The Big Idea: A Voice For Women And Girls

by David J. Craig Published Fall 2017
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Are you suggesting that soldiers don’t pose a threat to women and girls?
Not at all. In fact, the Congo is one country where rape has absolutely been weaponized over the past twenty-five years. It’s been used on all sides of the conflict to demoralize and terrorize the opposition. But our findings suggest that, at least in some humanitarian settings, domestic violence is often a much bigger problem.


Is it a bigger problem than in non-emergency settings in the same countries?
That’s a good question, and the truth is we don’t have enough data yet to answer that conclusively. But there is some evidence to suggest it may be worse. One study we did in Sri Lanka showed that levels of domestic violence against women were higher in communities that were displaced during that country’s civil war. At this point, we can only hypothesize that in times of war you have a hyper-masculinized atmosphere and a lot of frustration. This may be one reason violence against women and girls increases.

“We want to know: are women and girls in these types of chaotic environments more likely to experience gender-based violence? If so, what can be done to prevent this?”

What are the practical implications of your research?

The implications are substantial. In the past decade or so, international aid agencies have started to put some energy and resources into preventing gender-based violence in places where they provide services. But the steps they’ve taken are almost always aimed at protecting women from soldiers and other strangers. Refugee camps, for instance, are now often organized in ways that reduce the distance that women must walk to collect water, firewood, or food rations. They also have better lighting than they used to. While these measures are certainly helpful, our research suggests they don’t address the primary problem. You also need programs that promote healthier perspectives on gender relations. We want women and girls to embrace the fact that if you make a mistake, it’s not OK for your husband or boyfriend to ever hit you. And it’s not OK for him to ever force you to have sex. You need programs that encourage men and boys to treat women and girls as equals. In order to prevent violence within families, you need broad-based community programming that changes the culture of families.


Lindsay Stark / Photograph by Jeffrey SaksThat sounds like a difficult undertaking.
It is difficult, but not impossible. In the past few years, a handful of aid organizations have launched gender-equality programs in humanitarian settings with real results. The International Rescue Committee ran a twelve-month-long pilot program for girls in the same Ethiopian refugee camps where we worked. My research team evaluated the program’s impact and found that the young women who completed it were more likely to say that girls should stay in school and delay marriage until adulthood — two factors that reduce the risk of being abused.


Is it hard to get men to participate in such programs?
It can be much harder to get men to participate, but we have some great evidence emerging about creative ways to engage men. One recent program engaged men by focusing the curriculum on parenting skills. The men came out being better fathers and better husbands.


How realistic is it to think these programs will become widely available?
I think the more important question is: how much benefit would they have? There are sixty-five million displaced people in the world today — an all-time high — and more than half of them are women and children. This is a huge population that NGOs and other aid organizations are helping to care for. The well-being of women and girls ought to be among their top priorities.

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