Mechanisms underpinning interventions to reduce sexual violence in armed conflict: a realist-informed systematic review

Jo Spangaro, Chinelo Adogu, Anthony B. Zwi, Geetha Ranmuthugala and Gawaine Powell Davies


This literature review aims to identify both the mechanisms that underpin successful intervention and the contextual factors those mechanisms require. It identifies the important potential of building in mechanisms involving community engagement, awareness of responses and safe reporting provisions.

The realist approach is an exploratory and theory-driven review method. It takes into account contextual factors to identify mechanisms that contribute to outcomes. Following exploratory scoping by an advisory group and a series of workshops, rigorous documented searching was undertaken according to defined terms and specified inclusion criteria.

Four main mechanisms appear to contribute to effective interventions: building community engagement; ensuring community members are aware of available help for and responses to sexual violence; safe and anonymous systems for reporting and seeking help; and increasing the risk to offenders of being detected. These mechanisms appeared to contribute to outcomes in multiple-component interventions, as well as those relating to gathering firewood, codes of conduct for personnel and legal interventions. Though increasing the risk to offenders of being detected was assumed to be a central mechanism in deterring sexual violence, the evidence suggests that this mechanism operated only in interventions focused on gathering firewood and providing alternative fuels. Further:

  • Multiple-component interventions appeared to be more effective than stand-alone interventions
  • None of the legal interventions were found to deter sexual violence
  • Drawing on pre-existing capacity or culture in communities is an additional mechanism which should be further explored
  • It is difficult to determine whether men’s behaviour change programs underpin effective interventions as no studies of this were identified during the search

Further research is required to fully test the efficacy of mechanisms highlighted here to maximise safe uptake of services and ultimately, the deterrence of sexual violence. This will require robust evaluation of multiple-component programming, among other types of intervention.


Spangaro, J. et al (2015). Mechanisms underpinning interventions to reduce sexual violence in armed conflict: a realist-informed systematic review. Conflict and Health 9 (19). DOI 10.1186/s13031-015-0047