What do Survivors Want?

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sexual violence happens all over the world – in and out of conflict settings. Statistics suggest that at least 1 in 3 women will be affected by sexual violence. It is a degrading experience, one that takes away the ability to choose what happens to one’s body, and that affects individuals throughout the globe.

Sexual violence is distinguished from consensual sex by the lack of consent given by one of the parties. This absence of consent creates a power imbalance, makes it more difficult for survivors to report or seek justice, and can be a root cause of the psychosocial impacts of sexual violence, in particular the feelings of shame and worthlessness. In humanitarian settings, these impacts are felt regardless of whether one is a survivor of sexual violence from the local population, or from the humanitarian community – an issue only recently coming to light.

While gender-based violence against local populations in conflict zones is already a significant part of humanitarian programming – and organisations such as UN Women, amongst others, advocate for survivor-centred approaches – there is little information on how to address the impacts of sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers themselves from an organisational perspective.

How, then, can survivor-centred approaches be used to address sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers?

According to UN Women, the survivor-centred approach “seeks to empower the survivor by prioritizing her rights, needs and wishes. It means ensuring that survivors have access to appropriate, accessible and good quality services.” This approach has been used since the early 2000s, and is understood to reduce the stigma and shame felt by sexual violence survivors. It is also now part of the minimum standards required for humanitarian action on gender-based violence programming and activities.

At the core of the concept, survivor-centred means placing power and control back in the hands of the individual who has experienced sexual violence. This is done in a surprisingly simple and intuitive manner: by returning their autonomy and allowing them to make decisions about how and where their healing process takes place. By placing that power and control back in the hands of the survivor, one can create a recovery process that is empowering and driven at a pace comfortable for survivors. This approach can also significantly reduce the impact of a sexual violence incident.

Could survivor-centred approaches work for humanitarian aid workers as they have for local populations?

The humanitarian community is clearly not exempt from disturbing trends of sexual violence. Statistics on the issue are still emerging, however numbers already suggest that sexual harassment and assault is pervasive in the humanitarian sector. This is backed by a recent report from the Feinstein International Center, which examined the current data, risk factors, and gaps that humanitarian organisations currently have in their internal policies and procedures which are preventing them from appropriately addressing sexual violence in their workplaces. The Feinstein International Center report also underlined the need for additional research and scholarship on this issue, in particular better data on sexual violence risks facing national staff of humanitarian aid organisations.

As previously noted, however, little information is available on good pratices. What is appropriate protocol? What actions need to be taken? How can we make our response an empowering and non-re-traumatising experience for survivors who happen to be humanitarian aid workers? How can we apply the same principles we have reserved for our program beneficiaries to our own staff?

When humanitarian organisations currently think of how to respond to incidents of sexual violence, it is typically in the following order:

  • medical care, including the Post-exposure Prophylactics (PEP) kit;
  • psychosocial support; and
  • relocation of the survivor to a safe location, ideally to their home base.

In itself, this is not necessarily a bad course of events, assuming it is what the survivor wants. However, organisations have been known to adhere to a rigid protocol for responding to sexual violence, an inflexibility that does not always serve the best interests of the survivor. As one survivor notes:

When I have friends who do report - it becomes something immediately beyond their control - they have no say over how they want to proceed and what they want to happen, and there is no genuine concern for their well-being (it is much more a series of actions to protect the organization from being sued). These women are often the ones who bear the consequences - being forced to move to a different post.

The rigidity of this checklist results in a lack of range in responses to sexual violence; survivors are made to feel like a burden or a problem, and the opportunity to control their body or recovery is taken away. Often, they are shuttled around, as another survivor notes: “What I believe however was the essential missing piece was their lack of compassion and empathy.”

This approach is most typically exemplified in the assumption that sexual violence survivors must be moved to a secondary location – supposedly for their safety or mental well-being. However, this can come across as dismissive of the survivor’s needs, isolating, and, at times, callous:

For the evacuation the organization wanted to evacuate us directly to the nearest country and home. We objected to this as we wanted to see friends, felt we deserved a face to face debriefing with the organization in country and wanted to collect what belongings we had in country. Again, it felt as if the organization (in country) was trying to silence us and get us out.

Try to imagine yourself in this scenario:

You are a survivor of sexual violence. You have had all control taken away from you and experienced what might be the hardest moment of your life. In one of your first interactions afterwards, having had to speak about the incident of sexual violence – an already traumatising event – you’re then told that your desire and wishes do not matter. Even though you feel safe in a particular location, perhaps you even have support networks there, you are being sent to another place.

Certainly, there are nuances to this situation. If there is genuine, objective danger to individuals being in a location, humanitarian organisations routinely evacuate or move staff. This is part of their duty of care obligations. If a sexual violence survivor were in such a scenario, this would need to be adhered to; in such an event the need for a survivor to be moved would have to be clearly and carefully explained. However, barring such a situation, there are few legitimate reasons why a survivor’s wishes should not be respected. By framing the issue from the perspective of the affected survivor, we can better address their recovery process.

Further, what was outlined above works best for expatriate staff, but such an approach might do more harm for national staff, who constitute upwards of 90% of overall staff for most international NGOs in the field and are at the highest risk for any type of attack in humanitarian action. Would it raise an alarm or cause questions if the national staff were sent to capital? What confidential and appropriate services can be made available in their local languages? Where are their support networks and what actions can be taken to make sure they feel safe?

What is appropriate – culturally and socially – will differ greatly between contexts. What is possible, in terms of services and legal accountability, will also vary. There is a danger in generalising how we approach any group or individual who might experience sexual violence. Part of the survivor-centred approach is treating individuals as just that – individuals.

There are simple ways to implement the survivor centred approach, which does not necessarily require a strong deviation from our earlier formulation for care. The key difference is allowing survivors to direct the course of actions taken for their own recovery:  

  • Ask questions, even before an incident occurs. What options might national staff want? What options are available in country, including medical, psychosocial and legal opportunities? What might need to be acquired out of country?
  • Communicate to all staff before incidents occur about what options are available to them and where they can get support. Communicate at all levels in the organisation about who is prepared to provide support to survivors, in what languages, and what are the existing protocols for addressing incidents internally.
  • After an incident occurs, make sure survivors know what options are available and frequently presented. When survivors make choices, follow through appropriately. Communicate at all moments about what care and support the organisation can provide, steps being taken for redress and accountability, and who incident information is being provided to.

The survivor-centred approach to addressing incidents of sexual violence is simple at the core. It can and must become second nature for humanitarian organisations to approach post-sexual violence care to their staff in this way. We are already mainstreaming the approach in our gender-based violence service provision. We cannot expect less for our staff or ourselves.  

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