Laura Pasquero became the Director of our Executive Short Course “Sexual Violence in Conflict Settings and Emergencies” in early 2021. We had the opportunity to talk to her about her experience in this field.
You joined our Centre a few months ago; could you tell us something about your Sexual Violence Executive Short Course?
For the past eight years, the Centre has been offering this multidisciplinary course addressed to mid and senior humanitarian managers to help them conceive interventions centred on survivors’ needs, wishes and rights. The course stems from an intersectional feminist understanding of sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) and of the approaches to preventing and responding to it and supporting survivors of all genders. What makes the course unique is that academic research and humanitarian practice are closely entwined, mutually and critically informing each other, and offering participants a space to both explore new ground and reflect on their knowledge and practice.
The course, run by the Centre, is co-designed with several partner organisations – the ICRC, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and UNHCR have been core partners from the start – and is delivered by outstanding expert scholars and practitioners with vast experience of work in evidence-based sexual violence programming across a variety of sectors – medical response including MHPSS, access to justice, working with male survivors of sexual violence, GBV prevention and risk mitigation, only to mention some. Of course, one of the most engaging parts of the course are participants themselves, their expertise and their wisdom. They gather from all around the world equipped with diverse forms of knowledge and experience, rooted in their everyday work. So many enlightening examples and stories of promising practices with communities and diverse groups of survivors get shared in the classroom.
The restrictions linked to the Covid-19 pandemic motivated the Centre to accelerate the digitalization of the course that, until last year, had been offered face-to-face in Geneva and Kampala. Now, we also offer our course online with a combination of online live sessions, self-directed work, and offline discussions in pairs or small groups. The training is, therefore, more flexible and allows students to work at the same time as they take part in the course.
What were your first experiences in sexual violence programming in the humanitarian field?
My first experience in sexual violence programming was with MSF ten years ago in Morocco, where I coordinated a programme providing medical care to people on the move, refugees and asylum-seekers, affected by sexual violence in their countries of origin, along the migration route, or in Morocco. That experience opened my eyes to how pervasive sexual violence is in conflict and displacement settings, how devastating its impacts can be on individuals and entire communities, and how complex and unique each person’s healing process is.
After handing over our intervention to our Moroccan partners, I went to join MSF efforts in Papua New Guinea, an incredibly diverse country with high rates of sexual, intimate partner and domestic violence. It has been a profound experience. We worked alongside powerful women’s groups and national actors committed to addressing gender-based violence in isolated rural areas as well as in larger cities.
Why did you choose to work in the humanitarian sector? Could you tell us about your background studies and how you started your career?
I cannot recall exactly when or why I decided to engage in the humanitarian or the human rights fields, I guess it is more a way of being in the world that has grown within me over time, than an actual career choice.
My background is in international relations and human rights with a focus on gender studies. I obtained a European Master’s from the Global Campus of Human Rights, a vast network of universities for human rights and democracy education stretching across all continents. Studying and conducting research on gender, conflict and peace was eye-opening for me in terms of which directions I wanted to take. My first work experiences were in Kosovo, where I worked in the context of post-conflict community reconciliation and peacebuilding, and in the Republic of Moldova where I coordinated programmes focused on supporting women and girls who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation.
After some years of work in the sexual violence response field, I realised I needed to return to studying. I joined a programme at Worcester University where I trained to become an ISVA – independent sexual violence advocate – a professional figure in the UK that supports survivors of sexual violence through an empowerment model. What I learned from my ISVA colleagues and the UK Rape Crisis movement gave me a whole new perspective on working with survivors in different settings.
How do you see the future of sexual violence prevention and response in humanitarian settings?
On the one hand, we have increased evidence about what works to prevent sexual and gender-based violence in different settings, and how we should design programmes that best serve the needs and demands of survivors. The work and voices of survivors’ groups and activists are also increasingly shaping the narrative and informing interventions, which is crucial.
On the other hand, needs and gaps remain immense and progress is not fast enough. While estimates of prevalence and scale of sexual violence against people of all genders and ages in conflicts and emergencies are appalling, responses today remain inadequate in many contexts, with survivors being often unable to safely access essential services. Further work is also needed to build specialised responses that are able to address the specific needs and aspirations of survivors belonging to different groups and sub-groups that are marginalised.
From a capacity-building perspective, courses like ours can be vectors to accelerate progress to address these gaps, by reaching those who are at the frontline of this work. Our participants can certainly become catalysts for positive change and leverage the potential that exists in their own teams and communities. In the coming years, our Centre will continue working alongside humanitarian actors, civil society groups, survivor networks, and local activists both as experts and participants, in an ongoing deep collective process of seeking and finding answers, solutions and meaning.
We run the “Sexual Violence in Conflict Settings and Emergencies” course several times throughout the year. The upcoming editions will be online from 2 June to 21 July 2021, and October-November 2021.