The shocking images and stories of gruesome incidents of intimate partner violence (IPV), defilement, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) uncovered by the citizenry in the recent past, mainly through mainstream and social media, remain imprinted in many of our memories. Media exposes of SGBV have been followed by trending social media and advocacy campaigns, with sections of the public condemning perpetrators and calling for humanitarian support for survivors. This trend depicts a sense of consciousness within our societies of the inhumane and discriminatory nature of SGBV. It may suggest that the ground is beginning to shift somewhat, owing to decades of unrelenting initiatives designed to influence changes in negative societal attitudes, beliefs and mind sets that have hitherto condoned SGBV. Yet the tragedy lies in the fact that reported incidences of SGBV are only but a tip of the iceberg, and new reports emerge every day. Take sexual violence in the East African region as an example. The Kenya National Police Service Crime Situation Report recorded 5,869 cases of rape, defilement, incest and indecent assault in 2015. This represented an 18 percent increase from the 4,959 cases reported in 2014. In Tanzania, the police recorded 5,802 cases of rape in 2015 while in Uganda, the Police Annual Crime Report recorded 12,077 cases of defilement in 2014 compared to 9,598 cases in 2013, which was an increase of 25.8 percent, and 1,099 cases of rape in 2014. While the upsurge may be an indicator of enhanced awareness leading to reporting by more survivors, the reality of the soaring numbers of SGBV cases that have now reached crisis levels in the region cannot be ignored. Reported SGBV cases are much higher than most other crimes. In fact, defilement was reported to be the leading crime in Uganda’s latest police crime report of 2014. The upshot is that while citizens publicly report, profile and condemn SGBV, it continues unabated. We must deeply interrogate the factors that perpetuate SGBV and explore effective strategies to uproot and continuously fight against it. For starters, there is an urgent need to focus greater attention and investment toward prevention of SGBV. A number of initiatives aimed at addressing several underlying causes of SGBV, including existing discriminatory social norms and structural factors that perpetuate gender inequalities between men and women, have been implemented in the region over time. The most common interventions include media and public education and awareness programs, advocacy campaigns, engaging men and boys, skills training and micro-finance. Other interventions include school-based programs and community mobilization.
However, studies show that while many of these initiatives result in increased knowledge and changes in attitudes and beliefs, evidence lacks on their impact on change of behaviour and corresponding reduction in cases of SGBV. This presents a significant opportunity to enhance prevention strategies, by incorporating rigorous methodologies to monitor and assess the efficacy of programs initiated to reduce perpetration and experiences of SGBV. Such assessments should consider how effective prevention of varied forms of SGBV among different populations is over the long term. This approach will facilitate the development of evidence-based prevention interventions while building on progress made to date. Further, priority should be given to the scale up, adaptation and dissemination of information on prevention strategies that have been proven to be effective, while continuously evaluating their sustained value in new settings.Some illustrations help make this point. For instance studies conducted in the region have established that community mobilization is effective in curbing violence against women. In 2014 a cluster randomized controlled trial to assess the impact of SASA! showed similar results. SASA!, a community mobilization program to prevent violence against women and reduce HIV risk in Kampala, Uganda, found out that the program had resulted in up to 52 percent reduction of experiences of physical and sexual IPV among women, lower social acceptance of IPV among men and women, and enhanced supportive community responses to IPV. Similar findings were observed in a study assessing effectiveness of a community-based SGBV prevention model in emergency settings.
The study, which was by the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme for rural communities in South Africa and subsequently implemented in Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement in Western Uganda in 2015, was referred to as the ‘Zero Tolerance Village Alliance’ intervention. Both initiatives used empowerment and participatory approaches to equip communities with knowledge and skills. The initiatives also supported communities to identify and develop context-specific resources to facilitate community action leading to behavioural changes.
Effective prevention strategies must also incorporate a thorough assessment, understanding and mitigation of risk factors that exacerbate SGBV. Notably, conflicts in the East African region have been a significant risk factor that intensifies SGBV against vulnerable populations, with women and children being the most affected. Most recently, preliminary investigations conducted by the United Nations (UN) documented up to 217 cases of sexual violence between 8th and 25th July, 2016, during and following renewed violence in Juba, South Sudan. A similar experience occurred during Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence where at least 900 cases of SGBV were reported between December 2007 and February 2008. In Northern Uganda, thousands of civilians, mostly women and girls, were subjected to sexual violence during the two-decade armed conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army and government army from 1986 to 2006. Studies have revealed that up to 60 percent of women in the Northern Uganda region have experienced some form of sexual violence. Early warning systems that are already operational at the regional, national and sub-national levels within East Africa provide a strategic opportunity to anticipate, prevent or mitigate conflict-related SGBV in a timely manner. These mechanisms should be enhanced to incorporate gender-sensitive indicators that guide communities in detecting, analysing and responding to increased risk factors for SGBV associated with violent conflict, disasters and other crises. Gender-sensitive early warning mechanisms would ensure that factors that are risky to women are detected and contingency measures taken to prevent the occurrence or escalation of conflict-related sexual violence. Such factors include changes in women’s mobility patterns, increase in reported gang rapes and other forms of aggravated sexual violence and intimidation of women in political processes. Others include set up of military or security operation bases in close proximity with civilian populations, security operations involving community or house raids and displacement. Mechanisms such as these would achieve optimum results, including having continuous assessments being conducted in collaboration with women and local communities with a clear goal of utilizing obtained data to develop and implement effective preventive and responsive action. The need for ending impunity for SGBV cannot be overstated. Preventive strategies can only be effective if state machinery is employed to ensure timely and effective investigations and prosecution of perpetrators for SGBV committed during both peace times and conflict situations. This would unequivocally demonstrate the society’s non-acceptance of SGBV as an affront to its values. States must move beyond just enacting laws and policies that prohibit SGBV! They must ensure enforcement of those laws and policies, including providing conducive environments that protect survivors from the stigma associated with SGBV. States must make it possible for survivors to report their experiences without fear of reprisals from perpetrators or fear of being ostracized from their communities.
Rigorous and sustained capacity development and stronger coordination within and between key sectors, including the health, law enforcement, legal and judicial sectors will go a long way in guaranteeing proper care, treatment, rehabilitation and reparation for survivors. Practitioners and activists in the region continue to grapple with a bigger question: How do we hold our states accountable when they fail to put in place effective measures to prevent SGBV? Innovative strategies such as the ongoing ground-breaking strategic litigation seeking to hold the government of Kenya accountable for its failure to prevent PEV-related sexual violence and similar growing initiatives in Uganda and elsewhere hold a lot of promise for the future. But the greatest power lies within the public movement. The citizens’ role must not be limited to highlighting and condemning instances of gruesome SGBV broadcast on our television screens, radio air waves and newspapers. We must also begin to demand for tangible action by our governments to curb this rising crisis!
Christine Alai is the Kenya coordinator, Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones, for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR)