Individual Experiences and Social Stigma: Psychological Impact of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Conflict

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is prevalent in conflict and post-conflict societies. The vulnerability of institutions traditionally designed to offer social protection to victims and the lack of professionally trained personnel in such countries are issues that require further attention. Addressing one aspect of SGBV affected by these factors – the psychological impact on its victims – carries significance for the overall rebuilding of post-conflict societies.

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) constitutes an attack on the physical integrity of victims. Yet, in addition to the numerous ways in which it impacts victims’ health, including pregnancies and getting infected with HIV, it also has a significant psychological impact. The mental impact of SGBV in conflict has some peculiar aspects to it. Firstly, SGBV in conflict is often characterised by particular cruelty. Some rapes constitute torture and involve acts of mutilation. In a conflict environment, victims also often witness similar and other types of violence being perpetrated against their family and community members. In addition, the vulnerability of many of the victims of SGBV in conflict and post-conflict situations  increases the chances of retaliatory strikes if crimes are reported and perpetuates the state of fear of victims. Finally, sexual and gender-based crimes (SGBC) trials could further traumatise the victims as they relive their stories while being questioned. This is particularly relevant in states that lack the institutional capacity to provide strong psychological support to victims during trials and specialized training on working with victims of SGBV. Yet, it is precisely in such countries that SGBC take place on a mass scale during conflict and in its immediate aftermath.

The psychological impact of SGBV in conflict and transitional environments affects all ages. Young women and girls in such environment are often unable to find a husband or are abandoned by their fiancés. Many of the ones that get pregnant as a result of rape drop out of school. Adult victims in many societies suffer social stigmatization as they are considered to bring shame to their families and communities. Many women, being rejected by their families or abandoned by their husbands, are left on the street where they are even more vulnerable to assaults. The psychological traumas that SGBC cause reduce the ability of the victims to work and provide for themselves and their families. Some of them are forced to resort to prostitution as a means of survival. Child victims of SGBV, while experiencing significant mental trauma, are not the subject of the same social stigmatization. It is somewhat easier for parents to report SGBC committed against their children than for adults, and communities often mobilise more easily in speaking out against SGBV against children.

A major issue with regard to SGBV in conflict and post-conflict societies is the availability of psychological support for the victims.  The trained personnel, including psychologists, is often insufficient where most needed. As a result of the instability of institutions which should provide social protection, in some countries churches and local NGOs have started providing material and emotional support for SGBV victims. The latter have also, at times, created self-help groups.

Addressing the issue of the lack of psychological support for SGBV victims is especially crucial in countries experiencing or having recently experienced conflict. Ensuring the right mental conditions of the numerous people who have experienced some form of SGBV is an important step in rebuilding states in which community ties have been torn apart. Tackling the stigmatisation of victims and achieving their acceptance into society is a prerequisite for more peaceful community life. In addition, providing psychological support for SGBV victims and removing stigmatisation will also have an impact on the number of SGBC reported, which at the moment is lower than the actual number of crimes perpetrated because of factors such as fear of retaliation and social rejection.

Overall, the psychological impact of SGBV on victims is significant and interlinked with the social environment. This is particularly important in conflict and post-conflict societies, which face a large number of SGBC, yet have limited capacity to address the psychological trauma of the survivors. Supporting SGBV victims to continue their lives and promoting inclusive communities that do not stigmatise survivors is a significant step in the process of  transitioning from conflict to peace.

Liana Minkova is a Special Advisor on gender in conflict and peacemaking at the Centre for Gender Rights at LCILP Global. She has an MPhil in International Relations and Politics from the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include gender-based violence as a tool of war, human rights, international regimes and gender-based crimes in international criminal law.

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