Dubai — You would be hard pressed to find an aid worker that thought sexual violence was not an important issue. But ask them to define what it is, and you may leave them stumped.
Is it sexual violence, gender-based violence (GBV) or violence against women and girls? And what about male victims? How do you address GBV in patriarchal societies? And how do you balance collecting evidence-based data with responding to victims and/or preventing incidents in the first place?
Researchers at the Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN) at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London have been thinking around these questions as part of a "Good Practice Review" for tackling GBV in humanitarian contexts.
"We commissioned this work because we felt there was a gap," explained Wendy Fenton, HPN coordinator at the ODI's Humanitarian Policy Group.
"When we started looking at the issue and talking to people we realized that there wasn't even agreement about what GBV programming or prevention and response actually was. Even the terminology seems to be contested."
They found a wide range of different concepts, terminologies and priorities, and the researchers said that in spite of the major advances in humanitarian and development programming, there was still a lack of firm consensus about how to define, prevent and respond to GBV.
The HPN paper Preventing and responding to gender-based violence in humanitarian crises authored by Rebecca Holmes and Dharini Bhuvanendra, was published last month and will be presented this week at the 10th annual Dubai International Humanitarian Aid & Development (DIHAD) conference, which focuses on women and aid.
Conference panelists will examine the role women play as essential providers of assistance in humanitarian crises; the disproportionate impact of conflict and disasters on women; and how aid is and should be adapted to meet gender needs.
"Maybe discussing women and aid in the Middle East is controversial," DIHAD's board director, Gerhard Putman-Cramer, told IRIN. "But if it is, that is good, because I think it's healthy to have these discussions and give the theme some air in a region where perhaps things may not be 100 percent as they should be on all scores."
Putman-Cramer, who has held several director-level roles with the UN?Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), added: "It's only in the last 10 years or so that countries like the UAE [United Arab Emirates] have become very active in the multilateral sphere of the humanitarian world.
"So I think it's good to be putting gender topics on the table. If we're banging onto an open door, that's great, but I don't think that's the case."
After evaluating the wide range of practice and policy approaches to GBV and charting programming milestones and initiatives over the years, the 36-page HPN paper concludes that knowledge of GBV in emergencies was "inadequate".
It adds that owing to "deeply embedded cultural and social norms around GBV, any intervention designed to address its causes, consequences and effects can only work at the margins; bringing about real, meaningful change will be a slow, long-term process, in which humanitarian response can play only a small part."
High profile debates
Cultural sensitivities can be one of the biggest hurdles in finding consensus about how to respond to GBV in emergencies.
"Because of the hidden nature of GBV (including high rate of underreporting of sexual and other forms of violence) as well as the lack of GBV experts deployed in the early stages of emergencies to assess GBV issues", writes Jeanne Ward, an independent consultant on GBV in emergencies, "it's often a challenge to counter this view [that GBV is not a critical concern] until well after the emergency has subsided and data can be more routinely collected.
"Some humanitarian actors also maintain that responding to acts of GBV (particularly those not directly related to conflict and displacement) is the preserve of culture and therefore outside the scope of humanitarian intervention."
Issues of sexual violence have rarely been far from the headlines recently, led by high-profile gang rape cases in India, and other cases in Kenya - and South Africa, as well as reports of child marriage and sexual abuse among Syrians in refugee camps, and the subsequent community action and celebrity-backed campaigns attempting to target rape both domestically and in conflict settings.
In June the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) will host in London a global summit on preventing sexual violence in conflict, while its aid agency, the Department for International Development (DFID), has allocated £35 million (US$57.7m) of funding to support campaigns to end female genital mutilation/cutting.
DFID is also introducing a requirement that all its development and humanitarian interventions - from drafting through to evaluation and monitoring - should consider gender equality.
More generally, a revision is also currently under way of the 2005 Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings.
In 2012 the UK government launched its Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative with high-profile support from UN Special Envoy for Refugees and Hollywood star Angelina Jolie.
Mukesh Kapila, a former UN mission chief and until recently Under-Secretary-General at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, welcomes the profile being given to the causes and campaigns, but he said it needed to be about more than headlines.
"There is clearly money there and these are popular causes," he told IRIN. "How can anyone disagree with such policies and that celebrities give visibility to important issues?
"But, while this is all good stuff, what remains most important is structural change. We need to challenge structures, systems and process and tackle vulnerabilities and their causes... not just applying vertically-targeted programmes."
Kapila, now a professor of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs at the University of Manchester, will be speaking at DIHAD about the role of women in decision-making and how female leadership may influence institutions and programming.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]