Sexual violence often increases in conflict and disaster situations, typically exposing women and girls to increased threats of rape and assault, exploitation, and abuse. This happens because of population displacement, the absence of police, and the disruption of the normal social networks that protect women and girls. Therefore, when USAID provides humanitarian assistance, such as food, relief commodities, water, and shelter, to people who have been affected by disasters, we also work to reduce risks for sexual violence and to provide support for women and girls who have experienced violence.

I have seen the importance of this program response first hand. In June I traveled to Cote d’Ivoire with four of my colleagues to assess the humanitarian situation following the fighting that occurred there earlier in the year. We visited communities in the west and the north of the country, and also some of the neighborhoods around Abidjan where the fighting was most intense. We met women, children, and men who had fled their homes in the villages, many of them witnessing and experiencing violence themselves.

Although women do not tend to speak openly about sexual violence in Cote d’Ivoire due to fears about being stigmatized or feeling shame about what has happened to them, it was clear that many women and girls had suffered from sexual violence during the conflict. Humanitarian organizations, such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), conducted rapid surveys in the areas most affected by the conflict, finding high rates of sexual violence – and especially gang rape – between January and May of this year. However, because of the involvement of the police in the conflict, women and girls were afraid to contact the police and did not report rapes or seek support services.

Based on these findings, USAID funded humanitarian organizations like the International Rescue Committee to ensure that women and girls who experienced sexual violence could access a range of support services, such as medical care, counseling, and legal aid. Many of these services already existed in Cote d’Ivoire, but they stopped functioning when health clinics were damaged by the conflict and trained service providers fled to other parts of the country. USAID programs worked to re-start these services by training new service providers, restocking health clinics, and raising awareness within communities about the available services. In total, USAID provided more than $2 million for protection activities like these in Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia, where refugees from Cote d’Ivoire fled during the conflict. These funds supported IRC and other organizations to respond to sexual violence and child protection concerns and to offer psychosocial support for affected populations.

Although sexual violence is an ugly consequence of conflict and disasters, by providing safe, sensitive, and appropriate services for survivors, we can help them and their communities to recover and rebuild their lives.