One-size-fits-all approach cannot work for victims and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence

On 28 September 2020, as part of the 75th United Nations General Assembly, the United Arab Emirates, Norway, and Somalia, in cooperation with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) hosted a high-level meeting on sexual and gender-based violence. Robert Mardini, the ICRC's director-general, took part in the "lightning round" question and answer session. Below is a transcript of Mardini's portion of the session.
Article 28 September 2020

Mark Eddo, founder of Eddo Media, MODERATOR: What are the top solutions to scaling up prevention and SGBV services, now that COVID-19 has both increased the need, has brought in restrictions imposed by the pandemic response measures, and has also weakened the economic situation of your donors?

Robert MARDINI, ICRC Director-General: In a nutshell, I would say that the COVID-19 pandemic has made an already highly challenging situation I much worse – both in terms of an increase in incidents of SGBV in areas of conflict and in terms of making sure that survivors get the help they need.

There is a variety of data and evidence to back this up. In DR Congo, to take just one example, our Mental Health and Psychosocial Support programmes in the Kivu regions saw a fourfold increase in the number of survivors of sexual violence in the first four months of this year, compared to the same period last year.

At the same time, the restrictive operating environment resulting from the pandemic means it is even harder for survivors to access appropriate support, particularly in areas where armed conflict or violence already make this much more difficult.

Our priority in the ICRC's is to address the most critical needs in the most critical places. This includes places of detention, where COVID poses particular risks. It is vitally important to address issues that impact on the dignity and safety of people in these environments – including sexual violence – and to ensure appropriate referrals for care.

Moreover, it is our ongoing priority to try to prevent sexual violence from occurring in the first place. And we do this by continuing to engage with armed actors across the board on the prohibitions – and obligations – set out by international humanitarian law.

And last but not least, despite the enormous challenges, COVID-19 must not be an excuse to overlook the urgent needs of SGBV victims and survivors. If anything, States and humanitarian actors need to redouble their efforts to ensure the provision of adequate health care for their needs – both physical and mental.

MODERATOR: What commitments can be made right now – right now – to further localization and support women-led and community-based organizations?

MARDINI: Thank you, Mark. It may be a familiar mantra, but I still restate the following, it is crucial that the needs of victims and survivors of SGBV are put at the center of humanitarian response.

For a start, this means a one-size-fits-all approach cannot work. For example, in the camps in Cox's Bazaar in Bangladesh, the practice of sex segregation and the impossibility of household visits because of COVID measures means that it is very hard to get an accurate picture of the needs, capacities and safety of women and girls.

Households are typically represented by men. This is a fact. Women have in many cases also found it very difficult to access hotlines for remote support. Yet it is crucial to ensure a response tailored to their specific needs. Working closely with local networks and women-led community-based organizations are essential to be able to achieve this.

The ICRC has already pledged to accelerate work addressing sexual violence through local organizations, in the spirit of the Oslo Conference Commitments. This is at the heart of our $20 million Special Appeal. To this end, we are strengthening partnerships with key National Societies. We are also working with local authorities in many contexts - not only on preventing SGBV through dialogue with armed actors, but also on the importance of addressing the consequences through local networks.

One issue of particular concerns are places where there is a critical lack of support for victims and survivors, particularly in the most challenging conflict-affected areas. The ICRC tries to address emergency medical care and protection needs, such as providing shelter and relocation, as well as mental health and psychosocial support. But we need to collectively identify and address these 'blind spots' as a matter of urgency, collectively.

MODERATOR: From your experience, what specific work can governments do in order to improve the situation of victims and survivors of SGBV?

MARDINI: I endorse everything that was said by my colleagues and I would like to emphasize that the key issue here is the really the mandatory reporting of sexual violence in certain countries. This obliges health care personnel and other professionals to report known or suspected cases of SGBV, usually to law enforcement bodies.

The ICRC is clear on the negative impacts of such mandatory reporting. In fact, we recently published a report on the issue, which has a few key findings, which include: One, in armed conflicts and other emergencies, mandatory reporting can seriously hinder access to critical health care. In some cases, survivors of sexual violence even choose not to seek health care specifically to avoid this.

Two, failing to access care for sexual violence has grave health consequences and can be fatal. And three, mandatory reporting can pose significant risks to the safety of survivors as well as to health care personnel, such as additional threats from perpetrators or stigmatization.

In light of these findings, we have three key asks to States. We call on them, firstly, to reconsider any polices that make post-SGBV care contingent on the non-confidential disclosure of victim information. Secondly, to prioritise dignified access to health care for survivors of sexual violence. And thirdly, to ensure that local organizations – led by women and specialized in SGBV – play a key role in the analysis and dialogue on removing barriers to support and care.