Laura Pasquero, director of our Course “Addressing Sexual Violence in Conflict and Emergency Settings” discusses with Sophie Sutrich, former member of the Course Steering Committee and former Head of Addressing Sexual Violence at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the importance of training for humanitarian practitioners, and how crises – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – impact sexual violence survivors.
Sophie, you were Head of Addressing Sexual violence at ICRC for the last four years. In this role, you have been a core partner and contributor to the Course “Addressing sexual violence in conflict and emergency settings” organised by our Centre. How has this experience been for you?
Sexual violence in conflict and emergency settings remains a humanitarian concern of central importance and urgency. We can only address the issue effectively when we have the relevant knowledge and skills to do so and when we collaborate and work together within and beyond the humanitarian aid sector. This Course has consistently brought together relevant colleagues from across the globe and across organisations who, in turn, were able to both share and take their learning back to their operational setting and day-to-day work to address sexual violence more effectively.
The collaboration between the ICRC and the Centre in relation to this Course has been an excellent example of joining forces of multiple actors to make a difference in the lives of survivors of sexual violence. The content has been developed in close collaboration between the Centre and multiple, important humanitarian actors since the beginning. It has been continuously improved and updated over the years to provide the best possible impact by improving our humanitarian operations on the ground to prevent and respond to sexual violence. I have seen that this process has always been very professionally managed, and it has been a pleasure to be part of it.
You and the ICRC have been supporting the participation of many ICRC staff members in the Course. How much of their learning has been transformed into practice, and what enables real change to happen on the ground?
We have trained many colleagues over the years, all of which were carefully selected to maximise the impact of the training and its direct operational application. We have included colleagues working closest with people affected by conflict and senior leadership – both of which have shown to be absolutely critical to the overall uptake and improvement of our response and prevention efforts.
Due to its often invisible nature, and sensitivities in society around the subject of sexual violence, it is a topic that requires a special effort in terms of training to provide our colleagues with the skills and the confidence to be able to take concrete action to address sexual violence. The Course provides participants with a solid and comprehensive overview of the phenomenon of sexual violence, which puts them in a great position to take action in their respective roles. Of course, this is only the starting point to set up a well-thought-through, multidisciplinary and survivor-centric approach in a given context. In line with the ICRC’s strategy to address sexual violence, capacity building of our staff is one of multiple areas of focus – though one that is absolutely central and with a multiplier effect for our overall approach. In order to enable real change on the ground, we have also invested in dedicated experts who work to support priority delegations globally to scale up and further improve their response. Such increased efforts – related to capacity building, additional resources and coordination across the sector – have shown major improvements in our work with and for survivors of sexual violence. You can find more on our activities, strategy and our progress on our webpage dedicated to Addressing Sexual Violence. Having said that, huge challenges remain, not only in providing the services survivors truly need but in particular also in relation to prevention and accountability. Addressing the root causes has to be given more attention, not only by humanitarian actors but really as a society-wide effort.
You have now taken on new responsibilities in the organisation related to the COVID-19 response. How is the pandemic impacting survivors of sexual violence in conflict and other situations of violence, and what can humanitarian actors do to better respond to their needs and demands?
Sexual violence is a well-known side effect of emergencies, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. People already affected by existing humanitarian emergencies face a severe aggravation of intersecting vulnerabilities to health, economic and protection risks. Among these protection threats, there is a clear and increased risk of violence, neglect, sexual exploitation and abuse, discrimination and social exclusion due to the compounding impacts of the virus and its secondary effects. And while cases rise, access to services is often more difficult during a pandemic, thereby compounding the negative humanitarian impact of sexual violence even further.
We know of this aggravation, but we also know that hard data on increased prevalence is also hard to come by – due to the high number of unreported cases. We, therefore, must ensure that our response is not contingent upon increased individual disclosure but instead, remain accountable to victims/survivors in light of the widespread nature of this problem.
Access to lifesaving sexual violence services as well as prevention efforts must continue. These efforts need to be further prioritised and must, under no circumstance, be neglected during these trying times. We owe this to those who are survivors or are at risk of sexual violence. Sexual and reproductive health care, mental health and psychosocial support, and protection services for survivors of sexual violence are ICRC priorities. We will continue to engage in a dialogue on sexual violence in conflict as a war crime. See also Covid19, conflict and sexual violence: reversing the burden of proof.