The specific context in which sexual violence occurs determines how it can and should be addressed by individuals and organizations. Responses during armed conflicts and in refugee settings often differ from community-led initiatives in post-conflict situations. Infrastructure, access to resources, and political will may vary in each case. The approaches described will provide basic ideas and concepts for individual, organizational, and network-level responses relevant to multiple settings.
Sexual violence is a multi-pronged problem influenced by the interaction of personal, situational, and socio-cultural factors. This “ecological approach” suggests that the underlying cultural, social, and gender norms of a community often make it difficult for a victim to receive support or achieve redress. In order to address sexual violence and provide appropriate support to victims, the socio-cultural context in which such crimes are perpetrated must be considered, as well as the profound effect that sexual violence has on the individual and her/his community. Indeed, the health and well-being of an individual cannot be divorced from the community context in which he or she lives. As such, community-based approaches to sexual violence must acknowledge the importance of relationships between individuals and groups within a community, as well as find ways to incorporate the participation and involvement of community members in finding solutions, both at the individual and organizational level.
Shifting the onus of responsibility for ending sexual assault from individual organisations to the community at-large is a key component to primary prevention in the public health model. Engaging the community in this work has numerous benefits like:
Sexual violence is everyone’s issue; everyone is impacted by it in some way. Community mobilization focuses on giving ownership of the issue and its solutions to the community.
Sexual violence shifts from the advocates/ staff working in the area of sexual abuse to the entire community. These steps are just one set of tools that can help communities who are beginning the process of planning for community-based primary prevention of sexual violence. There are many meaningful ways to engage community members in this process, this is not the only way but one of the ways.
There are a variety of ways to identify potential community partners. One important point to keep in mind is that for primary prevention initiatives, the partners will probably need to be diverse, representing different cultures, socio-economic status, perspectives and voices.
After identifying community partners, there is a need to recruit them and frame the issue for the working group. It is important for the community partners to attend to the framing of the issue to ensure that all the partners are on the same page. For example, we are aware that a lot of people do not react well to the term “sexual assault”, either because it’s an uncomfortable topic or because all they hear is “sex”. We also know that there are still a lot of misconceptions about sexual assault and prevention of sexual assault. For example, in our society most sexual assault “prevention” programs are really risk reduction efforts like self-defence or watch your drink campaigns. However, comprehensive primary prevention of sexual violence involves dealing with the root causes and risk factors related to sexual violence, and therefore deals with a broader scope and impacts many other aspects of the community.
After developing a collective understanding the group should come up with a mission and vision. The members who have volunteered to work should be clearly explained their roles and help the team to come up with an action plan. This will bring us to the second step.
We all know that there are a lot of challenges related to engaging communities in sexual violence prevention. It will take a constant, concerted effort (at least in the beginning) to maintain interest and dedication. The initial stages of the workgroup process are critical to the eventual success of a community group, and relationship building is a key part of the initial stages. There are many different models of working with community groups and coalitions, and usually the concentration of power and participation of the members varies with each model. The relationships building is contingent on the model one adopts. The members should adopt a model that will help in building strong relationships and ensure that work pressure do not fall only on few shoulders.
Effective prevention and response to sexual violence requires the development of a community-based system or network of key organizations and actors, working in coordination to provide services to survivors, bring perpetrators to justice, and engage in comprehensive community mobilization to prevent sexual violence. The main goal of coordinated community response is to engage a wide range of essential institutions and individuals (e.g. healthcare providers, police, prosecutors, judges, legal services, shelters and protection services, schools, faith-based organizations, and advocacy organizations) in a community wide strategy to ensure that the community plans and executes a holistic prevention plan. The approach involves developing a shared understanding of sexual and gender-based violence and related laws, identifying the roles of each partner in the process, and trying to establish coordinated procedures or protocols across agencies.
One of the most effective ways to eliminate sexual and gender-based violence is to mobilize and engage entire communities in recognizing, responding to, and preventing these crimes. Key components of coordinated community response include an interdisciplinary team to coordinate and facilitate the network, changes to local institutions to ensure minimum standards and systems for data collection, ongoing communication and monitoring of prevention and response efforts, and community mobilization activities to change social norms that contribute to violence. Developing and implementing coordinated community prevention and response programs that incorporate each of these goals can be complex. One of the ways to involve communities is taking a bottom up approach, clear and effective communication on pertinent issues and democratic decision making.
Planning for effective, relevant primary prevention strategies, requires identifying community specific risk factors on which the strategies will be based. Sexual violence manifests itself differently in different communities, so local data and perspectives are critical to the process of designing appropriate prevention strategies. It order to identify and assess the risk factors the community members need to ask and discuss the following questions:
These are just a few ideas of ways to gather information. In all cases, it would be helpful to consult with someone in your community who has research or assessment experience and who might be willing to offer some advice on the process.
Note: When trying to identify community specific risk and protective factors for sexual violence, keep previous research and theories about sexual violence in mind to guide what you find. The ecological model is used to combine various theories (e.g., feminist and psychological) to show how multiple factors interact to make sexual violence more likely to occur. Many people have asked, “what if my community decides that sexual violence is caused by girls dressing provocatively and they want to address that in our prevention efforts.” Rape myths are still prevalent, and that is why it is important to keep relevant theories at the core of your efforts. There are no theories of sexual violence that suggest that a victim’s behaviour causes sexual violence.
Once community specific risk and protective factors have been identified, it is time to plan short and long-term strategies to address those factors. Feel encouraged to do this in small chunks and don’t feel pressured to address each and every risk factor identified in your community right away.
Risk factors should be addressed strategically, target multiple levels of the ecological model. A community’s ability to respond to sexual violence depends on several factors. First, key institutions in the areas of medicine, law, and psychosocial services must be identified. Second, barriers to effective response–whether institutional, cultural, or financial–must be addressed. Finally, interlinking and mutually supportive approaches must be established to ensure that victims can navigate the system while being treated with dignity and respect.
Another way of enhancing a community’s ability to respond to sexual violence is as follows