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Sexual and Gender-based Violence

Sexual and gender-based violence1 (SGBV) remains a serious human rights violation and public health epidemic in all contexts around the world. All forcibly displaced and stateless people—irrespective of age, gender or diversity —are at risk of exposure to SGBV, but displaced women and girls often experience a heightened risk.

SGBV refers to any act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and is based on gender norms and unequal power relationships.

It encompasses threats of violence and coercion. It includes physical, emotional or psychological and sexual violence, and denial of resources or access to services. It inflicts harm on women, girls, men and boys. Forms of SGBV include intimate partner violence, forced marriage, child marriage, and a range of new and emerging forms of violence, such as threats, harassment, stalking, sexual bullying and abuse that occur on-line or through electronic media and communication technologies amongst others. It comprises violence committed by family, friends, members of the community or unknown assailants. It can also be perpetrated or condoned by the state, non-state actors, or institutions, or by humanitarian personnel or international peacekeeping forces2.

The Network focuses on ensuring equitable access to an essential package of quality services is available for survivors of SGBV and victims of trafficking, including access to safe spaces and improving response to SGBV disclosure along the displacement route.

Survivor-centered Approach

Everyone directly or indirectly engaged with survivors must ensure the Guiding Principles to work with SGBV survivors at the individual level, meaning:


  • Respect by treating survivors with dignity, ensuring their participation, and respecting their decisions;
  • Confidentiality by safeguarding survivors’ right to privacy and maintaining confidentiality;
  • Safety by ensuring that the safety of the survivor is of primary concern at all times; 
  • Non-discrimination by treating everyone based on need alone; and 
  • Best interests by being a primary consideration in all decisions affecting survivors; the principle is particularly relevant when dealing with children and people with mental disabilities.

Studies and Reports

Intimate Partner Violence and Asylum in the Americas (2019)

This report by the Human Rights Center and the International Human Rights Clinic at University of California Berkeley School of Law and the Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration at Washington University in St. Louis, with the support of UNHCR addresses the under-examined intersection of intimate partner violence (IPV) and refugee protection in the Americas. Despite high rates of IPV in the Americas region, scant information exists about whether and how IPV survivors are able to secure international protection on the basis of these experiences. Further, though exploratory research by UNHCR’s Regional Legal Unit for the Americas in 2017 suggests that several countries in the region address IPV in national asylum policies and guidelines, it is unclear to what extent RSD claims are actually being granted on this basis. There is little examination of the extent to which the application, interview, and adjudication processes address the specific needs of IPV survivors seeking international protection. Clarifying the legal grounds and practical considerations surrounding IPV-related claims would assist countless advocates, adjudicators, and asylum-seekers in the region.

The Silence I Carry (2018)

At the invitation of UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Regional Legal Unit for the Americas Region, the Sexual Violence Program of the Human Rights Center (HRC) at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a pilot project to assess challenges and strategies related to SGBV disclosure among refugees and other migrants in Central America and Mexico. HRC focused on Mexico and Guatemala, two countries in which UNHCR has established a Regional Safe Spaces Network (RSSN) of service providers.

This preliminary inquiry addressed two issues: a.) how to strengthen providers’ approach to SGBV disclosure and b.) how to improve awareness raising about SGBV risks and support services.

The findings clarified how SGBV disclosure requires a multifaceted approach in a complicated context of high mobility, high insecurity, and high diversity of displacement profile, SGBV
experience, and survivor identity. Findings also highlighted the need for a context-specific and coordinated communications strategy about SGBV risks and support services in order to reach refugees
and other migrants traveling rapidly or far off the beaten path. In response to these results and based on its previous research on SGBV-related interventions, HRC produced several draft tools for UNHCR review and adaptation.

Additional Resources

1 Although the terms gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) are often used interchangeably, UNHCR consciously uses the latter to emphasise the urgency of protection interventions that address the criminal character and disruptive consequences of sexual violence for victims/survivors and their families. See, UNHCR, Action against Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: An Updated Strategy (June 2011), available at

2 Referred to as sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), which entails separate administrative procedures, including mandatory reporting and sanctions. See Secretary-General’s Bulletin. Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse (ST/SGB/2003/13), 9 Oct 2003.