What might recovery from sexual violence in war look like? Reflections from CARE International as the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence kicks off

by 25th Nov 2013
A survivor of sexual violence in conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo with her baby. Photo: Jake Lyell  / CARE A survivor of sexual violence in conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo with her baby. Photo: Jake Lyell / CARE

Today marks the start of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, which focuses for 2013 on the theme of militarism. The past year has seen the British Government and others make sexual violence as a weapon of war a political priority as never before – with a particular focus on seeking prosecutions to end impunity for such crimes.

While justice is important, CARE’s experience points to the importance of a more holistic understanding of the support that survivors need to put their lives back together and challenge cultures of militarism and violence. Over the past year CARE undertook a review of its support to survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). CARE’s Sonia Martins and Paul-Andre Wilton explain our approach to helping women recover and reintegrate into their communities using an innovative mix of micro-savings, health and psychological support and community-based campaigns.
Recent evaluations indicate this approach is starting to show signs of progress. The challenge now for CARE is to encourage others to fund, adopt and help us scale up the approach, while also continuing to learn about what works for women.

The problem

The scale of sexual, physical and psychological violence against women in eastern DRC has been an infamous characteristic of the last 20 years of conflict. What is less known is how physically surviving an attack is only the start of a long process of recovery for women, which includes dealing with complicated feelings of shame and social stigma, and new vulnerabilities that further marginalise and exclude them.

A woman who has been attacked may be rejected by her husband, her family and her community. Rape ruins reputations, which affects a woman’s ability to marry. She can be seen as a burden, and her loss of self-esteem can be compounded by her isolation from important social occasions, further impeding her ability to recover and reintegrate into normal life. Suffering from health problems, few prospects and cut off from family and community life, survivors of rape are no longer protected by the same social norms and at a minimum can be trapped in cycles of psychological abuse.

CARE’s approach:

CARE’s work is built on three key understandings related to the consequences of sexual and gender based violence:

  • Firstly, that the effects and the path to recovery are shared by both the individual and the community. If attitudes to survivors are not challenged and changed among family, friends and neighbours, then the kind of social isolation that compounds personal injury will not be addressed.
  • Secondly, that each survivor has different needs and priorities, and so a multi-sector ‘holistic’ approach is required. Our research shows that a woman may be more inclined to speak first to a health professional rather than a family member if she is raped, or may choose a volunteer counsellor over a nurse to talk about domestic abuse. At CARE, we have learned that we need to ensure that support addresses physical and psychological injuries, as well as justice, social and economic concerns to provide the best chance of recovery. Each element adds value to a woman’s recovery, but not in a uniform or linear way.
  • Lastly, that reintegrating women back into their communities so that they can feed, clothe and protect themselves and their families is not the final goal. Working with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and their communities is an opportunity to create with them new identities for women, where women generate income, engage in decision-making and have a strong voice in their own and their community’s life and its future direction. In this more equal role, women are better protected from the kind of sexual equation that links value with virginity and marriage, and where abuse can leave them isolated and more vulnerable than before.

Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs)

At the heart of our approach is an adaptation of the micro-savings model that CARE first pioneered more than 20 years ago. In the DRC, the innovation was to use the VSLA approach to bring a mix of SGBV survivors and other women together to save, invest and grow their incomes. The diverse nature of the group helps to protect survivors’ confidentiality.
Together with an increase in income, our work with SGBV survivors is showing the same increase in confidence, social connectedness and agency as other VSLA groups with non-survivors demonstrate. This is key, as the VSLA helps to bridge the individual and the community level elements of recovery, and helps survivors to build new and stronger identities than before. SGBV survivors have also reported changes in family and community relationships as a positive outcome of their participation in a VSLA group.


CARE’s research is based on four projects using this model as well as specific additional inquiries with a small number of survivors. More research on a bigger scale would help to shore up these early findings, and build the case for this ‘socio-economic reintegration’ approach among policy makers. In the UK, the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative led by the Foreign Secretary William Hague is championing a strong justice and prosecutions approach to deter SGBV. Part of this work acknowledges the need to respond to survivors’ other needs, and CARE has used its involvement in Hague’s initiative, as well as the recent High Level Event on Violence Against Women and Girls in Emergencies to press the case for this kind of holistic intervention.

At the programming level, CARE needs to improve the integration of the different pieces to create a more seamless experience for survivors, as well as press on with gathering evidence on what is effective. However, further changes can only come about in concert with others. During the 16 Days of Activism all of us have the chance to challenge stereotypes around the role of women, and make the link between gender inequality and violence. From the DRC to the UK, unless woman are able to play full and equal roles in society their lower status will always encourage some to attack and abuse them without respect for their rights or the fear of justice.

Paul-André Wilton

Paul-André was formerly Senior Policy Advisor (Conflict and Humanitarian) for CARE International UK. He led CARE International UK’s policy analysis and advocacy around resilient markets, livelihoods and jobs within the overall humanitarian advocacy area. He also shared responsibility for delivering gender, peace and security humanitarian advocacy on emergencies.

Before CARE he worked for peacebuilding and democratisation organisations, and lived in West and East Africa. Previously he worked in the education sector teaching English for five years to students of all ages in Spain and the UK. He holds an Msc in Global Politics from Birkbeck, University of London.

One good thing I’ve read

I really enjoyed Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson for the fascinating discussion and examples of how fragility and institutions interact over time. I would also recommend The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith as an excellent and necessary sweep through the history since decolonisation and independence on the continent. In one of my first jobs we used to give it to each intern on their departure, as invariably it filled huge gaps in their knowledge, as it had done for me

Twitter: @PA_Wilton