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Beyond no harm: Addressing gender-based violence in development responses to displacement impacts in Uganda

Margarita Puerto Gómez's picture
Inclusive education goes beyond merely increasing enrollment of girls in schools, but making sure that the school environment is conducive for them to thrive and stay in school longer. Photo: Rachel Mabala/World Bank


Do good intentions matter if they end up contributing to harm?

In 15 years of working in international development, I have asked myself this question many times, and the answer is always complicated. I learned working on the Uganda Development Responses to Displacement Impacts Project (DRDIP) that even the most straightforward interventions – building a school, for example – can contribute to unintended consequences if they are not well thought-through. As Dr. Robert Limlim, DRDIP’s director, put it: “You build a school and it does not cause harm, but this school is built under social contradictions that impede equal access to education for boys and girls. If we want to transform social dynamics, doing good is not enough, we need to systematically address Gender Based Violence (GBV) in development responses to forced displacement.”

DRDIP-Uganda is part of a regional operation in the Horn of Africa to improve access to basic social services, expand economic opportunities, and enhance environmental management for communities hosting refugees. The operation is working in 11 refugee hosting districts supporting sub-projects related to social and economic services and infrastructure, sustainable environmental management; and livelihoods. The components are implemented through Community-Driven Development (CDD) approaches and local capacity development to address the burden of refugees’ influx on social infrastructure.

Uganda is the largest refugee hosting country in Africa. Because of ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, and South Sudan, a country with a population of 41.1 million (World Bank, 2016) is currently hosting over 1.3 million refugees and asylum-seekers. Women and girls are over-represented among refugees, comprising 86% of the refugee population.

Uganda’s enabling policy environment for refugees provides some of the best prospects for self-reliance in the world. DRDIP is a flagship program under the Refugee and Host Population Empowerment (ReHOPE) strategy and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) for Uganda and a potential global good practice of how coordinated, government-led action can create solid mechanisms for delivery of sustainable development projects in a context of forced displacement. And yet, these solid policy frameworks are implemented in an environment of risks that affect how they are implemented.

Prevalence of GBV is already high in Uganda. An estimated 56% of all married Ugandan women have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence by their current or most recent spouse/partner. By comparison, the World Health Organization estimates, 35% of women worldwide have either experienced non-partner sexual violence or physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence. Violence Against Children (VAC) is also widespread, occurring in homes as well as schools and public places, and with marginalized groups (i.e. children living on the street, orphans) at especially high risk.

GBV and VAC can be exacerbated in contexts of displacement. Some forms of GBV can rapidly escalate in these situations, including sexual violence, intimate partner violence, child and forced marriage, female genital cutting, and trafficking for sexual exploitation and or domestic labor. GBV can also occur within refugee communities as a result of a breakdown of protective mechanisms and an increase in impunity.

The DRDIP-Uganda project has attempted to consider the potential negative impacts of interventions in a context of high social risk. It embeds measures across the program that incorporate strategies to mitigate any risk of GBV that could result from project activities or that is already present within the community. These measures also promote norms, fostering long-term social and cultural change toward gender equality, by ensuring that women and girls, along with men and boys, are actively engaged in community-based groups related to the project area or sector, for example. Another measure helps facilitate the provision of assistance to survivors of violence by making sure that project staff know how and where to refer them for safe, ethical and confidential care. 

Do intentions matter? Of course. But we cannot stop there. As the district health officer from Hoima, an area hosting new influxes of Congolese refugees, said: “Now, I understand how building health facilities can also contribute to prevent and mitigate GBV and I have a responsibility to make it happen.”

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