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close this bookSexual Violence against Refugees - Guidelines on Prevention and Response (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) / Alto Comisionado de Naciones Unidas para los Refugiados (ACNUR), 1995, 106 p.)
View the document1.1 Definition and Nature of Sexual Violence
View the document1.2 Persons Most Vulnerable to Sexual Violence
View the document1.3 Situations Where Sexual Violence May Occur
View the document1.4 Under-Reporting of Sexual Violence
View the document1.5 Effects of Sexual Violence
View the document1.6 Causes of Sexual Violence
View the document1.7 False Claims

1.6 Causes of Sexual Violence

Section 1.3 above describes situations in which incidents of sexual violence may occur. From this knowledge it is possible to extrapolate the following causes and/or circumstances which allow sexual attacks to take place.

a) Society (of refugees, and surroundings)

· Sexual violence in the country of origin may have a political motive, for example where mass rape of populations is used to dominate, control and/or uproot, or where sexual torture is used as a method of interrogation. Sometimes sexual violence is used as a weapon of warfare, to humiliate or cause the disintegration of another community, as a part of “ethnic cleansing”.

· Attacks by neighbouring groups may occur in areas where refugees are considered materially privileged compared with the local population. Within camps, women who are economically successful have been targeted.

· Attacks by the local population because of the consequences flowing from refugee presence, such as fear of criminal activities, racism, xenophopia and other concerns including degradation of the environment and depletion of natural resources.

· Traditional tensions and feuds between various clans/groups may also give rise to sexual violence.

· The collapse of traditional societal support mechanisms (social sanctions, norms for proper behaviour, etc.) when refugees were forced to flee or to live in camp surroundings. In particular, the communal support systems for the protection of vulnerable individuals may no longer be present, for example, due to the absence of many male members from the community.

· Male attitudes of disrespect towards women may be instrumental in causing incidents of sexual violence. For example, camp guards and male refugees may look upon unaccompanied women and girls in refugee camps as common sexual property. Husbands or other male family members may also abuse a victim of a previous attack because they believe she is no longer “virtuous”.

· Psychological strain on refugee men in not being able to assume normal cultural, social and economic roles, may cause aggressive behaviour towards women. Many other aspects of refugee life can aggravate this, including idleness, anger at loss of control and power, uncertainty about the future, and frustration with living conditions.

· Alcohol and drug abuse can result in violent behaviour within families and communities. Such abuse is often linked to boredom, depression, and stress.

b) Vulnerability

· Sexual violence during flight or in the country of asylum can occur because of the special vulnerability and powerlessness of refugees, including the need for “safe” passage. This is underlined by the common misconception held by people who come into contact with refugees, such as members of the military and police, that they are not legally protected outside their country of origin.

· Females who are on their own for whatever reason, whether they are single, widowed, abandoned, unaccompanied minors, lone heads of households, or women who have been separated from male family members by the chaos of flight or during voluntary repatriation, are all particularly at risk of sexual violence.

· Where foster care placement of children occurs without proper screening of families or monitoring of the child’s welfare, the refugee child may be exposed to sexual abuse.

· Incarceration in closed detention facilities may compound the problems of sexual violence. In a number of countries, all individuals who enter illegally or without authorization are subject to detention regardless of age, sex, or their status as asylum-seekers. In some cases, asylum applicants are incarcerated with criminals, children with unrelated adults, females with males.

· Refugee women without proper personal documentation are susceptible to sexual exploitation and abuse. In many refugee situations, women are not routinely provided with documents showing that they are legally in the country.

The male family member may have been designated as the head of household and given the relevant documents; he may not be present to produce these documents before the authorities as and when required. Similarly, refugee women may not be given individual registration cards or documents with which they collect food rations, shelter material and qualify for other forms of assistance.

· Male responsibility for distribution of goods and necessities may expose women to sexual exploitation. In camps where male authorities or male refugees have this responsibility, women may be coerced into sexual acts. For example sexual favours may be demanded in exchange for food rations.

c) Camp design and location

· The geographical location of a refugee camp may increase the likelihood of sexual violence, if the camp is located in an area which has a serious crime problem for example, or is geographically isolated from the local population.

· The design and social structure in many refugee camps and settlements may contribute to the likelihood of protection problems. Camps are often overcrowded. Unrelated families may need to share communal living and sleeping space. In effect, such refugees are living among strangers, perhaps among persons who could be considered traditional enemies.

· Poor design of services and facilities may also contribute to security problems. Communal latrines and washing facilities may be at some distance from the living quarters, thereby increasing the potential for attacks. Many camps are not lit, or poorly lit, compounding these risks at night. Night patrols exist in some camps, but not in others. The distance refugees must travel to food, water and fuel distribution points or collection areas may also expose them to danger. Also, where refugees are housed in centres and camps, sleeping rooms and washing facilities usually cannot be locked.

· The lack of police protection and general lawlessness in some camps is also a factor. Police may accept bribes in exchange for not investigating complaints, or for releasing the alleged perpetrators from custody. Police officers, military personnel, camp administrators or other government officers may themselves be involved in acts of abuse or exploitation.

d) UNHCR/Other presence

· The lack of UNHCR or NGO access to, or presence in, camps, particularly at night can be a contributing factor. The absence of an independent presence in camps is thought likely to increase the risks of attacks on personal security, including sexual violence. At the same time, the security situation might not allow for this presence.