The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) defines Gender-Based Violence (GBV) as, “harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender.” GBV is a serious human rights violation, including against the right to life, equality and security of the person; and against freedom from torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. When committed systematically as a weapon of war, GBV is a crime against humanity. In all contexts, GBV can be life-threatening. In refugee contexts, the threat of GBV significantly increases, constituting a second crisis alongside the original crisis of displacement.
GBV can take many forms: sexual, physical, mental, social, and economic harm; or harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation, child marriage, forced marriage, and honour crimes. GBV can be public or private, on the individual, community, or societal level; but in every case, violence is directed against someone because of their gender.
Causes of Gender-Based Violence
Though it can have many contributing factors, GBV is a manifestation of the unequal power relations involved in gender roles and identities. Those stuck on the wrong end of these power imbalances bear a heavier burden than others in ordinary times. In times of crisis, marginalised and subordinated groups in particular face a second crisis: GBV.
This explains why women are disproportionately affected. In many societies, women play a subordinate role relative to men. Acts of violence serve to maintain structural gender inequalities, allowing perpetrators to preserve their privileges, power and control.
When men and boys are subjected to GBV, the intent is often gendered in nature too, seeking to emasculate and feminise victims. This motive once again points to the discriminatory gender roles at the root of GBV.
Similarly, LGBTQI+ persons are often singled out as targets, the violence against them driven by a desire to punish those seen as defying binary gender norms.
Gender-Based Violence in Refugee Settings
When refugee status intersects with characteristics such as sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status and disability, the threat of GBV is compounded. The risk significantly increases in refugee contexts for multiple reasons, as contributing factors emerge at each stage of the refugee journey.
During conflict, the risk of GBV increases due to the breakdown of social protection and access to services, as well as the systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. A result of social disintegration is that survivors are unable to seek redress, which in turn increases the incentives for perpetrators to commit acts of violence. Simultaneously, the customary attitudes that underlie GBV may intensify, adding fuel to the fire.
In flight, families are often torn apart. Women and children may be separated from fathers and husbands. Out of necessity, women and girls may develop survival strategies which disrupt gender norms. Once families are reunited, this can leave male refugees feeling powerless or resentful, their traditional role as provider and protector of the family usurped. Such disruption can lead to disagreement and tension, escalating to violence. Refugees can find it almost impossible to leave abusive partners, whether it be because of the dangers of continuing a perilous journey alone, or because of concerns about deportation and a lack of support services upon arrival.
Violence during the journey is also common. One source is smugglers. Accounts have emerged of women experiencing sexual violence and pressure to exchange sexual relations for the price of passage. The UNHCR has noted the prevalence of such “transactional sex”, where refugees are forced into sexual relations to continue their journey.
Border guards may be another source of violence and human rights abuses. During the so-called “European Refugee Crisis”, Human Rights Watch reported incidences of GBV against refugees in Macedonian detention centres. Women who engaged in transactional sex with male guards were promised priority treatment and faster release.
Further, the design and social structure of camps can perpetuate GBV. Inadequate accommodation is one source of insecurity: refugees reside in over-crowded, multi-household dwellings or are forced to sleep outside, lacking secure shelter and protection. The camp layout can expose refugees to violence, for example if toilet and shower facilities are shared, or only accessible through narrow corridors and dimly-lit spaces. Policies relating to healthcare, shelter, food distribution and sanitation systems often specifically discriminate against and degrade women. A prominent example is the widespread policy of handing out only one ration card per family in the name of the male head of the household. Such practices perpetuate women's subordinate, dependent status and strengthen male control, making women more vulnerable to GBV.
Consequences of Gender-Based Violence
GBV has severe—often fatal--consequences for individuals, on multiple levels of their wellbeing. Physical consequences include serious injury, unwanted or early pregnancy, and STIs, such as HIV-AIDS. Psychological consequences include worsening mental health—suicidal tendencies, trauma, insomnia and PTSD are common. Social consequences can be crushing for victims of GBV, who may find themselves stigmatised, shamed and ostracised by their communities and families. The social impact of GBV is often itself gendered in nature, constituting another layer of violence superimposed on the original act.
Gender-Based Violence and Integration
In refugee settings, the implications of GBV can be even more far-reaching and complex. Of acute concern is the interplay between GBV and integration in the host country. On the one hand, existing experience of GBV can impair the integration process. On the other hand, the structures and institutions with which refugees interact can themselves inflict or exacerbate GBV in various ways.
An important example of such dynamics is employment. The long-term health consequences of GBV—untreated mental health conditions and severe injury, for example—can restrict the ability to work. This implies economic repercussions for victims and their families and reinforces existing gender inequalities. Social and cultural norms can also compound poverty and power imbalances for survivors. For instance, association with GBV can undermine the social status of an entire family, to the extent that their community excludes them from economic opportunities. This leaves them unable to fully integrate and access employment.
Economic structures in the host country can increase the risk of GBV and reduce refugees’ ability to escape abusive environments. Accessing employment is notoriously problematic for refugees: many cannot find work, or are not permitted to do so; others find that their existing qualifications are not recognised, leaving them overqualified for the work they do. The resulting economic hardships are one of the key risk factors for GBV. Some refugees may resort to the informal economy, which exposes them to coercion and sexual exploitation. Women especially may be forced to engage in sex work to support themselves and their families, or in transactional sex with employers and landlords.
Unemployment and poverty are also associated with increased exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV). The perpetrator’s self-esteem and sense of well-being may be undermined, causing them to lash out against their partner, who, barred from economic opportunity, is at their mercy.
This account of employment illustrates how GBV and host country conditions can interact to stymie integration. Similar forces are at play in fields such as health, housing and education.
So, what can be done to put a stop to this crisis within a crisis?
GBV affects individuals, communities, and institutions. Given its complexity, especially in refugee settings, GBV is best tackled with interdisciplinary, multi-sectoral cooperation, according to the UNHCR.
Above all, organisations implementing GBV prevention and response plans must ensure equal participation by refugee women and men, girls and boys, in planning, implementing, and evaluating programmes. Not only is this approach the most effective, but it also respects the agency, rights and dignity of those involved.
To prevent and respond to GBV, its causes need to be well-understood. Accordingly, the UNHCR outlines five prevention strategies, each of which corresponds to a cause or important risk factor of GBV: transforming socio-cultural norms, with an emphasis on empowering women and girls; rebuilding family and community structures and support systems; designing effective services and facilities; ensuring legal systems conform to international human rights standards; and documenting incidents of GBV.
Nonetheless, according to a report based on interviews with nine refugee women, the main sticking point is not a lack of strategies, but rather a lack of means to implement them. This lack of means, in turn, is symptomatic of a weak worldwide commitment to taking the necessary legal, policy, and programming steps to eradicate GBV. For all the mandates reinforcing international responsibility to respond to GBV, the lack of financial and technical support to the populations served remains.
Words without deeds are just words; pieces of paper coated in ink and signed in swirling letters remain pieces of paper, if nothing is done about what they contain. We have words, and we have pieces of paper. Now, it is time for action; time to mean what we say; time to end this crisis within a crisis.
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Rioghnach is reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.