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Finding refuge: Sexual violence in forced displacement & COVID-19 implications

Written by Madison Calvert, BS in human physiology at Boston University; SPRIGHT Scholar in the 2020 Institute for Public Health Summer Research ProgramPublic and Global Health Abbreviated Track

Globally, approximately 79.5 million people are currently forcibly displaced and have fled their homes to escape violence, conflict, or persecution. In a recent seminar, Kim Seelinger, JD, Director, Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration discussed the roles of the health-sector in supporting survivors of SGBV. Sexual and gender-based violence is a broad term that encompasses any acts that are perpetrated against a person’s will and is based on gender norms and unequal power distribution; this includes, but is not limited to, forced marriage, rape, sexual torture, human trafficking, and recruitment of child soldiers. SGBV is a direct violation of human rights, and as aspiring or current health professionals and practitioners, it is imperative to understand the responsibilities we hold in protecting and serving survivors.

Photo by Madison Calvert: Syrian refugee camp located in the Bekaa region of Lebanon, 2019

As stated by the World Health Organization (WHO), health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Therefore, as health professionals, we must not only consider the inherent health-specific impacts of SGBV, but also view healthcare as an entry point for survivors to receive access to other vital services. Often SGBV has negative impacts on reproductive outcomes, such as, unintended pregnancies, STIs/HIV transmission, infertility, and fistula, which makes it imperative to build robust sexual and reproductive health services into health care delivery. Additionally, survivors often face emotional and mental traumas, which makes health care an important entry to counseling services. Lastly, health care professionals also can serve as a bridge to accessing social services, including shelter and legal services, which are central points to ensuring the future safety of individuals.

However, providing holistic services to forcibly displaced populations is not simple. Some of the barriers include, but are not limited to, delayed reporting and under-reporting, difficulty of providing SRH services in conservative environments, limited psychological programming, overwhelmed systems and limited resources, implicit biases, challenges of working with mobile populations, and ethical concerns. In the future it is necessary to combat these barriers and identify facilitators to care to ensure the health and safety of these at-risk populations.

As the world currently faces unprecedented times, it’s critical to also consider the implications of COVID-19 on patterns of forced migration and incidence of SGBV. While it is still early to understand the full impact the global pandemic has had, it is important to note the significant consequences of the social changes that COVID-19 has brought upon. As borders of countries continue to close, and individuals are forced to stay in their homes, migration patterns and movements have changed dramatically. This means that women and children are likely to be stuck in dangerous situations, putting them at higher risk of being victim to acts of SGBV and intimate partner violence, without the ability to reach help. Lastly, as the world puts its focus on fighting the pandemic, funds are likely to be diverted from SRH services and individuals may be less likely to seek care in fear of contracting the virus, putting individuals at risk from suffering from medical conditions.

Looking forward, resources and research must be allocated and dedicated to providing medical, legal, and social services to help women, children, and survivors find refuge.

This post is part of the Summer Research Program blog series at the Institute for Public Health. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter or Facebook.