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Researchers train humanitarian organizations on how to respond to gender-based violence

Lexi Critchett | Staff Photographer
The Global Women’s Institute townhouse at 2140 G Street

Updated: April 16, 2024, at 10:05 a.m.

GW’s Global Women’s Institute is implementing a program to help international humanitarian organizations combat gender-based violence in developing countries.

Putting Survivors at the Center researchers are training humanitarian relief organizations in Iraq, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to confront instances of gender-based violence, which they will complete early 2025. Senior Research Associate Gabriella Nassif said the program trains members of local humanitarian organizations on maintaining survivor confidentiality and referring to specialists because women regularly disclose instances of gender-based violence to the groups, but the organizations often don’t have the knowledge or tools to address the cases. 

“Our program tries to cover that entire gamut of organizations to give them the tools that they would need to help a survivor get to that next step of specialized care, which that is the ultimate goal of all humanitarian actors who are working on gender-based violence,” Nassif said. “We want the survivor to get to the specialized services that they would need to start the healing process.”

The institute partnered with Women for Women International, an organization that supports female survivors of war, for the project. U.S. Agency for International Development awarded both groups funding to conduct the three-phase program. 

The program entered its second phase this academic year with pilot training programs in Iraq, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Iraq, domestic violence has long been rampant due to laws and masculine culture that often translate into violence against women, according to the United Nations. A humanitarian crisis in South Sudan resulting from ongoing political conflict has led to increased sexual violence against women. And the DRC has experienced increased reports of sexual assault by armed insurgent groups since March 2022.  

Nassif said the institute implemented the pilot programs based on research conducted in the program’s first phase, a process based on group interviews with leaders of local humanitarian organizations in all three countries. She said the pilot programs differ in each country and range from a lack of awareness about available resources to a lack of confidentiality preventing access to support. In all three participating countries, researchers introduced referral programs where local organizations can easily refer women experiencing violence to specialists, she said.

In Iraq, the programs focus on long-term solutions for survivors like training organization leaders to give survivors psychological support, while in South Sudan and the DRC, the programs are focused on short-term solutions like confidentiality in incidents of disclosure and referring women to specialists, according to the project’s website. 

“We really want to see what works,” Nassif said. “People, what we’re calling frontline staff, who deal with women and girls, what they think is the most helpful, and we want to move from there.” 

She said the goal of the pilot programs is to implement practices in the participating countries to test their success in easing access to support resources for survivors. Researchers will use that information in phase three of the project, where they will consolidate the most successful initiatives and create global guidelines for dealing with gender-based violence in 2025. 

“One of the reasons this project is important is because we are trying to tell people that just because we have specialized actors who support survivors doesn’t mean that’s enough,” Nassif said. “And it doesn’t mean that survivors are actually getting to the specialized actors. They might only be able to get to this local women’s group that meets twice a month. So our goal is to try and expand survivors’ access to these specialized services.”

Experts in gender-based violence said maintaining confidentiality is a beneficial part of the initiative because it is one of the main barriers facing women who want to come forward about violence. 

Kathleen Brewer-Smyth, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Delaware, said since women experiencing violence are often dependent on their abusers, like husbands, they are hesitant to speak out for fear of retaliation. 

“They’re kept secret because the abuser is the only source of food, shelter and the man of the house,” Brewer-Smyth said. 

Brewer-Smyth said intervening in cases of gender-based violence should be a priority for humanitarian organizations because incidents of violence can often escalate quickly. She said since abuse is more common than these organizations might realize, they should be looking for signs in every area they are working in so they can provide supportive resources in the early stages of abuse. 

“We have to get to them much earlier on and try to rehabilitate them with psychological counseling and get them out of the abusive situation and help them find their own employment skills and ways to not be reliant on the abuser,” Brewer-Smyth said. 

Amos Guiora, a professor of law at the University of Utah, said putting survivors at the center is an “admirable” approach to tackling gender-based violence because the approaches often structurally ignore survivors. 

“They are not, generally, if at all, front and center,” Guiora said. “They are ignored, dismissed and abandoned, and that’s a theme that repeats itself over and over and over and over again.” 

Guiora said researchers should emphasize making survivors feel like they are heard and believed in the training because one of the main reasons survivors do not come forward is because they feel no one will believe them. 

“Any mechanism such as what GW is doing that enhances understanding of how to believe is welcomed and is essential,” Guiora said. 

This post was updated to correct the following:

The Hatchet incorrectly reported that researchers will assign women experiencing violence to specialists. Researchers introduced programs that ease the process of referring survivors to specialists. The Hatchet also incorrectly reported Nassif’s title as a senior researcher. She is a senior research associate. The Hatchet also corrected this post’s headline to clarify that the program seeks to respond to instances of gender-based violence. We regret these errors.

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