. We realised that gender sensitivity is essential in order to design and plan our programme.

We are aware of the gender-based violence taking place at shelter homes, but unfortunately, we do not have any evidence-based data and media coverage in this regard. Pregnant women do not get the facility of having additional nutrition at shelter homes, and lactating mothers do not have privacy to breastfeed their children. We need to redesign our planning process to prioritise the need for protection in our services. Every organisation should include GBV as part of their mandate. In addition, media coverage should be encouraged to promote sensitivity and to formulate necessary steps.


Shamima Pervin, Senior Programme Officer- Gender, UNFPA

When we mobilise resources, most donors prefer to see the immediate outcomes of our actions. The context of GBV is very different and it is impractical to consider that we can change the mindsets of people overnight. We have multiple programmes to reduce the intensity of GBV, but what we are missing is the nexus between development and humanitarian settings. When we initiate any GBV-related project, we only do it to facilitate the development in our community, but we do not consider its applicability on the ground of humanitarian crisis. GBV escalates during humanitarian interventions for factors such as, malfunction of the system, failure of the institutions, etc.

While responding to the cyclone Roanu in 2016, UNFPA's study reported that an adolescent girl faces two types of fear: a) the fear of the impending flood and b) the fear of spending nights with unknown men. It has also been observed that there is only one toilet at the shelter home. The men stand forward in the queue, and women are forced to use open spaces, exposing them to a more vulnerable environment. Our inter-agency guidelines prompt us to take GBV as an issue requiring protection and to make intervention regardless of the presence or absence of concrete evidence.

Coordinated response and the equal participation from all actors can help us eliminate gender-based violence. Multi-sectoral responses are required to assist the survivors of gender-based violence. Consultation is a must before kicking off any GBV project. Additionally, dialogues between several stakeholders need to be continued to minimise the intensity of GBV.


Mitali Jahan, Programme Manager, HRLS, BRAC

If we do not reduce the trauma of the distressed community and make them aware about gender-based violence, they might not be ready to accept the message. For instance, the women of the Rohingya community in Cox's Bazaar are continuously facing humiliation from their male counterparts. It is not feasible to enlighten them about GBV without reducing their trauma.

Countering gender-based violence is not a time-bound project, rather it demands continuous services from the relevant stakeholders. If the authority restricts the presence of policymakers and stakeholders in the Rohingya camp, an accountable platform should be alternatively created which will ensure continuous protection and support to the victims.

We can implement alternative dispute resolutions to adjudicate a civil affair in the Rohingya community, but this temporary solution can restart the violence. Our actions will be superficial if we do not trace a case for a longer period.

Policymakers need to contemplate about the scope of consultation to combat the GBV. A comprehensive time framework and collaboration between government and NGOs is essential to reach a solution.


Shahida Parvin, Monitoring Officer, Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha (BNPS)

We see no changes in the attitude of the people providing services at the shelter home, despite the rise of violence in humanitarian settings. Gender-based violence in our society is resolved through 'mutual understanding', which provides little room for the victim to exercise her rights. The reality gets way worse in the shelters. Nothing supersedes the need of increasing sensitisation and implementing laws. As for the Rohingya camps, we need to implement international laws with support from respective law enforcement agencies and bring the local government under the framework of international law. The planners in charge of camps and shelters should incorporate the issue of menstruation into their agenda and rethink the sanitation facility.

Stay updated on the go with The Daily Star Android & iOS News App. Click here to download it for your device.

Type START <space> BR and send SMS it to 22222

Type START <space> BR and send SMS it to 2222

Type START <space> BR and send SMS it to 2225

Leave your comments

Top News

Top News