Gender-based violence is a public health issue as well as a protection issue, due to its significant effects on physical and mental health through, for example, injuries, trauma, sexually transmitted diseases and stigma.
Around 35.6 per cent of women across the world have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives, mostly from intimate partners in the domestic sphere. Large cross-country studies emphasise both similarities and wide variations of violence against women between different settings.
A range of factors drive this violence; amongst others, one of the increasing factors of gender-based violence is conflict. There is solid evidence that conflicts have a strong negative impact on: child and maternal health as measured by mortality, morbidity or nutrition; the occurrence of sexual violence; the prevalence of high-risk sexual behaviours; and poor access to sexual health and rights services.
Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to violence during outbursts of armed conflict as a result of: targeted violence as a weapon, the separation of families, disruption to community and institutional protection and service structures, and increased obstacles to access to justice for survivors, among others.
Furthermore, for a number of other reasons, including shame, stigma, low awareness of or access to services, lack of protection and security, and malfunctioning justice systems and impunity, violence against women and girls (VAWG) is often under-reported and available services are under-utilised. As a result, the effects of VAWG on physical, sexual and reproductive health, as well as psychosocial and mental health effects, are typically exacerbated in conflict situations by a lack of access to or improper medical care, concurrent infectious disease, malnutrition, stress, and other psychosocial problems.
Our work focuses on understanding types, patterns and dynamics of violence against women and girls, as well as causes and types of service provision and prevention in different contexts and regions.
Conflict and violence have profound impacts on gender relations. These include changes in family roles, with women often taking on new roles as household heads or breadwinners temporarily or more permanently; and also changes to the role women play in the economy, where customary gendered divisions of labour are often challenged due to changes in family compositions, and due to altered or loss of access to markets, resources and assets (see our contribution to the UN Women sourcebook on women, peace and security). In addition to the above, we also observe changes in social relations and in the political sphere.
Women in conflict areas engage in a number of organisations, often churches, schools, hospitals and charities, where they provide social services during conflicts – and emergencies – often voluntarily. Women actively contribute to restoring and providing social services, such as health and education; and support counselling, training and psychological support to each other, to community members and to refugees.
In much of our work, women and men have described to us the importance of women's work in building peace within the home and community, and in passing on messages to the next generation about not engaging in violence in order to solve disputes and conflict (see, for example, our work in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan).
Also, at regional and national levels, women's movements have been vital in ending violence and supporting peace processes. However, despite their contributions and obvious show of strength, women are still perceived as too 'soft' for politics and are usually excluded from formal peace and political processes. We need increased understanding of how women are and can be 'better' included in formal political processes.