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Statement by Mr Jakob Kellenberger, President of the ICRC, on the occasion of International Women's Day, 8 March 2001

08-03-2001 News Release 01/06

Geneva (ICRC) - On this year's International Women’s Day, 8 March, the world is paying tribute to women in their respective communities across the globe. The challenges faced by women, especially those caught up in the turmoil of armed conflict, are immense.

With their menfolk frequently involved in the hostilities, women and girls usually make up the majority of the civilian population in wartime. And they are often directly targeted by combatants. As is the case for all civilians trapped in war, women are regularly victims of physical abuse, forced displacement, indiscriminate killing and other atrocities.

In addition to its rules guaranteeing protection and assistance for the civilian population as a whole, international humanitarian law contains 40 provisions specifically for the protection of women affected by armed conflict. Enhanced respect for these rules by warring parties would do much to improve the situation of women and of the entire civilian population.

Protecting women in war is not merely a question of law. It is also a matter of social responsibility and common sense, for it is very often thanks to women that life goes on in times of upheaval. As civilians, women bear particularly heavy burdens when conflict breaks out: because their husbands and sons are often away fighting, or captured, or missing, or dead, women are often left alone to hold the family together, to care for children and the elderly, and to cope with the devastating effects of fighting.

It is from this standpoint that the ICRC views women’s plight in war. It sees them not only as individuals but as heads of families and as active members of their communitie s and of society at large. As such, women are affected by conflict in increasingly complex ways, and have specific needs. The ICRC embarked two years ago on a comprehensive study of the impact of war on women. It did this to gain greater insight into the problem, to find out more about their specific needs regarding protection and assistance and to explore ways of responding more effectively to those needs. The study shows that women suffer mainly from the effects of war on their physical and mental integrity, in particular sexual violence, lack of security, forced displacement, detention, various consequences of the absence or disappearance of male relatives, and limited access to health care, food and other basic items. The study also looks closely at the specific protection afforded women by international humanitarian law.

The findings and recommendations of the ICRC study will be published this year. They should do much to guide the organization in its efforts to respond more effectively to women’s broad range of needs when they become victims of armed conflict. In its field operations, the ICRC has already started to use the study’s findings to strengthen measures for the protection and assistance of women and girls.

The ICRC would like to remind the various warring parties around the world of their obligations under international humanitarian law. It also takes the opportunity provided by International Women's Day to appeal to all States party to the Geneva Conventions and all non-State entities involved in one way or another in such situations to respect and ensure respect for the rules of that law.