Preventing Violence Against Women and Girls in Conflict Areas

The Global Women’s Institute has begun a five-year research project to understand and respond to gender-based violence in South Sudan, other crisis-affected countries.

August 26, 2014


Global Women's Institute Director Mary Ellsberg with International Rescue Committee community workers in Juba, South Sudan. Dr. Ellsberg traveled to the country's capital in August to begin planning for a research study. (Photo courtesy of Mary Ellsberg)

By Lauren Ingeno

Amid an ongoing civil war in South Sudan lies a less visible layer of violence: Women are suffering from rape, beatings and domestic abuse.

In August, Mary Ellsberg, director of the George Washington University’s Global Women’s Institute (GWI), and GWI Director of Research Manuel Contreras-Urbina traveled to Juba, the South Sudan capital, to witness the situation firsthand.

Over the next five years, GWI and a team of researchers will aim to understand the prevalence of violence against South Sudanese women and girls as well as the social and structural factors that sustain it.

South Sudan secured independence in 2011 after a decade-long conflict. But just two years later, the country erupted into violence again amid a power struggle between the South Sudanese president and vice president. The renewed violence displaced more than 1 million people.

While gender-based violence is an international problem, it is often most brutal and easily ignored in crisis-affected countries.

“During a war and after the conflict, women are particularly at risk of being raped, which in many places is used systematically as a weapon of war. And often there is a large increase in domestic violence and other forms of family violence,” Dr. Ellsberg said. “The cumulative effect of this on women, who have been living in a war zone for more than 20 years, can be both psychologically and physically devastating.”

“What Works” to Prevent Violence?

The population-based study in South Sudan is part of a research initiative launched by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in spring 2014. The goal of the project, funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), is to figure out “what works” in preventing and responding to violence against women and girls in conflict and humanitarian crises.

GWI will be carrying out the research as part of a consortium of partners, including global humanitarian organizations CARE International UK and the IRC. The entire project will include studies in several crisis-affected countries. Faculty from the Milken Institute School of Public Health, the Elliott School of International Affairs and the GW Law School will also participate in these studies.    

Dr. Ellsberg and Dr. Contreras-Urbina traveled to South Sudan to assess the feasibility of conducting research in the country. They met with local and national authorities, members of women’s rights NGOs and community workers to map out a plan for their future household studies.

In South Sudan, the researchers will compile data about the prevalence, characteristics, causes and consequences of different types of violence against women and girls in the country. In other locations, the researchers will investigate the effectiveness of emergency programs.


South Sudan seceded from the Republic of Sudan in 2011 after a decade-long conflict. Two years later, the young country plunged into another crisis. The the conflict has had a devastating impact on women and girls. (Photo Courtesy of Mary Ellsberg)

These comprehensive studies are particularly unique because few others have assessed the full scope of gender-based violence in conflict settings. This research will also provide evidence for which strategies could effectively reduce gender-based violence.

“In South Sudan, this will be the first rigorous study to measure the different types of violence that women suffer throughout their lives,” Dr. Ellsberg said. “We hope to not only shine a light on the horrendous suffering of women and girls in South Sudan, but also to help create effective solutions for preventing violence there and elsewhere.”

And in order to effectively address the problem, evidence-based research is key, Dr. Ellsberg stressed.

“What I have found in my personal experiences, working in Nicaragua and other places, is that having numbers is incredibly powerful for persuading policymakers and international agencies that domestic violence and rape are serious offenses that need to be addressed,” Dr. Ellsberg said.

Turning Research into Action

When GWI launched in November 2012, Dr. Ellsberg said that the institute would be a place to research, cultivate and elevate change in the lives of women globally.

Now approaching its two-year anniversary, one of the university’s youngest institutes is doing just that—fulfilling a mission that George Washington President Steven Knapp envisioned five years ago. In 2009, Dr. Knapp created a campus-wide task force to investigate the idea of launching an interdisciplinary institute to advance the empowerment of women and girls.

What began as a small, modest institute with grand ambitions has evolved into a powerful force that is poised to create meaningful change.

In 2014, in addition to being chosen as the primary research partner for the “What Works” project, GWI received $500,000 from the Australian government to begin a systematic review of all studies related to violence against women prevention and response.

With this funding, GWI is in the process of assessing the gaps in research and data collection in this area. In the project’s second phase, GWI intends to translate its findings into tools for activists, practitioners and researchers.

In the past two years, GWI has expanded its staff from three to nine and increased its national visibility. It has leveraged relationships with international partners such as the Malala Fund (developing an “I am Malala” curriculum that is set to launch this fall) and the World Bank. In the fall, GWI staff will relocate to offices in a townhouse located at 2140 G St.


Staff members of the Global Women's Institute cross their arms in a display of global solidarity against rape. (From top left) Manuel Contreras-Urbina, Diana J. Arango, Fernanda Bianchi, Marianne Makar, Mary Ellsberg, Chelsea Ullman.

“We spent the first two years building the infrastructure and relationships to position ourselves as contenders for funding and research projects. That has been our biggest challenge as a brand new institute,” Dr. Ellsberg said.

Now that the young institute has secured funding for its first major project, Dr. Contreras-Urbina does not deny that gathering the data will be a huge undertaking.

In South Sudan, the researchers plan to survey 2,000 men and women. To conduct their study, they will need approval at national, state and village levels. The country’s civil unrest is ongoing, and travel within the country could prove dangerous. In addition, interviewing women about an issue as sensitive as sexual violence requires special training for interviewers and precautions to avoid putting women and researchers at risk.

While the challenges may be vast, Dr. Contreras-Urbina believes the research will be critical a part of the peacebuilding process in South Sudan, because it will allow policy makers and those working on the ground to prioritize their efforts.

“What types of violence are these women experiencing? How prevalent is it? Where is it happening? Knowing the answers to these questions can help to make changes at a community level,” Dr. Contreras-Urbina said. “This research is the beginning step in a very long-term process.”