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Working armed groups

Last edited: December 13, 2013

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  • A non-state armed group (NSAG) is a group with the potential to use arms and force to achieve political, ideological or economic objectives - that is not under the control of the state(s) in which they operate, nor part of the formal military structure of a state, state-alliance or intergovernmental organization.
  • Despite increased attention to the Women, Peace and Security agenda of the past ten years as well as an evolving set of humanitarian tools and approaches aimed at responding to the needs of sexual violence survivors, efforts that focus on prevention of sexual violence in conflict are still limited.  This is especially true in relation to conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) that is committed by armed groups.  And yet, it is these groups that are often implicated in egregious war-related human rights abuses, including sexual violence against civilians.
  • To fill this gap, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have undertaken a multi-phased initiative aimed at (i) improving the knowledge base about how to prevent armed actors from committing CRSV and (ii) developing prevention resources that can be used by international and field-based actors to mobilize prevention efforts.
  • During the first phase of the project (2010-2011), researchers assessed some of the potential areas for work with armed actors and proposed a preliminary framework that identifies several risk factors for perpetration of sexual violence and possible interventions. Risk factors are organized according to the four levels of the ecological model, although those levels have been modified from their original focus on intimate partner violence to reflect ‘levels’ more relevant to NSAGs. For example, the ‘relationship’ level refers to group structures, norms and practices that regulate the standards, behaviour and interactions of the non-state armed group and its members:  NSAGs’ relationships with one another.
  • These risks factors are not exclusive and many more risks might be added as the work proceeds through phases two and three of the project. Similarly, discussions with experts might result in moving a risk to a different level. It is important to remember that the levels are not mutually exclusive and that some overlap will occur, possibly across multiple levels.  Nevertheless, the framework offers a starting point for dialogue and action related to working with NSAGs to reduce conflict-related sexual violence.
  • It should also be noted that working with NSAGs on sexual violence requires specialized expertise; it is not recommended that VAW actors working at the community level in conflict-affected settings attempt to undertake this work.  Nevertheless, it is useful to understand what the current thinking is with regard to some of the strategies that might be applied to future programming in this area.

Risk Factors of Perpetration of Sexual Violence (using levels of ecological model) and Possible Interventions








Individual Level: 

Biological and personal history factors of individual members of the non-state armed group

  • Young age

  • Individual cultural norms, ideas and attitudes toward SV and women and girls

  • History of witnessing or experiencing violence

  • Sees self as victim

  • Forced recruitment into armed group

  • Interruption of “regular” life (school, employment, agriculture, marriage, etc.)

  • Heavy alcohol or drug use

  • Perception that he will not be brought to justice


  • Develop programs that target known perpetrators

a)    Investigate existing programmes that target perpetrators in industrialized settings and non-conflict contexts, and explore how these might be adapted and applied to NSAG.


  • Engage men and boys in prevention efforts

a)    Investigate existing work being done with men and boys and explore how it might be adapted and applied to work with NSAG.

b)    Focus on prevention work, targeting men and boys before they are recruited into NSAG.

c)    Explore use of behaviour change strategies, social norms strategies and communication campaigns.


‘Relationship’ Level:

Group structures, norms and practices that regulate the standards, behaviour and interactions of the non-state armed group and its members

  • Masculinity/manhood identity – is sexual violence used as a way to increase the bond and cohesion in the group

  • Sexual violence used as a tool to break the ties of individuals from their families and communities

  • Male dominance within the NSAG

  • Conflict and competition within the NSAG rank and file

  • Presence (or absence) of religious/traditional authority

  • Perception of the NSAG by local communities (particularly if the NSAG is politically motivated)

  • Lack of or weak command structures and hierarchy

  • Peer pressure connected to military socialization

  • Review bystander intervention and Leadership programming strategies  to determine whether they are applicable for use with NSAGs  

a)    Conduct further research on bystander interventions to determine whether it is applicable for use with NSAGs. [Note: bystander interventions by non-peers/civilians can be dangerous. Determine the validity of using this approach within NSAGs and peer to peer only. 

b)    Conduct research to determine whether or not leadership programming for NSAGs would yield positive direct and indirect results.


  • Review existing tools, programs and documentation on HIV/AIDS work with NSAGs to determine applicability to VAWG

a)    Conduct research and an assessment of efforts, methods and tools that seek to mainstream the prevention of HIV/AIDS to determine their applicability to conflict settings.


  • Include prevention of sexual violence in early stages of mediation

a)    Identify organization, such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre), that work to facilitate dialogue and mediation between warring parties.

b)    Engage in dialogue with identified organizations to determine whether there are any examples of negotiation or mediation efforts that prioritize the issue of sexual violence, particularly with NSAGs.

c)    Review the work of identified organizations for lessons learned that could contribute to strengthening the prevention of sexual violence through mediation.


  • Review direct negotiation initiatives with armed groups about their norms and behaviours

a)    Identify and review existing frameworks developed to integrate conflict perspectives into development initiatives and assess them to determine applicability to work with NSAGs.

b)    Conduct an in-depth review of the work done within conflict management and peacebuilding which seek to persuade warring parties and decision makers to see if there are approaches that could be integrated into existing (or future) prevention approaches.


Community Level:

Interactions between the NSAGs and the communities in which they live

  • Lack of or weak code of conduct

  • Vulnerability of the environment (economic stress and upheaval; social marginalization; absence of resources available)

  • Natural resource exploitation dimension to the conflict (mine, forestry, agriculture)

  • Lack of access to media and information about SV and gender (not informed about SV and perpetrators being brought to justice)

  • Community norms that justify violence against women (rape as a weapon of war)

  • Lack of informal or formal sanctions within the NSAG for violence against women

  • Organizational culture that promote negative attitudes about women

  • High levels of violence in the community

  • Reliance on local communities to provide food, labour, etc.

a)    Conduct research to explore other practices of early warning systems from different contexts to determine whether they can be applied to conflict settings.


  • Conduct a variety of mass media and face-to-face campaigns

a)    Identify organizations capable of developing and conducting tailored mass media campaigns on prevention of sexual violence in conflict with an aim to: conduct outreach campaigns to educate civilians and NSAGs on gender, GBV and other relevant topics, appropriate to each specific conflict.

b)    For more information on developing and implementing campaigns, see the Campaigns Module.


  • Engage Religious institutions

a)    Conduct research to determine whether there are other examples of engaging religious institutions in the fight to end sexual violence, and exactly how this process of engagement has unfolded in different contexts.


  • Engage Local Communities in dialogue with NSAG

a)    Investigate work done by Geneva Call and others who have facilitated engagement between local communities and NSAGs, and explore whether they have experience (or models that might be adapted to) engaging armed actors on sexual violence.


  • Engage with humanitarian actors

a)    Engage in dialogue with humanitarian actors to compile examples of best practices in negotiating for access and building relations with NSAG.

b)    Conduct research to determine whether any humanitarian actor has successfully influenced a change in behaviour of combatants on human rights issues and more specifically to prevent VAWG.


  • Engage community leaders and men with political power in advocating for behaviour change and violence prevention

a)    Identify and review specific examples of community leaders engaging in behaviour change in various contexts.

b)    Identify and review examples of working with leaders on contentious issues, such as VAWG, sexual violence, domestic violence, and HIV, possibly from non-conflict zones.


Societal Level:

Overall structures in the social order

  • General breakdown in law and order with an increase in all forms of violence

  • Lack of or weak criminal sanctions for perpetrators of violence

  • Lack of understanding or application of customary laws

  • Breakdown of society due to violence, leading to the absence of protection for women

  • High levels of general violence in society

  • Lack of active presence of peacekeeping troops (poorly trained/unclear mandate)

  • Dissatisfaction or failure of the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process (DDR)

  • Lack of implementation and reinforcement of international laws and standards

  • Increase, reinforce and engage peacekeepers in VAWG prevention

a)    Ensure that specific sexual violence prevention wording is included in peacekeeping mandates.

b)    Ensure that peacekeepers understand their role under the protection mandate and receive adequate training prior to deployment. 

c)    Amplify the role of Gender specialists in peacekeeping joint protection teams, and ensure that VAWG specialists are integrated into the teams.


  • Reinforce international laws and standards to end impunity for conflict-related sexual violence

a)    Identify existing action plans related to non-recruitment of children and consider how those action plans might be adapted to address CRSV.

  • Support Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programmes.

  • Increase support for Security Sector Reform (SSR)

a)    Conduct research to determine if existing gender, GBV, child protection training for soldiers and ex-soldiers in post-conflict countries could be applied to work with NSAGs.


Summarized from: Lafreniere, J./UNICEF, OCHA and UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, 2011. Strengthening Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence with Non-State Armed Groups: A Preliminary Framework for Key Prevention Strategies.”

  • In addition to the UNICEF/OCHA project, in July 2012 the Geneva Call launched a Deed of Commitment on the Prohibition of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict and towards the Elimination of Gender Discrimination.  It is a standard and universal document that gives armed non-state actors the opportunity to formally take ownership of international standards, and prevent and prohibit sexual violence in situations of armed conflict.  The Deed of Commitment is a tool that enables Geneva Call to:
    • Engage with NSAGs, inform, educate and sensitize them on the impact of sexual violence, and on the relevant international legal framework, leading to a formal prohibition, expressed through changes in policy and practice; and
    • Encourage NSAGs to eliminate discrimination between men and women, formally change policy, and ensure an increased participation of women in decision-making processes at all levels.
  • Geneva Call has initiated dialogue with NSAGs on the basis of the Deed, and is working with civil society and other stakeholders in conflict areas to inform, educate, and dialogue on the issues that the Deed of Commitment raises, using training tools develop specifically for the ANSA context.

Additional Tools

The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre) is an independent organization dedicated to improving the prevention of, and the response to, armed conflict. See the publications focused on their work prioritizing women’s rights and the role of women in the peacebuilding process.