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Why we need to talk more about intimate partner violence in emergencies

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Laura Martineau-Searle, GBV AoR Helpdesk Manager, introduces the latest Evidence Digest authored by Sinead Murray and Jeanne Ward on Intimate Partner Violence in Emergencies.

To date, the discourse on GBV in emergencies has largely focused on the risk of sexual violence perpetrated by armed groups in conflict situations. While preventing, mitigating and responding to sexual violence in conflict is of great importance, this narrow focus has the effect of shifting attention away from the many other forms of GBV experienced by women and girls in emergencies, which include intimate partner violence, early child and forced marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting, and trafficking. It also gives rise to the notion that GBV is caused by the onset of a humanitarian crisis and is the result of exceptional behaviour caused by exceptional circumstances. The reality is that GBV happens every day, and not just in fragile and conflict-affected states, but also in more stable and prosperous nations. And furthermore, most forms of GBV are more likely to be perpetrated by men known to women and girls, than it is by strangers. GBV is rooted in gender inequality and the oppression of women and girls which is present in every culture worldwide.

In emergencies, acute poverty, increasing social fragmentation, the collapse of public services, as well as the breakdown of law and order, intersect with pre-existing gender inequalities to heighten the vulnerability of women and girls to multiple forms of GBV, including intimate partner violence (IPV). IPV refers to situations where women and girls are subject to physical, sexual, emotional and/or economic abuse at the hands of their spouse or partner. IPV has devastating and far-reaching consequences, and can result in long-lasting physical and emotional trauma for survivors and the death of women and girls.

Research conducted by the International Research Committee in 2015 in Domiz Camp in Iraq, Dadaab camp in Kenya, and Ajuong Thok settlement in South Sudan found that women were more at risk of IPV than sexual assault by strangers and armed groups. IPV was found to rise as a result of a range of factors, including early child and forced marriage, separation from the extended family, and alcohol and substance abuse by men. These findings are consistent with further research conducted by the International Rescue Committee in 2019 in South Sudan and findings from other emergencies.  And yet, despite the risks of IPV, evidence of effective IPV response programming in humanitarian settings is lacking. If the goal of humanitarian assistance is to save lives and reduce human suffering, then we need to look more closely at the issue of intimate partner violence.

The GBV AoR Evidence Digest on Intimate Partner Violence in Emergencies explores some of the emerging research on this issue in order to raise awareness and promote learning among researchers, policymakers, practitioners and activists in the humanitarian sector. The Evidence Digest draws attention to promising practices from non-humanitarian contexts on addressing IPV. These include efforts to target key stakeholders and foster collective community action to challenge the root causes of gender inequality and transform harmful gender norms, attitudes and behaviour which drive IPV. They also include the development of multi-sectoral service mappings and referral pathways, which in recognition of IPV survivors’ complex needs, signpost them to support services, including healthcare, housing, finance, psychosocial support and legal advice. Though often viewed as more applicable to development than humanitarian programming, such work is critical if we want to save the lives of women and girls and prevent their unnecessary suffering.

For a more detailed exploration of the latest research and learning on IPV in emergencies, please do read the latest GBV AoR Helpdesk Evidence Digest.

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