Letting go of the gender binary: Charting new pathways for humanitarian interventions on gender-based violence

09 September 2015 Chris Dolan

Increasing acknowledgement in some quarters that women and girls are not the only victims of sexual violence, and that sexual violence is not the only form of gender-based violence (GBV), has yet to be adequately reflected in policy and practice in the humanitarian world. Current mainstream approaches to GBV, as generated by and reflected in international humanitarian and developmental discourse, and as embedded in policy and practice in crises around the globe, have improved humanitarian responses to women and girl victims. They have also brought partial sight to some of the previously gender blind, and generated some political discussion and action aimed at preventing such violence. The Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict, held in London in June 2014 and spearheaded by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and pop-culture icon Angelina Jolie, is an indicator of the unprecedented traction the issue has gained on (parts of) a global stage. Notwithstandingtheseimportantadvancesintermsofpoliticalrecognition of GBV, the situation for victims in conflict and humanitarian settings remains cause for concern. If gender is a potentially powerful analytical, practical and political engine, it is one which is currently firing on only half its cylinders. This article highlights some emerging thinking about GBV, examines the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s (IASC) 2005 Guidelines on GBV prevention, and argues that as a ten-year review process of the Guidelines nears completion, a number of key shifts in the conceptualization of GBV in humanitarian settings are required, for unless understandings of GBV shift from an emphasis on gender equality towards an ethos of gender inclusivity, the situation of victims will not improve, and social justice and change agendas will continue to falter. For mainstream humanitarian approaches significantly to increase the effectiveness of prevention, mitigation and response to GBV, the 2005 focus on sexual violence cannot be lost.1 However, the range of victims and survivors that are not just recognized but also addressed needs to be more inclusive – most urgently male and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) victims and survivors – and a range of non-sexual forms of GBV must also become the target of humanitarian attention. To achieve this,the importance and appropriateness of pursuing male–female gender equality when people are in crisis must be questioned and the primacy of humanitarian principles must be reaffirmed; static models of gender vulnerability must be replaced with analysis of situational vulnerability; opportunistic use of statistics must yield to consistent concern with establishing relevant data; and the concentration of expertise in the hands of “gender experts” cannot be allowed to substitute the larger task of attitudinal change in humanitarian personnel as a whole.

About the author

Chris Dolan
Director of the Refugee Law Project

Chris Dolan has worked extensively as an academic, practitioner and activist with refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and ex-combatants in conflict and post-conflict settings in sub-Saharan Africa. As Director of the Refugee Law Project, a university outreach project in Uganda working with refugees and IDPs from across the Great Lakes region, he has established new programming for male survivors of conflict related sexual violence alongside existing work with women survivors, as well as drawing attention to the specific needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex refugees. He has consulted widely with the UN and non-governmental organizations on the same.

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