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Sphere Standards

Last edited: July 03, 2013

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  • The Sphere Project, launched in 1997, is a unique agreement amongst hundreds of humanitarian actors, international agencies, NGOs and donor institutions to improve the quality of assistance provided to people affected by disasters and the accountability of the humanitarian system in their disaster.
  • The Sphere Project was the first organization to establish minimum standards that people affected by disasters have a right to expect from humanitarian actors. These standards are set out in the Sphere Handbook (see:  The Sphere Project. 2004. Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response), designed for use in disaster response but may be applicable in a wide range of situations including natural disasters and armed conflict. The Handbook is available in over 20 languages. Although there are no specific standards on VAWG within the Sphere standards, each standard recognizes that sexual violence programming and gender are cross-cutting issues.
  • Two core humanitarian values guide The Sphere Project:
  1. All possible steps should be taken to alleviate human suffering arising out of calamity and conflict.
  2. Those affected by disaster have a right to life with dignity and therefore a right to assistance.
  • This initiative also led to the framing of the Humanitarian Charter which affirms the fundamental importance of the following three principles:
    • The right to life with dignity;       
    • The right to protection and security;
    • The right to receive humanitarian assistance, including protection from violence.


    Minimum Standards in Disaster Response Related to GBV

    Protection Principles

    Protection Principle 3: Protect people from physical and psychological harm arising from violence and coercion

    People are protected from violence, from being forced or induced to act against their will and from fear of such abuse.

    Guidance note 13: Women and girls can be at particular risk of gender-based violence.  When contributing to the protection of these groups, humanitarian agencies should particularly consider measures that reduce possible risks, including trafficking, forced prostitution, rape or domestic violence.  They should also implement standards and instruments that prevent and eradicate the practice of sexual exploitation and abuse.  This unacceptable practice may involve affected people with specific vulnerabilities, such as isolated or disabled women who are forced to trade sex for the provision of humanitarian assistance.

    Protection Principle 4: Assist people to claim their rights, access available remedies and recover from the effects of abuse

    The affected population is helped to claim their rights through information, documentation and assistance in seeking remedies.  People are supported appropriately in recovering from the physical, psychological and social effects of violence and other abuses.

    Guidance note 7: Healthcare and rehabilitation support: People should be supported in accessing appropriate healthcare and other rehabilitation support following attacks, gender-based violence and related problems

    The Core Standards

    Core Standard 6: Aid worker performance

    Humanitarian agencies provide appropriate management, supervisory and psychosocial support, enabling aid workers to have the knowledge, skills, behavior and attitudes to plan and implement an effective humanitarian response with humanity and respect.

    Key actions: Establish codes of personal conduct for aid workers that protect disaster-affected people from sexual abuse, corruption, exploitation and other violations of people’s human rights.  Share the codes with disaster-affected people (see guidance note 3).

    Guidance note 3: Aid workers’ control over the management and allocation of valuable aid resources puts them in a position of power over the disaster-affected population.  Such power over people dependent on assistance and whose protective social networks have been disturbed or destroyed can lead to corruption and abuse.  Women, children and persons with disabilities are frequently coerced into sexually abusive situations.  Sexual activity can never be demanded in exchange for humanitarian response (aid workers and military, state or private sector personnel) should be party to abuse, corruption or sexual exploitation.  The forced labor of adults or children, illicit drug use and trading in humanitarian goods and services by those connected with humanitarian distributions are also prohibited.

    Minimum Standards in Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion

    The use of communal water and sanitation facilities, for example in refugee or displaced situations, can increase women’s and girls’ vulnerability to sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence. In order to minimize these risks, and to ensure a better quality of response, it is important to ensure women’s participation in water supply and sanitation programs. An equitable participation of women and men in planning, decision-making and local management will help to ensure that the entire affected population has safe and easy access to water supply and sanitation services, and that services are appropriate.

    Excreta disposal standard 2: Appropriate and adequate toilet facilities

    Guidance note 5: Safe facilities: inappropriate siting of toilets may make women and girls more vulnerable to attack, especially during the night.  Ensure that women and girls feel and are safe when using the toilets provided.  Where possible, communal toilets should be provided with lighting, or households provided with torches.  The input of the community should be sought with regard to ways of enhancing the safety of users.

    Minimum Standards in Food Security, Nutrition and Food Aid

    Assessment and Analysis Standard 1: Food Security

    Food security - food transfers standard 5: Targeting and distribution

    Guidance note 3: Distribution for ‘dry’ rations: …selection of the recipients should consider the impact on workloads and possible risks of violence, including domestic abuse.

    Guidance note 4: Distribution methods for ‘wet’ rations: Exceptionally, a general food distribution can be a cooked meal or ready-to-eat food for an initial period during an acute emergency.  These rations may be appropriate when, for example, people are on the move, and extreme insecurity and carrying food home would put beneficiaries at risk of theft or violence.

    Guidance note 6: Minimizing security risks: Food distributions can create security risks, including diversion and violence… Specific measures to prevent, monitor and respond to gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation associated with food distribution, should be enforced.  These include segregating men and women, for example through a physical barrier or by offering separate distribution times, informing all food distribution teams about appropriate conduct and penalties for sexual abuse, and including female ‘guardians’ to oversee off-loading, registration, distribution and post-distribution of food.

    Food security - livelihoods standard 2: Income and employment

    Guidance note 5: Risk in the work environment: …Practices for increasing safety in transit include securing safe access routes to work, ensuring routes are well lit, providing torches, using early warning systems (which may utilize bells, whistles, radios and other devices) and security norms, such as traveling in groups or avoiding travel after dark.  Particular attention must be paid to women, girls and others at risk of sexual assault.  Ensure that all participants are aware of emergency procedures and can access early warning systems.

    Minimum Standards in Shelter, Settlement and Non-Food Items

    Shelter and settlement standard 4: Construction

    Guidance note 1: Participation of the affected populations: Participation by the affected population in shelter and settlement activities should be informed by existing practices though which housing and settlements are planned, constructed and maintained.... The provision of assistance from volunteer community labor teams or contracted labor can complement the involvement of individual households.  Such assistance is essential to support female-headed households, as women may be at particular risk from sexual exploitation in seeking assistance for the construction of their shelter.

    Minimum Standards in Health Services

    Healthy systems standard 5: Health information management

    Guidance note 4: Confidentiality: Adequate precautions should be taken to protect the safety of the individual, as well as the data itself.  Staff members should never share patient information with anyone not directly involved in the patient’s care without the patient’s permission.  Special consideration should be given to persons with intellectual, mental or sensory impairment, which may compromise their ability to give informed consent.  Data that relate to injury caused by torture or other human rights violations including sexual assault must be treated with the utmost care.  Consideration may be given to passing on this information to appropriate actors or institutions if the individual gives their informed consent.

    Essential health services - sexual and reproductive health standard 1: Reproductive health

    Guidance note 1: Minimum Initial Service Package: The MISP defines those services that are most important for preventing RH-related morbidity and mortality among women, men and adolescents in disaster settings.  It comprises a coordinated set of priority RH services that must be implemented simultaneously to prevent and manage the consequences of sexual violence, reduce the transmission of HIV, prevent excess maternal and newborn morbidity and mortality, and begin planning for comprehensive RH services as soon as the situation stabilizes. Planning for the integration of good-quality comprehensive RH activities into primary healthcare at the onset of an emergency is essential to ensuring a continuum of care.  Comprehensive RH care involves upgrading existing services, adding missing services and enhancing service quality.

    Guidance note 3: Sexual violence: All actors in disaster response must be aware of the risk of sexual violence including sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarians, and must work to prevent and respond to it.  Aggregate information on reported incidents must be safely and ethically compiled and shared to inform prevention and response efforts.  Incidence of sexual violence should be monitored.  Measures for assisting survivors must be in place in all primary-level health facilities and include skilled staff to provide clinical management that encompasses emergency contraception, post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV, presumptive treatment of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), wound care, tetanus prevention and hepatitis B prevention.  The use of emergency contraception is a personal choice that can only be made by the women themselves.  Women should be offered unbiased counseling so as to reach an informed decision.  Survivors of sexual violence should be supported to seek and be referred for clinical care and have access to mental health and psychosocial support.

    At the survivor’s request, protection staff should provide protection and legal support.  All examination and treatment should be done only with informed consent of the survivor.  Confidentiality is essential at all stages.

    Source: IRC. 2012. GBV Emergency Response and Preparedness: Participant’s Handbook, pg. 13.