Frustrations were high about the lack of progress on women’s rights and efforts to roll back progress by some political actors. But overall, one thing was clear – following major global programmes investing in documenting and evaluating the impact of GBV programming in a range of settings there is now concrete evidence that violence can be prevented in measurable ways within only a few years. It takes investment and dedication to truly gender transformative approaches, but it can be done!
As the Chairs of the SVRI Conference reminded us at the opening, violence prevention has come a long way. The first conference took place in 2011 with a handful of academics and practitioners set on transforming the field of sexual and gender-based violence prevention and response. In the eight years since, significant investments to build the knowledge and experience of the sector means that the event now brings together almost a thousand global experts to share cutting edge research on what prevents violence against women and girls (VAWG) around the world. There were several trends I saw that contribute towards this growing confidence and expertise to address and prevent VAWG which I want to outline below in relation to CARE’s own work.
1) More money is needed – but progressive donors are investing for long-term change
From the range of donors and initiatives being shared at SVRI, it was clear that whilst only a tiny fragment of international aid focuses primarily on VAWG prevention, those that are investing are doing it for long-term sector-wide change.
The Equality Institute’s research presented at SVRI calculated only 0.002% of ODA has VAWG prevention as its primary objective. It is for this reason, according to DFID, that building the evidence base that demonstrates how effective VAWG prevention can be scaled and influence wider development sectors is critical.
A really important example of this is the DFID- funded programme called What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls, a six-year programme funded by DFID to pilot, test and validate violence prevention programmes in over 20 countries. CARE worked with partners in Rwanda to implement a programme called Indashyikirwa to reduce intimate partner violence between couples and work with social change agents to then support wider social and cultural norms change in their communities. Research from this and many of the other What Works pilots was shared at SVRI.
2) Programming in hard-to-reach humanitarian and conflict contexts is possible and critical
It was clear from the amount of research and programming captured and communicated during SVRI that VAWG prevention and response programming in some of the most complex or fragile contexts is possible. Work by CARE, IRC and the Global Women’s Institute focused on fragile contexts, such as South Sudan, Dadaab refugee camp, northern Syria and post-conflict contexts globally, to highlight work with refugee communities in a range of contexts, and in chronic responses. For example, Tearfund’s work with religious leaders and communities in the DRC showed measurable reductions in violence. But the research also questioned how to ensure such work is gender transformative when it also relies on institutions that can be invested in patriarchal structures. What is clear is that gender transformative work, even in complex contexts, is imperative and attainable.
An important example of working inside Syria showed how work by CARE and partners have been successful in providing integrated services for sexual and reproductive health and rights and GBV support services that has reached over 230,000 people via health services of which almost 4,000 received GBV services. This integrated approach is essential as is the commitment to addressing the root causes of GBV even in the midst of crises. Ezgi Emre, CARE Turkey SRH and Protection Programme Manager, said in her presentation:
“Complex humanitarian emergencies, such as protracted conflicts, are becoming a permanent feature in the humanitarian landscape. There is an urgent need to respond to the needs of those affected by the crisis, but we must also focus on the social and cultural norms change needed to address the factors driving GBV.”
Another pressing research trend is that of how sexual exploitation and abuse plays out in crises and what approaches can mitigate it – both importantly driven by centering the voice and experiences of women and girls. Working with IRC and the Global Women’s Institute, CARE is part of a two-country study with refugee populations in Lebanon and Uganda that seeks to capture effective exploitation prevention strategies. As CARE Lebanon colleague Loujine Fattal shared in her presentation:
“The project will document proactive measures to mitigate risk and prevent sexual exploitation and abuse from occurring in relation to accessing essential items like food, water, shelter, and cash. Lessons learned from the IRC Uganda and CARE Lebanon pilots will be documented in multiple ways and shared with national, regional, and global humanitarian actors – in order to improve practice and reduce the risks for women and girls when receiving aid distributions.”
3) Programmes focusing on adolescent girls must be integrated
The fact that women and girls are not a monolith and the importance of integrated and bespoke programming came out very strongly across SVRI, with a clear message around the need to tailor services and approaches around the diverse needs that adolescent girls have dependent on their context and identity.
An example from CARE’s own work that seemed to align with this trend is the Tipping Point programme. Tipping Point is a multi-country initiative addressing child marriage by focusing on community- and societal-level discriminatory social norms rather than responding solely to surface-level symptoms of these related to girls’ individual agency. Anne Sprinkel, the Tipping Point Programme Director, said:
“We see child marriage as an act of violence, so we enable girls to assert their rights, help families and communities to support them, and influence policy to sustain change promoting the rights of adolescent girls.”
This work has brought together community level programming and evidence generation in Nepal and Bangladesh, with multi-level advocacy and cross-learning efforts across the globe.
4) Global progress to prevent sexual harassment is key
One area that was relatively new to SVRI this year, in part because of it is new to rigorous academic research in VAWG prevention, is work on sexual harassment. In a critical panel exploring sexual harassment and abuse in a range of contexts, CARE colleagues Roslyn Dundas and Ei Shwe Yin Win shared their work on preventing VAWG and harassment in the workplace in a four-country programme called STOP. In doing so they shared the critical work going on to involve not just government or communities but also employers, trade unions and global brands in joint efforts to tackle workplace abuse.
For an area that has not had perhaps as much academic interest from the VAWG sector there are now accelerated efforts and collaborations by practitioners and academics to really document evidence of what effective programming looks like and how best to engage the range of stakeholders needed. It was widely recognised that in the year that the ILO members agreed to a global convention to end violence and harassment in the workplace and set global standards to address this, there is a real opportunity to galvanise action that can reduce VAWG for millions of women and men worldwide.
5) Ensuring grassroots women’s organisations and movements are supported and amplified is key
The importance of supporting national women’s movements was clearly recognised as crucial for VAWG prevention and women’s rights in general, but it was also recognised that we are seeing efforts across the globe by conservative actors to roll back progress on women’s rights. And that these regressive efforts are having an effect either directly or in some cases as parts of efforts to scrutinise and control aid in ways that undermine the political project of women’s movements.
Some powerful conversations with a range of stakeholders during the conference really impressed me; not least talking to Rachel Adau Gieu, Executive Director, Women Empowerment Centre South Sudan (WECSS) – one of CARE’s partners – about the importance of CARE’s approach to supporting women’s organisations to be at the forefront of decisions around VAWG prevention in that country context. As Rachel said:
“The ball is in our court as women-led organisations to commit ourselves or we remain silent for the rest of our life! Working in collaboration, solidarity and sharing of information was really highlighted. As per now, we shall work in consortium as women-led organisations in South Sudan to achieve better results.”
But the fair challenge on organisations like CARE is also to ensure we don’t get in the way of the women’s organisations and local women’s movements as they claim the space and legitimacy to act and speak for themselves. An important challenge to INGOs working to prevent VAWG has to be ensuring we complement and add value to long-term VAWG prevention and sector-wide change.
Overall SVRI was a truly inspiring conference for anyone working for gender equality. The amazing growth in evidence of effective complex programming that works is critical at a time when the backlash against women’s rights is seeing challenges to fundamental human rights norms and gender equality the world over. As can be seen from CARE’s own diverse research projects, there is some amazing work going on in GBV prevention across the sector and efforts to document and capture these with academic rigour. But it is critical we continue to share the findings of programmes like Indashyikirwa and Tipping Point, and continue to innovate, test and scale results.
The field has come a long way in a short time and the overarching message is one of hope. GBV is preventable in programme timescales. It doesn’t need to take a generation to see change happening on the ground. It can be done with targeted and committed funding. But it isn’t simple, and it does need sustained and committed funding and collaborations. Where this has happened, like with the DFID-funded What Works programme, the impacts both in real terms and in learning are incredibly significant. Now we all must take note.