Emergencies, Gender-Based Violence and "Women-Friendly Spaces"

Fifteen years ago I read an evaluation of programmes to help victims of sexual violence in the wars in Bosnia Herzegovina. I was struck by the number of responses from refugees  who said that the intervention that helped them most was this –  a designated tent in the camp which was physically safe and where they could meet other women, relax, talk and help each other.

Now the intervention is acknowledged and used in Asia - e.g. after the Tsunami in Sri Lanka and after the Pakistani earthquake and flood. It now called "Women-Friendly Spaces". The use is a bit different, wider. In Pakistan, these spaces enable women to bathe in peace, to come into their own, to gain confidence and take initiatives, and to emerge, young and old as local leaders. They are much-needed refuges from domestic pressures. Along with other initiatives they help to focus the huge Humanitarian Aid machine on the specific needs of women (think of contraception and sanitary napkins). They provide a venue for, for example, health education and the distribution of women's provisions via women.

To put this into context: in times of natural or man-made disasters, women and girls become more vulnerable. In Pakistan there was an increase in early and forced marriages, kidnappings and, in the 2011 flood, an epidemic of miscarriages. Back to the huge Humanitarian Aid machine; two decades ago, a manager of international emergency health provision said to me "there is no room for provision of contraceptives during a war", and this mindset is only recently being modified.

Looking at "Women-friendly Spaces", I would suggest that there are not many interventions that are effective but relatively easy and cheap. This seems to be one.

The information about Pakistan comes from "Emergencies as Opportunities for Change?", an article by Dr Khawar Mumtaz, CEO, Shirkat Gah Women's Centre, in the ARROW newsletter vol. 17,2,2011; www.arrow.org.my. (These newsletters cover interesting topics but are written at post-graduate level).

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