For the past year, I’ve been coordinating a series of short courses on sexual violence in conflicts and emergencies. There is a profound stigma around the issue, so I’m pleasantly surprised if you even click on this link and keep reading. If you do, you’ve taken the first step, breaking the internal stigma that makes addressing the problem so difficult.
I coordinate this course at CERAH-Geneva, an institute that specializes in training humanitarian professionals: people working for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and others. The students come in from their field sites for a week – from refugee camps near Syria, from Red Cross offices in South Sudan, and more – and after a week of intensive learning they go back to places with little electricity or running water, and try to find and serve hidden survivors.
I’m new to humanitarian work, having started out in the human rights and HIV world in Asia. Working on this issue is new to me, and I find it a lot like the early days of the AIDS response. We have the sense, gathered in this sometimes dark room where we teach the class, of being on the lip of an abyss, a place where people are afraid to even look. The main question students have on day one is: “How do we help survivors when they won’t come forward?”
Even looking for survivors exposes those people to risks. Some of our students talk about the risk of honor killings, of the risk of retaliatory violence against physicians who provide abortions to women impregnated by their rapists. In Uganda, male survivors who report their rapes to the police risk being arrested themselves for violating laws on homosexuality. One student described working in a rural area where strict religious and security restrictions meant she and her fellow clinicians could not go out into the community. Her clients kept bringing in little girls whose family members said they had “fallen out of trees while playing,” except the childrens’ injuries were always in the genitals. How do you broach that topic?
The stories just keep coming. But as with HIV/AIDS in the 1990s, there’s little money and few programs for work on sexual violence. CERAH’s course is a first step in remedying that problem. One class at a time, it’s creating a cadre of more confident program managers for whom sexual violence is demystified, people with tools and knowledge to speak the often-unspeakable. It is a space to share what is proven to work, and what we don’t yet know.
We take a multi-disciplinary approach, bringing together medical experts, psychosocial experts, forensic experts, legal experts — we’re unbelievably lucky to have the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights right across the street, and rich expertise across Geneva. These speakers come in to lead specific sessions and to share field experience. The participants include doctors, midwives, lawyers, heads of offices; it compels them all to sit and work together. It’s unbelievably fun and exhausting for all involved.
One of the most popular, dynamic but also hardest sessions to sit through is the powerful talk on male survivors of sexual violence. Chris Dolan, executive director of Refugee Law Project, is the leading expert on this subject and teaches the session. In November 2016, we took the course on sexual violence on the road for the first time, to Uganda, where we were able to visit Chris and his team. There we met with focus groups of 25 refugee survivors: men, women, LGBT, sex workers, torture survivors, and people living with HIV. Talking through community translators, they spoke eloquently and scathingly about what they have endured, and the lack of attention or resources to meet their needs. They called on our class of students to do better.
The next CERAH course on sexual violence in conflicts and emergencies is in Geneva on March 20-25 (in English), and September 4-8 (in French). It’s a privilege to be involved in this particular course, but I can’t resist plugging some of the other fantastic short courses CERAH offers on health, law, negotiation and media in humanitarian settings. Check out the listings, here.