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Improving women's safety during armed conflict

25-11-2004

Armed conflict situations increase the risk of sexual violence against women even though the Fourth Geneva Convention expressly prohibits rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault. Sexual violence can amount to a method of warfare when used to systematically torture, injure, degrade, threaten, intimidate or punish women.

 Sexual violence   

Sexual violence is not limited to rape but also encompasses forced prostitution, sexual slavery, forced impregnation, forced maternity, forced termination of pregnancy, enforced sterilization, indecent assault, trafficking, inappropriate medical examination and strip searches.
 
 

A number of factors increase women's vulnerability to acts of sexual violence during conflict.

For example, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, the breakdown of value, judicial and social systems and a general increase in the level of violence. In addition, women are often unaccompanied for longer periods when male relatives have either fled, are detained, missing or engaged in hostilities. Also, women are usually unarmed reducing their ability to resist.

Moreover, in many cultures, women are often perceived as symbolic representatives of caste, ethnic or national identity and therefore a target for the enemy. Poverty may also render women vulnerable to sexual exploitation in order to meet their basic food needs.

Abduction, trafficking and sexual slavery often increase in armed conflict. Women are more vulnerable to trafficking for sexual purposes due to social, political and legal breakdown. They are often abducted from displacement camps for sexual slavery. This is often a systematic attack on the civilian population in order to dissolve family and community bonds.

    

 The ICRC response  

The ICRC's response to sexual violence in wartime is based on the premise that it is prohibited and not inevitable. The ICRC guidance document Addressing the Needs of Women Affected by Armed Conflict includes specific tools and techniques to prevent and respond to sexual violence.

Recommendations for prevention and response include improved training for humanitarian staff so that they can better support victims, the use of more effective data collection and reporting methods to monitor the violations, the involvement of female staff and beneficiaries in programmes to increase the understanding of women's needs and to prevent potential exploitation, and better dissemination of international humanitarian law to arms bearers to make them aware that sexual violence is categorically prohibited at all times. Preserving and restoring family links is also an important factor in preventing sexual violence, abduction and trafficking.

There are many practical measures that can be taken to decrease the incidence of sexual violence. In displacement camps, for example, better lighting and fencing can be installed, security patrols should include female officers and water and sanitation facilities should be located in well-lit and supervised areas. 

The ICRC itself provides medical assistance or supports local medical structures to treat victims of sexual violence. In Burundi, for example, the ICRC has launched a programme working with local NGOs and the Ministry of Health to improve victims'access to medical facilities, and it cooperates with the Algerian Red Crescent to provide psychosocial support to victims. Preventive responses such as agricultural programmes help women avoid having to venture far in search of food and fuel.

In its support for the victims of sexual violence, the ICRC is guided by principles th at include the guarantee of strict confidentiality, the respect of the rights, dignity and wishes of the victims at all times, the understanding for the victim's culture and the establishment of programmes that avoid stigmatizing the victim.

While a comprehensive response in terms of protection and assistance for victims of sexual violence is crucial, it must be recognized that sexual violence is not inevitable and can be prevented if international humanitarian law is respected.