At Concern, we believe unequivocally that protecting and empowering women and girls is key to making lasting change. Gender-based violence has many causes but we’ve identified three key factors — and outlined ways we’re working to address them.
1. Harmful gender norms
Gender stereotypes and are often used to justify violence against women. Cultural norms often dictate that men are aggressive, controlling, and dominant, while women are docile, subservient, and rely on men as providers. These norms can foster a culture of abuse outright, such as early and forced marriage or female genital mutilation, the latter spurred by outdated and harmful notions of female sexuality and virginity.
These norms can also cause violence when the are challenged. Ibrahim*, was a gentle poetry-loving teacher when he married Khadija* and they began a family. But after the Syrian war left him a refugee with no job, a sense of worthlessness, and responsibility for his wife, their 7 children and his mother, the gentleness fled and he began to beat his wife.
Of the 5.6 million people who have fled Syria to live in neighboring countries, 4 out of 5 are women and children. Surveys show that refugee men, who feel it is their duty to support their families, but can’t find the means, often resort to gender-based violence.
What’s being done
In Lebanon, Concern Worldwide developed a protection program for the mental health of Syrian refugees, which is based on the belief that helping men recognize their own traumatization is key to improving the lives of the women and children in their communities.
“Perpetrators [of GBV] are largely victims of their circumstances and they need support to change,” said Protection Program Director Samantha Hutt, who designed the project. “The other aspect of protection programming I am really passionate about is empowering people to be the authors of their own life, whether they be children, people with disabilities, or people living in tents.”
Just as empowering women can help eliminate hunger, food scarcity also leads to increased gender-based violence. In Malawi, where a 2013 survey revealed that 61% of women and girls said they had experienced sexual violence and 64% had experienced physical violence, an ongoing food crisis only worsened the situation.
Women and girls face more early and forced marriages as families seek dowry payments and try to reduce their food bill. Women may be forced into sex work to survive, and money shortages increase tensions within families, which can lead to violence. Though Malawi’s new Marriage Act increases the legal minimum age for marriage to 18, that’s not always what happens in practice.
What’s being done
When Lenason Ninyero found out that Daliyesi Mozhenti, a 14-year-old girl in his village, was about to be married to a 19-year-old man from a nearby town, he and his fathers’ group swung into action.
Lenason is a 34-year-old farmer from Dinyero village in Misamvu, Nsanje district in southern Malawi. He is also chairperson of Nyantchiri School Fathers’ Group. “As a ‘fathers’ group’ we work to protect and rescue vulnerable children, especially girls, from harmful cultural practices, including early or forced marriages.”
When the fathers’ group looked into Daliyesi’s case, they found that the parents of both the girl and the young man had arranged the marriage. When mediation failed to convince the parents to call the marriage off, the fathers’ group informed the police and child protection services. The marriage was cancelled, and the parents were fined two goats per family. Most importantly, Daliyesi has been able to stay in school, complete fifth grade and move on to sixth.
3. War and conflict
Forced marriage isn’t just the result of hunger; conflict zones have also created more child brides. According to Girls Not Brides, child marriage has increased since the start of the crisis, as parents hope that through marriage, their daughters will be cared for. For Syrian families, these negative coping mechanisms are all desperate responses to a desperate situation, done in hopes that they will ensure their daughter’s safety and financial security, and reduce the burden on the family.
Older women also face unique dangers in times of crisis, making everyday activities like going to the bathroom or collecting water potentially dangerous, due to the risk of rape or sexual abuse. According to the UN, the maternal mortality rate in conflict and post-conflict countries rises to 2.5 times higher than the average.
During displacement, women may experience not only sexual exploitation and abuse, but also gendered denial of access to basic services. On return, women face challenges that are conditioned by social roles, and their status as mothers, widows, property owners or survivors of violence. These risks are all compounded by intersecting inequalities and vulnerabilities.
What’s being done
Concern knows that because war affects women and children disproportionately, we have to focus on their needs. In countries that are hosting large numbers of refugees — such as Lebanon and Turkey — we provide refugee women with psycho-social support, address shelter needs, and build resources for communities to promote gender equality and reduce gender-based violence. In countries of conflict like South Sudan, we are distributing food and vouchers to families, treating malnourished children, building shelters, and providing clean water and latrines.