Reframing ‘Survivor-Centred’ Approaches to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

Looking at new ways of thinking about support for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.

The silhouette of a woman with head slightly bowed

Among the daily news stories of Russian brutality and heinous acts of violence in Ukraine, reports have emerged of women and girls, and men and boys, being raped. In response to this situation, Pramila Patten, the United Nations (UN) Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, recently signed a framework for cooperation. This addresses issues of justice and accountability, as well as comprehensive service provision – including legal, medical and livelihood support – for those who have suffered rape and other forms of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). The framework for cooperation largely reflects a ‘survivor-centred approach’ to CRSV. 

Both within the United Kingdom and internationally, the concept of ‘a survivor-centred approach’ enjoys widespread support. In a recent policy paper, for example, the G7 Foreign Ministers declared: ‘A survivor-centered approach should be adopted when dealing with sexual and gender-based violence, including when related to conflict’. In many respects, the commitment to ‘centring’ survivors represents a notable step forward, given the historical marginalisation of CRSV. However, critical discussion of the concept of a ‘survivor-centred approach’ – and its potential limitations – remains strikingly absent. 

Arguably, something more than just a ‘survivor-centred approach’ is required. It is helpful in this regard to think about resilience – a concept that is frequently discussed in the context of global challenges including climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and violent extremism. If scholars researching CRSV have largely overlooked resilience, policymakers typically only make very brief references to it. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, for example, has mentioned ‘contextualized solutions that build resilience’, but without actually defining the term resilience. Pramila Patten, for her part, has underlined that: ‘My work as United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict has taken me to many war-torn corners of the globe, where I have met countless courageous and resilient women’. This gives the impression that resilience is about individual personality traits and characteristics (strength, bravery, determination), consistent with the etymology of the word; ‘Resilience comes from the Latin word resilire, meaning to spring back’.

A comprehensive approach to dealing with CRSV therefore requires more than just supporting survivors and ‘centring’ them. It also necessitates extending support and care to the social ecologies with which their everyday lives are interwoven – and which shape and affect their needs, priorities and goals.

Scholarship on resilience, however, has increasingly shifted away from narrow person-centred approaches towards more complex framings that locate resilience in the relationships and interactions between individuals and their social ecologies (environments). These social ecologies include families, communities, schools, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), institutions and ecosystems such as lakes and forests. In short, resilience is ‘co-facilitated by individuals and the systems of which individuals are part’. This de-centring of individuals is important, in turn, because it avoids putting the blame on them ‘for not flourishing when they are few opportunities to access resources’.

Social ecologies are also very significant for thinking about CRSV– and how best to support survivors. The issue, however, is that ‘centring’ survivors can marginalise these social ecologies, and this is problematic for three key reasons. First, the legacies of CRSV extend to different parts of survivors’ social ecologies, including their children and families, their land and the demographics of their communities. Second, discussions about CRSV often focus on deficits, in the sense of what survivors lack and need. Consequently, they frequently overlook some of the many resources (including supportive relationships, NGOs and/or women’s associations, cultural practices and ‘therapeutic places’) that survivors will have within their social ecologies that can help them in dealing with their experiences and rebuilding their lives. Third, survivors may actively contribute and ‘give back’ to their social ecologies in various ways, including through caring practices, advocacy work and ‘the stewardship of life’.

A comprehensive approach to dealing with CRSV therefore requires more than just supporting survivors and ‘centring’ them. It also necessitates extending support and care to the social ecologies with which their everyday lives are interwoven – and which shape and affect their needs, priorities and goals. In particular, it means investing in and strengthening important resources within these social ecologies. This would represent a more long-term and sustainable approach to addressing CRSV, consistent with the UN Secretary-General’s aforementioned reference to ‘contextualized solutions that build resilience’. The essential point is that survivors’ social ecologies are themselves a crucial part of such solutions.

Moving forward, the following steps will be important

  • First, there should be a thorough evidence-based investigation – led by multidisciplinary experts from different international settings – focused on best sustainable practice for survivor-centred approaches. In the United Kingdom, an all-party parliamentary group could coordinate and oversee this work. 
  • Second, existing codes and protocols on CRSV, including UN Security Council resolutions, should be reviewed and updated where appropriate, to acknowledge the relevance of social ecologies – and to provide guidance on how to develop interventions that practically address the significance of these social ecologies.
  • Third, the creation of a global framework for evaluating support for survivors of CRSV would allow for a more effective analysis of existing interventions and facilitate the sharing of best practice between states and donor organisations.