Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Sheltering Displaced Persons from Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Sheltering Displaced Persons from Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Article excerpt

Men, women and children risk sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in situations of conflict and emergency and during the process of flight. Even once they are settled, in displacement camps or urban areas, their individual insecurity often increases, due to factors such as, for example, the breakdown of family and community ties, shifting gender roles, and limited access to resources, police protection and adequate housing.

The health and psychosocial needs of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing SGBV can also be urgent and complex, resulting from the individual or collective harms they have suffered. Yet guidance on the provision of safe shelter to those fleeing SGBV is surprisingly limited. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines for Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings offer the most detailed guidance.1 However, their brief discussion of safe shelter focuses only on camp settings, and lacks concrete examples of possible models and of ways to extend protection to marginalised groups.

To address this gap, in late 2011 the Sexual Violence Program of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, undertook the 'Safe Haven' study of safe shelters serving refugees, IDPs and other forced migrants in four countries: Colombia, Haiti, Kenya and Thailand.

The individual safe shelter programmes included in the study serve either adult survivors of SGBV or adults and children combined. They are run by government, international NGOs or local civil society organisations and vary widely in physical form, size and capacity. Some were designed specifically to serve refugees or IDPs, while others primarily served the mainstream population but were open to serving displaced persons. In the course of the study, researchers developed a typology of safe shelter models serving refugees and other displaced persons:

* Traditional safe houses: survivors live together in a common structure, with staff overseeing operation of the accommodation.

* Independent living arrangements: staff arrange for survivors to be housed in separate accommodations (e.g. independent flats or hotel rooms) that were not built specially for safe shelter purposes.

* Community hosting arrangements: survivors temporarily live in the homes of selected community members.

* Protected areas: survivors live in their own homes in a protected, enclosed subsection of a refugee or IDP camp.

* Alternative purpose entities: survivors stay in a setting designed to provide services unrelated to safe shelter (e.g. a police station, hospital clinic or church).

There were also hybrids that combine elements of the above models.2

Traditional safe houses

The safe house was by far the most common. In general, traditional safe houses are beneficial to residents with greater security needs, offering measures such as guards, gates, confidential locations and rules governing residents' movement and visitors. However, this comes at the expense of community engagement, mobility and independence.

Extreme examples are the shelters for high-risk IDPs in Colombia fleeing conflict- related violence. Residents of these shelters reported feeling locked in or imprisoned due to the rigid security protocols, police patrols and armed escorts accompanying survivors to outside services. Exceptions are the traditional safe houses run by grassroots women's and migrants' rights organisations in Thailand, which are often attached to a community centre offering resources, information and social activities. This variation of traditional safe house seems to strike an effective balance between security and resident empowerment.

Traditional safe houses also bring strangers to live in close proximity, which can result in conflicts related to cleanliness, shared resources, unequal power dynamics or pre-existing animosity towards members of other cultural and ethnic groups. …

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