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Global push to end sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian crises must continue

“It is the responsibility of the international community to respond to the needs that the society has not been able to support, and it is their moral responsibility to find solutions – political and financial – to treat the consequences of this scourge.”

Minister of Foreign Affairs Ine Eriksen Søreide and UNFPA Executive Director, United Nations Under-Secretary-General Dr. Natalia Kanem

These were the words of Nobel laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege a little over a year ago in Oslo, where the governments of Norway, Iraq, Somalia and the United Arab Emirates, along with UNFPA (the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency), OCHA, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, gathered to make strong political and financial commitments to help end sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian crises, and to end impunity.

Norway alone pledged NOK 1 billion to fund programs to respond to a human rights violation that is too often overlooked by the international community. Partners agreed that strengthening prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence must be a humanitarian priority.  In addition, 21 donors announced a total of $363 million, and the co-hosts of the conference are actively tracking these commitments.

One year later, commitments to combat gender inequality and scale up prevention and response both remain strong, taking a survivor-centered approach. One example of this is the recent launch of the Handbook for UN Field Missions on Preventing and Responding to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, initated by Norway and developed together with the UN. There is also recognition of the key role of national and local organizations, including local women’s organizations, as leaders in an effective response.

While progress is being made, the situation remains critical. 

Sexual violence disproportionately affects women and girls, with one in three experiencing it in their lifetime. However, boys and men can also be victims of this violence and the stigma it entails. The risk of sexual and gender-based violence significantly increases in armed conflict and disasters where exploitation and abuse are more prevalent – including rape, intimate partner violence, child marriage, and trafficking.

COVID-19 is also taking a heavy toll. As the pandemic has spread across the globe, violence against women is rising.

UNFPA projects that the fallout from the coronavirus could slow global progress towards ending gender-based violence – including in humanitarian settings – within this decade by one third. Norway will continue its high level of support for the UNFPA’s work in humanitarian crises, and will this year provide a total of NOK 135 million in support, including ear-marked support for sexual and gender based violence in the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan.

Building on the commitments made last year in Oslo, hundreds of civil society organizations, governments, and the United Nations are working to protect those affected by humanitarian crises, especially women and girls and to provide life-saving services. 

In Bangladesh, UNFPA is strengthening the capacity of health workers to respond to sexual and gender-based violence. This includes providing sexual and reproductive health services, mental health and psychosocial support to survivors, adapting referral pathways and developing gender-based violence referral guidelines to function at maximum capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Jordan, an assessment revealed that most Syrian refugees did not know where to go or whom to contact for protection services. In collaboration with the International Medical Corps, UNFPA developed a map to identify services for survivors of gender-based violence. 

In Yemen, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, the coping mechanisms of women and girls are stretched to the limit, while the breakdown of protection systems has made them increasingly vulnerable to violence and abuse. In March alone, UNFPA and partners reached more than 71,000 women with protection services.  

The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact must further our resolve to work together and do everything we can to promote gender equality and women’s leadership, and to prioritize funding gender-based violence prevention and response in humanitarian crises. Together we must do more to protect women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence, treat survivors, and bring perpetrators to justice. 

Upholding the rights of women and girls and supporting the most vulnerable in humanitarian crises is our collective duty. Urgent action to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence is needed – now more than ever.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Ine Eriksen Søreide / UNFPA Executive Director, United Nations Under-Secretary-General Dr. Natalia Kanem

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