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Sexual violence is used in conflict to destroy the social fabric of a community and the consequences for the individual can be fatal without proper treatment
Bangkok, 8 March 2013 – Throughout the past decade, international policy makers have placed violence against women during conflict higher on policy agenda, and much has been achieved in parts of the world, but little progress has been made in countries like Burma, where rape is used as a "weapon against those who only want to live in peace". Forced to flee to neighbouring countries like Thailand, many women are in urgent need of psychosocial support, international protection, and the opportunity to rebuild their lives.

In an effort to address this issue holistically, JRS Asia Pacific engages with organisations in the region to promote an end to sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) due to conflict, offers livelihood opportunities to women in vulnerable circumstances, and provides psychosocial healthcare to refugee women and girl survivors.

"Sexual violence is used in conflict to destroy the social fabric of a community and the consequences for the individual can be fatal without proper treatment", said to Zarah Kathleen T Alih, the Psychosocial Counsellor in the JRS Thailand Urban Refugee Programme (URP).

Psychosocial healthcare builds safer futures. Ms Alih emphasised that many of the urban refugees JRS assists are overcoming traumatic experiences. Holistic care is more than offering material and legal help, but also requires addressing their emotional and mental health.

"Mental health trauma and the lack of protection are pernicious issues that must be addressed for survivors to be able to go on with their lives", said Pauline Aaron, JRS Thailand Director.

JRS Thailand, along with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and Bangkok Refugee Centre, have a protocol and coordination mechanism with other agencies to provide SGBV survivors with emergency shelter and post-trauma counselling.

"Urban refugee women are one of the most vulnerable and invisible populations in Bangkok. Most of the time they are unable to communicate if they suffer from abuse because it is not something they would willingly share unless there is a close relationship. They have developed rapport and trust in us", explained JRS Thailand Urban Refugees Project Director, Rufino Seva.

"In cases where we learn that gender based violence has occurred, we immediately respond to the urgent needs of the survivor, such as housing and psychosocial support, while advocating with UNHCR to expedite their application for refugee status", he continued.

Addressing the aftermath of SGBV through psychosocial services has proven beneficial for rehabilitating women refugees affected by the violence, a step Ms Alih believes will build a safer future.

Livelihood opportunities offer protection. As Mr Seva emphasised invisibility to, and isolation from host communities is a common experience of refugees in Bangkok. As part of the JRS Urban Refugee Programme, staff help the women boost their coping skills by offering the vocational training in languages and jewellery-making to provide them with a safe source of income.

"It protects them against exploitation because it helps them gradually be able to support themselves", Ms Alih continued.

Women survivors of SGBV who are also asylum seekers face undue degrees of hardship as they await their applications for refugee status to be determined, in addition to having to deal with traumatic and physical consequences of this type of violence.

"Finding activities for these women is therapeutic. We accompany them and try to play a protective role by supporting their well-being with material assistance, and their psychosocial health through counselling and livelihood opportunities", said Ms Aaron.

"Life-skills and gender-sensitive skills activities are effective prevention strategies", continued MsAlih.

Taking a stand. Another preventative approach taken by JRS includes public advocacy on behalf of displaced women who have been abused before, during, or after flight. In addition to bringing issues of sexual violence to the attention of the authorities and UN agencies, JRS has participated in events to raise public awareness.

For instance, on 14 February last JRS participated with numerous civil society groups, including the Filipino-based grassroots alliance, GABRIELA, in one of the global events organised by One Billion Rising demanding action to protect women against all forms of violence. The event last month brought together groups from the Philippines, India, Zimbabwe, Canada and the USA.

"Seeing women share their personal experiences about struggling and overcoming challenges with SGBV is inspiring. It encourages us to continue to fight for female empowerment", said Ms Alih.

However, in order to prevent future incidents of SGBV and eliminate the detrimental effects this violence has on survivors, families and communities alike the conversation must engage all groups in society, including boys and men, and encourage everybody to take a stand against sexual violence.

Dana MacLean, JRS Asia Pacific Communications Officer

For more information on sexual violence in conflict, see the coalition which JRS has joined, Campaign to Stop Rape in War