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Intersectionality, sexual and gender-based violence and humanitarian intervention

On March 11, 2016, Al-Jazeera reported on the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan that has been unraveling at least since December 2013[1]. The report was quite shocking, even amidst all the horrific events that have been taking place in the country. It mentioned that both militias, who are loyal to President Salva Kiir and those who are loyal to the former vice president Riek Machar, have been using rape, torture and killing as the ‘currencies’ of war. Their victims ranged from children to people with disability. The report, which was released by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights[2], details the systematic rapes and other gender-based violence in the country. Previously, on February 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report on the prevalence of rape in Mogadishu, Somalia[3]. The rapes mostly took place at the camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Wadajir. Some perpetrators were wearing police uniforms in the act. Women who were brave enough to report the crime to police stations, such as the 37-years old Maryam, experienced victim-blaming and justifiably developed a distrust towards security officials and institutions. In Nigeria, women and girls, freed from Boko Haram’s abduction are rejected by their communities. The rejection stems from the stigmatisation following Boko Haram’s latest twist to exploit the girls and women to carry their attacks as suicide bombers since 2013[4].

Based on those examples, this article argues that the gender mainstreaming into humanitarian responses is not enough to eliminate the problem of horrendous (mostly) gender-based crimes against women, men, non-cis gendered groups and children in these countries. The pervasive occurence of rapes is a culmination, instead of symptoms, of sexual and gender-based violence within those countries. Drawing upon interviews and case studies in two Human Rights Watch’s reports and one report by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, the article proposes immersion of the perspective of intersectionality into policies and measures taken to address the sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian crisis settings.

The first part of the article identifies weaknesses in current gender mainstreaming in humanitarian context which are mostly focused on the prevention and countermeasures for major sexual and gender-based violence, such as rape. While the second part of the article argues  for an intersectional approach to widen the debate on humanitarian focus so that it incorporates the structural, socio-political, cultural, historical and religious dimensions.

Gender Mainstreaming in Humanitarian Intervention

Humanitarian crises are a very delicate and complicated topic to start with. Debates over proper sources of morality in international justice, the universality or particularity of human rights and the right or duty to intervene have never ceased from the context of humanitarian intervention. It is only recently that those debates are expanded to include the question of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV)[5]. Scholars and practitioners such as, Chris Dolan and Fionnuala Ni Aolain, have greatly contributed to the discussion of sexual and gender-based violence by conceptualizing languages to speak about SGBV within the realm of international regimes and by breaking the gender binary in the conduct of humanitarian emergency policies.

On the one hand, Chris Dolan makes the case of the importance of acknowledging the vulnerabilities of men, transgender and non-cis gendered groups in humanitarian settings. He problematizes the sole focus on women in the discussion of sexual and gender-based violence while men, transgender and non-cis gendered groups are targeted by the same horrendous actions. He warns scholars and practitioners alike against being trapped in the gender binary and to incorporate all gender and non-cis gendered groups into consideration within the context of humanitarian crisis[6].

Ni Aolain, on the other hand, points toward the inherent masculinities of the global humanitarian regime for the failure of dealing with sexual and gender-based violence during a humanitarian crises. She suggests that the highly unpredictable nature of humanitarian crises contributes to the lack of reflexive capacities on the part of states and international organizations as responders to humanitarian emergencies. Furthermore, she argues that we need to start to see vulnerability as inevitable rather than as a consequence of such episodic catastrophe like humanitarian crises[7].

These two approaches to the problem of sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian context (represented by Dolan’s and Ni Aolain’s articles) are indeed very useful in identifying gaps in our perceptions on the dialectic between vulnerability and the masculine world of humanitarian responses, as well as to break down the gender binary that renders humanitarian responses ineffective for (other than female) gender and non-cis gendered groups. However, insights into the nature of vulnerability and humanitarian responses and the suggestion to look beyond the gender binary in humanitarian context are not enough to answer the problem.

The sexual and gender-based violence in Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan (as depicted in the reports) result from several different contexts of oppression that intertwine with each other and have been present long before the humanitarian crises take place. Boko Haram has been stirring up inter-religious tensions in Nigeria since its establishment in 2002; stigmatization of female headed households in addition to their identity as minority clan members render women and girls in Somalia vulnerable to rape[8]; and, women in South Sudan find themselves as targets of attacks due to a combination of failing legal, socio-political institutions and inter-ethnic conflict[9]. Though comprehensive documentation is unavailable, the systematic sexual and gender-based violence against other gender and non-cis gendered groups might also correlate with sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against women and girls[10].

Therefore, future humanitarian responses need to deal not only with the exclusion of other gender and non-cis gendered groups in relation to SGBV, but also with the amalgam of oppression and violence that permeate the experiences of all victims from all gender and non-cis gendered spectrums of identity. This means that the measures against sexual and gender-based violence must address the contextual, historical, sociological, political, economy and religious dimensions of violent experience. The following part of the article suggests the intersectionality approach, as promoted by the intersectional feminism, to serve as a new lens from which we can understand the multi-layered facets of sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian emergency settings.

Intersectionality and Humanitarian Emergencies

Intersectionality within the feminist discourses is understood as an approach that views an individual’s experience of sexual and gender-based violence as resulting from multi-layered facets of socio-political, economy, cultural and religious oppressions, in addition to sexual and gendered violence[11]. The approach holds that categories such as, race, gender, class, ability and ethnicity make up the experience of violence that each individual has. Thus, SGBV as experienced by women of color (WOC) is not the same SGBV experienced by White, middle-class women. Furthermore, the experiences of able-bodied, heterosexual women of color are not comparable to the experiences of homosexual women of color with disability.

There are three points that the intersectionality perspective can contribute to the provision of measures to overcome SGBV in humanitarian emergency settings. First, it widens the discourse of sexual and gender-based violence to include all gender and non-cis gendered groups. This was the concern brought up by Chris Dolan when he talked about breaking the gender-binary. According to this perspective, the focus should shift from the targets of SGBV, to the motivations behind the violent action. Second, it acknowledges the multi-faceted and multi-layered experiences of violence. It not only allows us to transcend reactive responses to SGBV that occur humanitarian crises, but also begin addressing the factors that enabled the SGBV to occur in the first place. Ni Aolain’s call to see vulnerability as something that is inevitable is a call to take into account these SGBV-enabling circumstances within the context of humanitarian emergencies.

Lastly, the intersectionality approach encourages us to listen to the experiences of the victims, rather than to impose our own readings on what their experiences and needs are. It is clear from some testimonies in the reports, for example, that some of the victims of rapes and attacks – with their position as the providers for the families – were more worried about their dwindling physical strength and capacities to provide for their families after the tragedies, rather than their own psychological trauma[12]. Seen from the intersectionality point of view, these statements from the victims must inform the way humanitarian crises responders provide care, services and protections to the victims.

Within the dimension of policy recommendations, it means that international responders to humanitarian emergencies need to consider taking three steps. First, to give more focus on the socio-cultural, political and religious dynamics in the region in addition to measures directed at legal reform and law enforcement. Second, to give room for survivors of SGBV to voice their own opinions, particularly regarding their future. We need to see them for what they are, as survivors, and not as victims. Third, to emphasize on subtle aspects that play a role in the backdrop of humanitarian emergency in question. This being said, there must be a holistic approach that links first responses (IDPs protection, shelter provision, injuries treatment, trauma counselings, etc) with activities specifically designed to prevent double-victimization on SGBV survivors (provision of resources for those who want to start small businesses, security infrastructures in places like traditional markets and schools, engagement to elders and religious leaders on the importance of women empowerment, interreligious dialogue initiatives, etc). At the very core of this proposal is that humanitarian emergencies need to be dealt with comprehensive, instead of partial, measures against all interconnected web of oppressions.

Therefore, it is crucial to incorporate intersectionality in humanitarian emergency settings. Not only because we need to widen the scope of humanitarian cares and protections to also include other gender and non-cis gendered groups, but also because listening to the victims comprises the core of every humanitarian responses. It might be hard to imagine genuine listening and reflective processes within the emergency nature of humanitarian responses. However, if we are really serious in protecting those who are most vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies, we really need to start listening to them.

Lailatul Fitriyah is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA and currently a Nostra Aetate Fellow at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Vatican City. She may be reached at:, Academia page:



[1] Al-Jazeera and agencies, “South Sudan: UN Reports Campaign of Killing and Rape,” Al-Jazeera, March 11, 2016, accessed April 25, 2016,

[2] “Assessment Mission by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to Improve Human Rights, Accountability, Reconciliation and Capacity in South Sudan: Detailed Findings,” Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, March 10, 2016, accessed April 25, 2016,

[3] “Here, Rape is Normal: A Five-Point Plan to Curtail Sexual Violence in Somalia,” Human Rights Watch Report, February 13, 2014, accessed April 25, 2016,

[4] Zenn, Jacob and Pearson, Elizabeth, “Women, Gender and the Evolving Tactics of Boko Haram,” Journal of Terrorism Research 5(1)(2014): 46.

[5] Ni Aolain, Fionnuala “Women, Vulnerability, and Humanitarian Emergencies,” Michigan Journal of Gender and Law 18(1)(2011): 1.

[6] Dolan, Chris, “Letting Go of the Gender Binary: Charting New Pathways for Humanitarian Interventions on Gender-Based Violence,” International Review of the Red Cross 96(894)(2014): 486.

[7] Ni Aolain, “Women, Vulnerability,” 4.

[8] “Here, Rape is Normal,” Human Rights Watch Report.

[9] “Assessment Mission,” Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

[10] Dolan, “Letting Go,” 491.

[11] Crenshaw, Kimberle, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43(1241)(1991): 1243-1244.

[12] “Here, Rape is Normal,” Human Rights Watch Report.

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