03/08/2013 10:30 am ET Updated May 08, 2013

The Power of Prevention: Tools to Help End Violence against Women and Girls in Crises

This year, as we mark International Women's Day (March 8), we have some major milestones to celebrate. Just last week, for example, the U.S. House and Senate approved the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, which assists victims of domestic and sexual violence. And yesterday, President Obama signed the Act into law. This is a great victory for women in the United States.

But the struggle to improve the lives of women globally is far from over. Millions of women around the world live in fear of violence every day. An astonishing six out of 10 women experience some form of physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Women displaced by conflict or natural disaster are particularly at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, including rape, trafficking and domestic violence. The consequences are long term and far-reaching for survivors, their families and communities.

The encouraging news is that the humanitarian world has taken note. Programming to respond to gender-based violence (GBV)* is improving and more resources are being allocated to support this work. But response is still insufficient. Much more must be done to ensure that survivors of GBV have the care and services they need to rebuild their lives, including medical and mental health services.

And, critically, more work must be done to improve prevention efforts so that we can stop this violence from happening in the first place. We need to be sure women and girls are safe whether they are caught in the first stages of a crisis or in a long-term refugee situation, whether they are living in a refugee camp or in an urban setting.

The Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) has been a leader in advocating for increased attention to prevention and more effective programming. We know what makes women and girls vulnerable, including lack of security, impunity for perpetrators of violence, limited access to education and inadequate reproductive health care. Some of these things can be addressed relatively easily: separate latrines, with locks, for women and girls; water and food distribution points in safe areas; ensuring safe access to cooking fuel; work opportunities that do not put women at risk; and safe spaces for education and life skills training, with classes that are at convenient times for women and girls.

In our work to prevent and mitigate the risks of GBV, the WRC has developed guidance and tools for humanitarian workers. Some examples:

Creating safer and more effective economic opportunities for women

In our research, we learned that some economic opportunities may actually increase a woman's risk of violence. This is especially true when refugee women do not have legal status or the right to work. We have developed guidance and tools to help field workers identify programs that expose women/girls to risks and develop protection strategies to enable them to live and work safely. These include: guidance -- Preventing Gender-based Violence, Building Livelihoods: Guidance and Tools for Improved Programming; an e-learning course; a checklist; and a 2-minute animated video "Making Work Safe: Safety Mapping Tool."

Improving protection by providing safe access to cooking fuel

Women and girls who are responsible for finding the cooking fuel needed to prepare meals for their families often risk physical abuse and sexual assault when they go out to collect firewood. The WRC led the Inter-agency Standing Committee's Safe Access to Firewood and alternative Energy (SAFE) task force, which developed guidance to address cooking fuel needs in humanitarian settings (a matrix on agency roles and responsibilities and decision trees on factors affecting choice of fuel strategy).

Addressing GBV through strong reproductive health programs

WRC played a key role in developing the Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP) for Reproductive Health in Crisis Situations, which is now the international standard for the provision of essential reproductive health services at the start of an emergency. Key components include preventing sexual violence and providing critical services for survivors of sexual assault.

Promoting inclusion and protection for women and girls with disabilities

Women and girls with disabilities are at an especially high risk of violence, due to misconceptions and negative attitudes, isolation and social exclusion. We are seeking to advance the rights and dignity of displaced persons with disabilities, advocating for initiatives that develop their capacity to lead full lives and to make meaningful contributions to their communities. This presentation describes our work with UNHCR on this issue.

As the length of displacement continues to lengthen (the majority of refugee situations now last more than 17 years), it is vital to get prevention right. And we must be creative in thinking of ways to involve women and girls as we develop interventions and programs.

*Gender-based violence is any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person's will and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between men and women. GBV can include rape, sexual exploitation, forced prostitution, domestic violence, trafficking, forced or early marriage, and harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation and honor killings.