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What Happens When Women and Girls Seek Help in Emergencies? The Awful Truth About Violence

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As war ravages Syria, hunger stalks central Africa, and a Super Typhoon hits East Asia, the international community is working to assist those at risk. But alongside the challenges everyone talks about - like lack of access to food and water - there is another peril faced women and girls in emergencies, one that has been hidden from public conversation: the threat of sexual and gender violence. This week, the taboo is finally being broken as leaders meet in London for the High Level Event on Violence Against Women and Girls in Emergencies. It is crucial that leaders talk about this scourge; it is even more vital that they hear from those who have suffered it.

The stories that young girls and women have told me, on visits to Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Nepal, will haunt me forever. The wide-scale, brutal, sexual and gender based violence that has taken place in natural disasters and conflicts across the world, the lack of redress, and the lack of public acknowledgement, is a challenge to us all. We like to think we know how humans respond to humans in need. We don't like to think it can be like this.

Eighteen year old Marie (not her real name - she does not want her real name to be known), lost her home in the great earthquake that rocked Haiti, and fled to Gerald Batille Camp. One day, taking out the trash, she found herself surrounded by six men. They dragged her to a nearby house; they held a gun at her; they covered her mouth; then all six men raped her. A few days later, she gathered her courage to see a doctor - alone, so that no one else would find out. Later, she was able to tell her aunt and mother. She has never reported the rape to the police. She doesn't think they would do anything.

In the Syrian conflict, sexual and gender based violence is playing an increasingly prominent role as a tactic of war. It takes place during armed raids, at checkpoints, in detention facilities and even at schools. Sexual violence is one of the most under-reported forms of violence against children there. The most shocking revelation for me was that more than 80 per cent of respondents of our research said they would not know where to seek help for sexual assault. To help keep women and girls safe, World Vision is setting up Child-Friendly Spaces, with professional counsellors who help vulnerable children deal with their situation. David Thomson, World Vision's Director of Policy and Programmes told me, "women and girls are the most vulnerable group during an emergency and the long-term impact of trauma can be huge and devastating if not addressed. We use Child Friendly Spaces to support and protect children, give them somewhere to play, and remember what it's like to be a child again after an emergency."

When people seek help in emergencies, we like to think that they will receive that help. But the awful truth is that for too many women and girls, what they are met with is violence - and then silence. Finally the world is starting to talk about it. And there is the hope. As William Wilberforce said two centuries ago, after sharing with leaders the brutal details of slavery: "Having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know." Now the secret is no longer secret, what will we do?