11/28/2012 02:36 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

16 Days, 16 Ways: Preventing Violence Against Displaced Women and Girls

The annual global campaign 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence is such a poignant time on the calendar for the Women's Refugee Commission.

On the one hand, we reflect with profound anger on the horrific violations that continue to be perpetrated every day against millions of women and girls in conflict-ridden places. But it's also a time when we take inspiration, encouragement and hope from the many courageous refugee women and girls with whom the Women's Refugee Commission works -- women and girls who are absolutely determined to stop sexual violence and exploitation in their communities. They give meaning and life to that rather academic phrase "change agents."

During this 16 Days campaign, I think of the more than 1,000 displaced women and girls who took part in the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) 2010-2011 Dialogues with Refugee Women. These women and girls made clear that the constant threat of sexual and gender-based violence permeates every aspect of their lives. And they demanded action. Their powerful testimonies and recommended solutions are captured in the UNHCR publication Survivors, Protectors, Providers: Refugee Women Speak Out.

Building on what refugee women and girls themselves have said to UNHCR and also to the Women's Refugee Commission over the years, we are commemorating this year's 16 Days campaign by highlighting "16 Ways" we believe humanitarian agencies and governments can prevent and respond to gender-based violence in crisis-affected areas. Some are quite fundamental to good practice -- ensuring adequate lighting, secure shelter and separate latrines for men and women in camps. Other basics include proper documentation for women and girls so they can receive services; safe and equal access to food and cooking fuel and quality reproductive health care, especially services for survivors of sexual violence. And it is absolutely vital to empower displaced women and girls, including those with disabilities, to have full and meaningful opportunities to participate in decision-making in their communities and in designing and implementing assistance programs. Otherwise, a cycle of exclusion is too easily perpetuated.

In some ways, the first part of our list is a "back to basics" call. We know these actions can help create a safer environment for displaced women and girls. They are already reflected in established international standards, but still not routinely implemented. That has to change. It is essential to include these activities in humanitarian funding appeals and put them in place at the start of humanitarian response operations.

These are minimum first steps -- necessary but far from sufficient. Effective prevention of gender-based violence requires a much more comprehensive approach. And it must take into account the sobering reality that most refugees will be displaced for many years and humanitarian assistance is limited. That's why our list of "16 Ways" also includes working with men and boys in integrated efforts to prevent violence against women and girls. And it's also critical to promote economic opportunities for women and girls so they are not forced to exchange sex for basic necessities. And we give a prominent place to formal and nonformal education for girls and for women so they can acquire the skills to earn a living, better protect themselves and secure their rights, including access to justice.

One last activity that we include on our "16 Ways" list is making sure that when countries and agencies prepare for disasters, they build efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence into these plans. As we've seen in Haiti, natural disasters exacerbate violence against women and girls. In areas that are prone to these crises, we can mitigate this risk if we include the prevention of gender-based violence in emergency preparedness and response planning.

The Women's Refugee Commission will expand on a number of these issues on our website and on Facebook and Twitter throughout this year's 16 Days campaign. It is our way of standing in solidarity with refugee women and girls who have not lost their faith in a better, safer future and who are demanding -- and taking -- action.