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OP-ED: Stand by them

  • Published at 08:32 pm February 15th, 2021
sexual assualt gender-based violence sgbv women
Women are often left with little support BIGSTOCK

Victims of sexual and gender-based violence should be granted access to services and support

Three months after the 16 days of global activism campaign against sexual and gender-based violence, the ICRC reiterates the importance to ensure that survivors are supported adequately, every day.

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is one of the most prevalent human rights violations worldwide. It has grave consequences for victims, their families, and their communities. It is also one of the most under-reported, due to the stigma attached to it, fear of retaliation, and poor trust in reporting mechanisms. 

For this reason, data collected by service providers, police, or reported by the media are not representative of the scope of the problem. They are only the tip of the iceberg.

When Covid-19 hit Bangladesh and movement restrictions were imposed in March last year, a spike of SGBV cases were reported, showing again the extent to which domestic and intimate-partner violence is widespread. 

BRAC documented a nearly 70% increase in reported incidents of SGBV against women and girls in March and April 2020 compared to the same time in 2019. Access to support services for survivors during this time was particularly hampered due to the movement restrictions. 

Women and girls are the main targets of such violence. Despite efforts of governmental and non-governmental organizations, detecting violence and providing life-saving services is not always possible. Women and girls who experience violence in the household are taught to endure it, and despite campaigns and awareness raising efforts, seeking support from specialized service providers seems not to be an option for many of them. 

Women and girls living in rural areas are among those facing the largest difficulties in accessing support. Structural barriers exist in families, communities, and in institutions, in urban and rural areas. Deaths resulting from SGBV are tragically common.

In the Cox’s Bazar camps, where displaced people from Rakhine are hosted, access to support is even more complex. The dire economic situation and precariousness of living conditions expose individuals to several forms of SGBV. 

In Bangladesh, according to data from the government’s One Stop Crisis Centre, between 2001 and July 2020, only 3.56% of cases filed under the Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act 2000 Act have resulted in a court judgment, and only 0.37% of cases have resulted in convictions. 

Raising awareness among law enforcement agencies and keeping the needs of victims at the centre is essential to effectively receiving and investigating cases, and simultaneously protecting the victims of these crimes. Addressing stigma and victim-blaming attitudes should be a priority for authorities, service providers, and communities. 

Improving the situation for survivors and their access to services and justice requires addressing the root causes of SGBV. Everywhere in the world, if SGBV takes place, it is also because it is still considered acceptable by some. If victims are afraid of retaliation and of being stigmatized by their own communities, it is because a part of the society is blaming them for what happened, when those to blame are the perpetrators.

All victims of SGBV should be granted non-discriminatory access to services, no matter their gender identity, age, or ethnic belonging. These need to be delivered respectfully, confidentially and in all safety. Services should cover the health needs of victims, as well as the psychological, livelihood, safety and legal support, regardless of the backgrounds and the circumstances of the incident.

Informing the public about the importance of accessing services within 72 hours after an incident of sexual violence takes place is also crucial, as some support can only be effective within this timeframe. 

Governments and service providers should strive to ensure that barriers hampering safe access to services for all victims of SGBV are eliminated. Authorities and institutions have to also ensure that high-quality services are in place to support survivors, and to facilitate their access to justice.

Sexual and gender-based violence is never justified. It is always harmful, and it must be addressed.

Katja Lorenz is Head of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Delegation in Bangladesh.

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