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Violence against women

11-04-2003 Statement

59th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.Agenda item 12 - 11 April 2003. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Madam Chair, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

Many powerful images are evoked by the words: Women and War. The diverse array of imagery that comes to mind emphasises the need to respond to the many realities of war for women.

Recognising the varied needs of women in war, the International Committee of the Red Cross published a major study entitled Women facing War. The purpose of the study was to understand the experiences of women in wartime in all their complexity, in order to better respond to those most in need. The study has to date been launched in five languages and in countries throughout the world. The ICRC has treated these launches as occasions to call for greater respect and implementation of international humanitarian law (the body of law which protects those who are not or are no longer taking an active part in armed conflict and which regulates the means and methods of warfare). Women – like men – are afforded general protection under IHL, but are also afforded additional protection in relation to their specific needs, for example, in relation to sexual violence.

The ICRC has long regarded sexual violence as a serious violation of IHL. Consequently, the ICRC welcomes the attention paid in recent years to the scourge of sexual violence, inflicted predominantly upon women and girls. In a photo taken for the ICRC, a young woman holds her head in her hands. The caption reads:'survivor of sexual violence'.  A caption can never encapsulate the wounds and fears for the future that weigh so heavily upon her mind. Sexual violence in any form, by any perpetrator, for any reason is ca tegorically unacceptable. Yet it is important that the myriad of other ways in which women experience conflict are not obscured.

The Women facing War study found that for many women war also has grave socio-economic repercussions. Anxiety engendered by the absence of menfolk is often compounded by a loss of financial security where the male relative was the sole breadwinner. The absence of men heightens the danger for women and children left unaccompanied in war zones. This often results in limited mobility and hence limited access to food, water and resources. When the pivotal role of women in child-care, agriculture and the provision of food and basic health assistance are considered, it becomes clear that the entire community suffers when women suffer.

For women who survive conflict, widowhood and the loss of a family support network may rob them of land, homes, inheritance and social status. We sit here today safe in the knowledge that we can return home to our loved ones, write them a letter, or pick up the telephone. Yet all too often parties to armed conflict do not do enough to trace persons missing in relation to the conflict, thereby prolonging the agony of war for tens of thousands of women around the world. For these women, peace brings no peace of mind. To stop searching for their missing son, brother, husband would seem like betrayal. This is the stark reality of war for many women. The recent ICRC International Conference on the Missing focused on the role of all actors involved, primarily States, in alleviating this extreme form of suffering, by preventing people from going missing in the first place, and by doing their utmost to determine the fate and support the families of those who do.

Just as the situation faced by women in wartime varies from context to context, so too do the responses needed to assist and protect women who have suffered or who are sufferin g from their exposure to war. The ICRC is currently developing guidelines for the practical implementation of the findings and recommendations of the Women facing War study. The objective is to sensitise humanitarian actors to the specific needs of women and to adapt ICRC activities and programmes to ensure that they are met. Nonetheless, the prime responsibility rests with the parties to an armed conflict to observe the rules of humanitarian law, and with States to bring the perpetrators of violations to justice.

Madam Chair, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

The ICRC calls upon States to protect the civilian population and spare them from the effects of hostilities. Everyone is responsible for improving the plight of women in times of war, and women themselves must be more closely involved in all measures taken on their behalf. Their resilience and resourcefulness makes clear the benefits of including them in the planning, implementation and evaluation of such programmes. Violations of women's rights are preventable. The challenge is to respect and implement humanitarian law, while bearing in mind the many different faces of women facing war. The protection of women in wartime is an obligation, not an aspiration.

Thank you Madam Chair.