Rina Ghafoerkhan, Elise Griede, Laura Jeffery, Lucy Lowe, David Nieuwe Weme
Featured image credits: SIDRA Institute
… she actually complained to the camp leaders. And there was an NGO, that NGO helped her, she went to the police station and the guy was caught and, you know, he stayed in jail for two days. And since then, that’s when the abuse started. He rapes her constantly. As a punishment. So, you have the rule of law that is not doing its job. The government’s not doing their job, you have the NGO, of course they do help, but then they don’t look at the consequences. You’re not addressing the issue. And that’s why women don’t come forth, because it’s easier. Maybe it happens to you once. And if you keep quiet, then it stops. But then you talk and you get punished.
These are the words of an internally displaced teenager in Somalia. They reflect the experiences of many displaced women too scared to report experiences of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) because of the repercussions experienced by those who do. Her account was shared with researchers on the DiSoCo project, which aims to improve healthcare for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and amongst Somali and Congolese refugees in Kenya and South Africa.
Both Somalia and the DRC have been involved in decades-long protracted conflicts, and Somali and Congolese people have faced prolonged exposure to numerous human rights violations, including torture, sexual violence and repeated and often protracted displacement. During interviews, many people emphasised the stigma surrounding SGBV, sometimes as an even greater concern than physical or mental health, due to the social significance of female virginity and chastity. Several interviewees discussed concerns about the lasting impact that public knowledge of assault might have for survivors’ futures, such as being deemed unsuitable for marriage.
As a result, they suggested, a priority of many survivors and their families is to conceal the assault, in an attempt to avoid the shame and dishonour that often haunts survivors.
Our interviewees discussed this process of concealment and containment as a response to stigma occurring on multiple levels. Firstly, several interviewees articulated that victims’ fears about other people’s responses might disincentivise victims from disclosing sexual violence to others, but that this containment might also result in social isolation. Secondly, in relation to containment within the household, interviewees noted that victims and their families might seek to restrict knowledge about the incident to a select group or even remove the entire household from the social setting by moving away. Both Somali and Congolese interviewees mentioned cases of people relocating – displacing or re-displacing themselves – in order to evade the stigma surrounding what had happened to them. One Congolese interviewee responded that:
In some cases, they isolate themselves or they will be forced to go into exile, another village or into the city where again they don’t have the support system. So it’s not just the war that displaces these people…
Thus, in displacement contexts in which social support networks have already been severed, household containment has the potential to compound pre-existing social isolation.
Thirdly, strategies for containment at a community level via social institutions include transforming the violation into an ‘appropriate’ sexual interaction through marriage, seeking reparations in the form of compensation, or initiating retributive justice. Similarly, our research partners in Somalia found that a commonplace principal response to sexual violence is families and extended clan networks seeking compensation from the offending parties to the victim’s family (Boeyink et al. 2022, p8). This implies a framing of sexual violence not only as a mental health concern and physical assault for which the victim might warrant medical attention, but also crucially as a (dis)honour for which the victim’s family should be compensated.
Prevalent norms surrounding sex and gender are crucial to understanding how victims, their families, and local communities react to experiences of sexual violence. Displaced populations face parallel challenges in accessing all forms of care because displacement ruptures and fragments support networks. This is compounded in cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), where perceptions of gender, violence, and sex among displaced and host communities are entangled with practices of care.
Our interviewees highlighted that gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and the availability of local support networks together inform the forms of social harm and potential care experienced by survivors of sexual violence. Without viable and accessible support and care, survivors of SGBV can be subject to repeat displacement, revealing the highly gendered, but often concealed, nature of forced migration.
This blogpost draws on a journal article in preparation for publication. Its co-authors – Rina Ghafoerkhan, Elise Griede, Laura Jeffery, Lucy Lowe, David Nieuwe Weme – are based at ARQ International in the Netherlands and the University of Edinburgh in the UK. The co-authors are collaborating on a UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) research project aiming to help Somali and Congolese displaced people to access appropriate healthcare for chronic mental health conditions associated with protracted displacement, conflict, and sexual and gender-based violence. For more information about the project, please visit our website at displacement.sps.ed.ac.uk/ and twitter @gcrf_disoco