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Historical timeline

Last edited: July 03, 2013

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  • The issue of conflict-related violence against women and girls is relatively new, emerging approximately twenty years ago and gaining more prominence in the last six to seven years.  The following timeline highlights of some of the key steps in international progress:
    • 1985:  The first working group on refugee women is convened to advocate for the needs of women affected by conflict. The working group’s lobbying activities result in the 1989 appointment of a Senior Coordinator for Refugee Women to UNHCR. 
    • 1990: UNHCR adopts the first-ever policy on refugee women’s protection, from which evolved UNHCR’s 1991 Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee WomenBy highlighting the general protection needs of women affected by conflict (as distinct from men), the guidelines set the stage for standardising programming that specifically target women.  The guidelines explicitly acknowledge exposure to sexual violence as a vulnerability of refugee women and calls upon the humanitarian community to address it within its protection mandate.   
    • 1994: The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children releases the study Refugee Women and Reproductive Health: Reassessing Priorities.  This study reveals that even the most basic reproductive health services — including those to address violence against women-- were not available to women displaced by war. 
    • 1994: The International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo identifies GBV response as one of four basic pillars of reproductive health programming. At this same conference, minimum health standards for refugees are expanded to include reproductive health services and, by extension, treatment for victims of sexual violence.  The need for these services is reinforced by media coverage in Bosnia and Rwanda, illustrating for the world the extent to which women and girls are targets of sexual violence during war and stimulating donor attention to the issue.  Reproductive health in general -- and sexual violence in particular – becomes part of the agenda of donors and humanitarian agencies charged with responding to the needs of the conflict-affected. The intersection of the fields of reproductive health and VAWG also allowed for a greater understanding of the physical and mental health impacts of violence against women, including STIs, reproductive tract trauma, unwanted pregnancy and complications associated with unsafe abortions, somatic complaints, depression and suicide.
    • 1995: UNHCR publishes Sexual Violence Against Refugees: Guidelines on Protection and Response, which highlights some of the major legal, medical and psychosocial components of prevention and response to sexual violence.  Also in 1995, UNHCR and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) form an Inter-Agency Working Group (IAWG) of expert international reproductive health organisations. 
    • 1996: The IAWG produces an inter-agency field manual, Reproductive Health in Refugee Situations, which includes information about the prevention and management of GBV from emergency to stable phases of displacement, but   did not articulate detailed methodologies for developing specialised field-based programs or protocols to tackle VAWG. 
    • 1996: UNHCR receives a large financial award from the UN Foundation to address GBV in 5 countries in East and West Africa over a 4-year period, becoming the first organised effort to establish a multisectoral approach to various forms of violence against women and girls. The programmes include health care services, psychosocial support, security through training and support for local police; and legal assistance through local lawyers and training and support for court staff.  The initiative produced several “how-to guides”:

UNHCR.  “How To Guide: Reproductive Health in Refugee Situations, A Community-Based Response on Sexual Violence Against Women.” Ngara, Tanzania: UNHCR, January 1997.

UNHCR.  “How To Guide: Reproductive Health in Refugee Situations, Building a Team Approach to the Prevention and Response to Sexual Violence, Report of a Technical Mission.”  Kigoma, Tanzania: UNHCR, 1998.

UNHCR.  “How To Guide: Reproductive Health in Refugee Situations, From

Awareness to Action, Pilot Project To Eradicate Female Genital Mutilation.”  Hartisheikh, Ethiopia: UNHCR, December 1997.

UNHCR.  “How To Guide: Reproductive Health in Refugee Situations, Sexual and Gender-based Violence Programme in Guinea.” UNHCR, January 2001.

UNHCR.  “How To Guide: Reproductive Health in Refugee Situations, Sexual and Gender-based Violence Programme in Liberia.” UNHCR, January 2001.

At the end of the four-year initiative, UNHCR publishes Prevention and Response to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Refugee Situations, Inter-Agency Lessons Learned Conference Proceedings (Geneva: UNHCR, 2001), a good lessons review in which the multi-sectoral approach is determined to be fundamental to combating VAWG. 

    • 2000: UN SCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security is adopted.  It is the first SCR to link women to the peace and security agenda. It recognizes that women are disproportionately affected by conflict and calls for their active participation at all levels of decision-making in conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peace processes, post-conflict peacebuilding and governance. It has been followed by additional SCRs on Women, Peace and Security: 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1889 (2009), 1960 (2010) and 2106 (2013)  (For more information on SCRs, see Section II.)
    • 2001: The Reproductive Health Response in Conflict (RHRC) Consortium initiates a global assessment of the major types of GBV occurring in conflict-affected settings, related programming and gaps in programming. Its findings and recommendations are detailed in If Not Now, When?: Addressing Gender-Based Violence in Refugee, Internally Displaced and Post-Conflict Settings (RHRC, 2002). 
    • 2002: The international media breaks the story of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) committed by humanitarian staff against refugee women and girls in West Africa. The public outrage and embarrassment leads to an increase in attention and funds for GBV interventions. At the same time, both UN agencies and NGOs begin to take action to address SEA among humanitarian staff, codes of conduct for staff are developed, and the SG issues his Bulletin on Special Measures against SEA.
    • 2002: Emerging Issues in GBV Programming is published by the RHRC, addressing some of the critical issues and challenges to implementing GBV programming in conflict-affected settings. 
    • 2002: UNIFEM publishes a special report on Progress of the World’s Women focused on Women, War and Peace, and comprehensively addressing women’s experience with violence during and after conflict, from sexual violence as a tactic of war, to increased domestic violence, trafficking, sexual exploitation, and violence in the camps and during displacement. 
    • 2003: The RHRC Consortium publishes a Gender-based  Violence Tools Manual for Assessment and Program Design, Monitoring and Evaluation to assist program planners and implementers in designing research and program initiatives. 
    • 2003: UNHCR publishes an update to its 1995 Guidelines, entitled Sexual and Gender-based Violence Against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Guidelines for Prevention and ResponseThe initial focus on sexual violence was expanded to incorporate multiple forms of GBV, and the initial focus on refugee populations was expanded to include returnees and internally displaced.
    • 2003: A working group on ‘Women and Children in an Insecure World’ is established within the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) in order to examine the issues of systematic violence within the context of security sector reform and raise awareness among security actors.

Two years later, DCAF publishes Women in an Insecure World: Violence against Women Facts, Figures and Analysis, with the goal of showing the scope and multifaceted nature of GBV, as well as the gravity of its consequences for families, communities and societies. 

    • 2005: The Joint Consortium of Irish Human Rights Humanitarian and Development Agencies and Development Cooperation Ireland decide that Ireland – and the international community - need to move beyond ad hoc programming to address violence against women and girls at the institutional level.  The consortium develops a framework that can be incorporated by all organizations with regard to policy, operations, priorities and resources, outlined in Gender Based Violence: A Failure to Protect, A Challenge to Action.  
    • 2005: Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings are issued in 2005 by a task force of the United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC).  These Guidelines provide detailed recommendations for the minimum response required to address sexual violence in emergencies and hold all humanitarian actors responsible for tackling the issue in their respective areas of operation. The Guidelines are an important tool in educating all humanitarian actors in their responsibility to combat GBV. 
    • 2005: The cluster approach is adopted as part of humanitarian reform. The Gender-based Violence Area of Responsibility (GBV AoR) is created as one of five ‘functional components’ of the Protection Cluster. This marks the first formal effort to establish a globally standardized mechanism for facilitating a multi-sectoral approach to GBV prevention and response.  UNFPA and UNICEF are designated as the global leads for the GBV AoR, with an INGO co-lead that rotates each year. The GBV AoR has developed a number of important tools, including:

In 2010, the Handbook for Coordinating Gender-based Violence Intervention in Humanitarian Settings.

In collaboration with UNFPA, a Managing Gender-based Violence Programmes in Emergencies e-learning course and Companion Guide, as well as a Caring for Survivors training manual.  (For more information about the GBV AoR and its tools, see Section II.)

    • 2007: The GBV Coordination Course is developed in 2007 through the partnership of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Centre for Reproductive Health (ICRH) at Ghent University, Belgium by a small group of technical experts. The curriculum is revised and expanded based on experiences delivering the course in 2007-2009 and feedback from participants during the course and through post-course evaluations.  The course is held annually for GBV coordinators in Belgium.
    • 2007: United Nations Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict (UN Action) is launched as a network of UN entities working together to end sexual violence occurring during and in the aftermath of armed conflict. UN Action embodies the UN system’s response to Security  Council Resolutions 1820 (June 2008) and 1888 (September 2009), which frame conflict-related sexual violence as a threat to international peace and security.  (For more information about UN Action, see Section II.)
    • 2008-2013: The UN Security Council adopts four resolutions framing conflict-related sexual violence as a threat to international peace and security: 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1960 (2010), and 2106 (2013). This includes the appointment of a Special Representative to the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict.
  • As resources evolve and commitment grows, an increasing number of UN agencies and local and international NGOs are taking up the issue of gender-based violence in conflict and post-conflict settings. Methodologies are being refined to extend and improve services for survivors, and well as to build the capacity of local organizations to take on the issue. Standardized operational procedures for coordination and referral are being adopted in an increasing number of settings. Training modules have been developed to build local capacity to meet the psychosocial needs of survivors. Efforts are being made, most evidently in post-conflict settings but also in some refugee settings, to support legal reforms that would provide greater protection against multiple types of VAWG. Widespread community-based education aimed at changing attitudes and behaviours that promote sexual and other forms of violence against women has been carried out in a number of settings. Research on VAWG -especially through qualitative methods and improved collection of service delivery data-- has also multiplied in recent years, and is bringing pressure to bear on international actors as well as on states to take more aggressive measures to address violence against women and girls in conflict and its aftermath.
  • Despite this progress, in many conflict-affected settings across the world programming efforts are grossly inadequate when compared to the scope of the problem.   Protections for survivors continue to be limited, and prevention initiatives are often ad hoc. Short-term funding and shifting donor priorities have undercut the ability of some programmes to achieve the degree of expertise and conduct the level of comprehensive services required to adequately combat VAWG.  Limited agency commitment and staffing have also undermined efforts to address VAWG:  in spite of improved global commitment to combatting VAWG illustrated through an increasing number of Security Council Resolutions and several global UN and INGO advocacy and coordination initiatives, this continues to be influenced by beliefs among some humanitarian actors that VAWG is not a critical concern. Because of the hidden nature of VAWG (including the high rate of under-reporting of sexual and other forms of violence), as well as the lack of GBV experts deployed in the early stages of emergencies, it is often a challenge to counteract this opinion until well after the emergency has subsided and data can more routinely be collected.  Nevertheless, the IASC GBV Guidelines make it clear that “All humanitarian personnel should […] assume and believe that GBV […] is taking place and is a serious and life-threatening protection issue, regardless of the presence or absence of concrete and reliable evidence” (IASC, 2005, p 2).
  • This learning module attempts to draw from existing tools, guidelines, and programming efforts in order to provide distilled information for all humanitarian actors working at the global and field-level to better understand and address VAWG in conflict-affected settings.