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Definition of prevention

Last edited: July 03, 2013

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  • A fundamental aspect of developing a framework for prevention is determining exactly what prevention means for humanitarian contexts.  The most common definition for prevention used in development literature is derived from the public health field.  The public health model explains different levels of VAWG prevention that focus on when an intervention has an effect on a specific problem and include:
  • Primary prevention, approaches that take place before violence occurs;
  • Secondary prevention, responses that take place after violence has occurred, as immediate responses to mitigate the short-term consequences of violence;
  • Tertiary prevention, long-term responses “to deal with the lasting consequences of violence and perpetrator treatment interventions.” (CDC, 2004)
  • The ‘primary’ level of prevention is often the default term to describe targeted prevention activities, since secondary and tertiary levels intersect with interventions that are more typically categorized under response.  The goal of ‘primary’ prevention is to avert initial perpetration or victimization by addressing social norms and environmental factors that contribute to violence (e.g., attitudes and beliefs that condone the use of VAWG, policies and legislation, institutional practices, economic inequalities, etc.). (For more information, see the Primary Prevention module.)
  • VAWG actors working in humanitarian settings have expressed concern that the language of ‘primary’ prevention doesn’t accurately capture much of the prevention work that is/should be undertaken in the pre-emergency and emergency phases, where the focus is on risk mitigation rather than long-term social change.  Moreover, there are those who are concerned that the primary prevention definition does not explicitly reinforce the important feminist and human rights perspectives that many feel are critically important in framing prevention work, especially in a humanitarian climate where the commonly used language of GBV is often stripped of its feminist roots.
  • And yet, there is no alternative, definitive definition for ‘prevention’ for humanitarian contexts; it remains undefined in most VAWG prevention and response resources for humanitarian settings. Even so, it has been framed in several training tools as a focus on causes of and contributing factors to VAWG; whereas response is focused on impacts of VAWG on individuals, families, and communities (see Vann, 2004).  This conceptualization of prevention is useful insofar as its language implies the need to address the underlying nature of VAWG in prevention efforts through feminist and human rights-based approaches; it is also useful because it more clearly differentiates prevention and response activities than does public health language.  Following from this original language used by Vann, a proposed definition is:

Prevention includes any activities with the primary goal of eliminating the systemic conditions for violence against women and girls to occur. This includes addressing risk and protective factors that have been identified through an evidence base for victimization and perpetration, as well as underlying causes of VAWG related to discrimination against women and girls in patriarchal systems.

  • This definition is less restrictive than the public health definition of primary prevention because it is does not refer exclusively to activities undertaken before violence occurs.  At the same time, it can be broadly differentiated from response activities because it articulates the primary goal of prevention as stopping violence from occurring by addressing systemic conditions that contribute to violence (e.g. conditions that affect more than one person), rather than conditions affecting a single person, which are more often addressed through response (e.g. referring a survivor to a safe house to protect her from further violence). This definition also makes overt the issue of discrimination as an underlying cause of VAWG.  And, by explicitly referencing risk and protective factors, the above definition seeks to build upon the evidence base related to the ecological framework, described below.