Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV): A silent, vicious epidemic

According the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the term ‘gender-based violence’ (GBV) is used to distinguish violence that targets individuals or groups of individuals on the basis of their gender from other forms of violence.

According the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the term ‘gender-based violence’ (GBV) is used to distinguish violence that targets individuals or groups of individuals on the basis of their gender from other forms of violence.

SGBV (Sexual and Gender Based Violence) can aptly be defined as the use of forceful behaviour that causes physical, psychological, and social harm based on the social and biological differences between women and men.

While SGBV can be said to have been present in society since earliest recorded history, it is only in the past 13 years that it has been defined as and declared an international human rights issue, according to Jeanne Ward, a gender-based-violence expert with the Reproductive Health Response in Conflict Consortium (RHRC).

Ward explains in her 2002 report, If Not Now, When? (Addressing Gender-based Violence in Refugee, Internally Displaced, and Post-conflict Settings ), that these changes are due to the rise of the women’s and human rights movements across the world that demanded that violence against women be considered an affront to basic human rights.

How it is manifested

SGBV manifests itself in physical, sexual and psychological forms, which not only affect individuals but also families, communities and society as a whole. 

SGBV includes sexual abuse of children, partner battering, trafficking in women and children; dowry related violence, sexual harassment, forced prostitution, rape, female genital mutilation among others.

SGBV may be classified into four categories: sexual assault and abuse; physical violence, emotional violence, psychological and socio-economic abuse; and harmful traditional practices.

Sexual assault and abuse includes rape (forced or coerced or un-consented vaginal, oral and anal intercourse done by a man), including marital rape, indecent assault (forced intercourse done by a woman): sodomy (forced anal intercourse usually between a man and a man though it can also take place between a woman and a man); attempted rape or sodomy; sexual abuse or exploitation (sexual interactions against one’s will especially as a result of unequal power and economic relations).

Other aspects of SGBV include child sexual abuse which involves penetration, fondling, inappropriate touching and use of foul language; forced prostitution (forced sex trade in exchange for material resources, services and assistance); incest that is sexual relations between relatives and sexual harassment (repeated unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual advances, requests for sexual favours) and any other verbal or physical acts of sexual nature.

Physical violence involves human trafficking and slavery and physical assault. Emotional, psychological and socio economic abuse entail intimidation and abuse, discrimination and denial of opportunities, confinement and obstructive legislative practices.

Harmful traditional practices include early marriages; forced marriages: denial of education to girls and women, infanticide and child neglect and our killing and maiming.

Global statistics about SGBV indicate that women and young girls all over the world are the most common victims of SGBV.  An estimated half a million women were raped during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda.

A staggering 50 per cent of all women in Sierra Leone were subjected to sexual violence, including rape, torture and sexual slavery, according to a 2002 report by Physicians for Human Rights.

In Liberia, an estimated 40 percent of all girls and women have fallen victim to abuse. During the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped.

As indicated above sexual violence against women has also of the recent past been used as a weapon of war. For instance wherever there has been conflict - whether it’s the DRC, Algeria, Myanmar, Sudan, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, East Timor or Kosovo - violence against women has reached epidemic proportions.

Perpetrators of SGBV

A close analysis of most SGBV cases indicates that the perpetrators of SGBV are men who are normally close relatives, friends to the victim and as such very few victims are willing to seek legal help or to come in the open to report such cases to the police, as they fear to damage the relationship these people who are supposedly close to them.

Most victims of SGBV are married women, children in foster homes, adolescent girls, people in detention, unaccompanied children, female house heads, unaccompanied girls or women, and women offering sex for survival.

According to the World Health Organization gender-based violence accounts for more death and disability among women aged 15-44 years than cancer, malaria, traffic injuries and war combined.

Sexual violence impacts immediate and long term consequences on the victim ‘s physical and mental health such as sexually transmitted infections, HIV /AIDS, physical and mental disability, unintended pregnancy and subsequent unsafe abortion and injuries including trauma to the reproductive tract; psychological post traumatic stress disorders, depression or other serious effects such as suicide attempts and various social consequences like stigma and rejection by partners, peers, families and communities.

Primary victims

While women and girls have been noted as the primary victims of SGBV, most perpetrators of SGBV are men or boys though in some rare circumstances men   also victims of SGBV for instance in cases where men are forced to pay dowry, marry and indecent assault.

According to a study done by CARE in 2006, in Burundi, 27 percent of the men interviewed admitted to have committed sexual assault .

Women, such as co –wives, aunts and mother in laws are also capable of perpetuating Sexual gender-based violence in society.

But important to note also is the fact that people in power and authority are also notable perpetrators of SGBV; people in possession of instruments of force like police and army personnel; family members, teachers, intoxicated people are also possible perpetrators of SGBV in society.

SGBV continues to manifest in society due to social constructions and cultural beliefs in society, which are normally perpetuated by patriarchal power systems.

Apparently most victims of SGBV are stigmatized and blamed in society with sweeping statements like, “she asked for it”, “she was dressed indecently”, “a woman’s No means Yes” or “a man who beats her wife loves her.”

However a shocking revelation about most rape or defilement cases is that it is rarely spontaneous act. Cases of rape and defilement are to a large extent planned in advance and are in most cases used as weapons of power and to humiliate the victim.

Various international agreements have sought to address the issue of sexual vulnerability of women, most notably, additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979.

But the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court in 1998 marked a turning point: it declared for the first time that “rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, and other forms of sexual violence of comparative gravity” are to be considered war crimes.

Important to note also is fact that all the above adverse effects of SGBV directly and indirectly impact on society and not only on individuals or women themselves. This calls for and justifies a holistic approach in the fight against SGBV.

There is need to advocate for a change of attitude towards SGBV, this can be done through sensitization of communities. Rwanda has been at the forefront in the fight for women’s rights particularly in fighting against violence against women.

Gender desks have been set up in police stations, staffed mostly by women trained to help victims of sexual and any other forms of violence.

They investigate charges and ensure that evidence is available for court proceedings.  There is also need to implement international and regional instruments that address SGBV.

Increasing awareness and overall involvement of the community should also be a focal point for addressing SGBV, this will decrease the level of tolerance and acceptance of SGBV in society.

Women as most victims of SGBV should be given a chance, an opportunity to document their experiences and create their own unique responses to SGBV.