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Violence against women

27-04-2001 Statement

57th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Agenda item 12 - 27 April 2001, Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Mr. Chairperson,

Women are protected under international humanitarian law. Violence against women in situations of armed conflict - be they captured combatants or civilians - is a violation of this law which must be condemned.

The international community has at its disposal the means to both prevent and put a stop to violence against women in wartime. This protection is enshrined in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocols of 1977 and in a number of other instruments. Women are afforded both general protection — i.e., on the same basis as men — and special protection reflecting their particular needs as women. Women who are not, or no longer, taking part in hostilities are protected against the effects of the fighting and also against abusive treatment by the parties to hostilities. Women are entitled to humane treatment, respect for their life and physical integrity, and to live free from torture, ill-treatment, acts of violence and harassment. They are specially afforded protection against attacks such as rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault. Such acts are prohibited. (Cf. Fourth Geneva Convention, Art. 27(2), and Additional Protocol I, Arts 75 and 76.) The better implementation of international humanitarian law must become a reality and must be strived for by all those in a position to influence the conduct of hostilities and the means and methods of warfare.

The ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the International Criminal Court are important developments in the realisation of more effective mechanisms for enforcing international humanitarian law. The fact that rape and other forms of sexual violence in armed conflict have been prosecuted as war crimes and crimes against humanity is a major step forward in the fight against impunity.

Mr Chairperson

There is a clear need for better reporting on the forms of violence against women. Information on security issues or violations against women is often difficult to determine because women are less " visible " in their communities and face many constraints to approach organisations for assistance. This calls for more in-depth understanding of how war impacts on women and then programmes and personnel to respond to their particular needs. 

Throughout the world women are continuing to show remarkable courage, resourcefulness and resilience when confronted with violence in armed conflict and the obstacles it imposes on their ability to sustain and protect themselves and their families. 

The issue of violence against women is of particular pertinence in light of some current initiatives undertaken by the ICRC. In the coming months the ICRC will be publishing a study on the impact of armed conflict on women - a significant part of this study looks at the forms of violence faced by women in armed conflict and the needs that this engenders. The ICRC is committed to trying to improve the plight of women in wartime through initiatives to improve dissemination of the law of war to arms carriers related to the protection accorded to women through this law as well as to improving, where necessary, ICR C activities in favour of women. 

Mr Chairperson

The plight of women in wartime could be dramatically improved if international humanitarian law was implemented and respected. Violations of this law are carried out with impunity in armed conflicts but are not inevitable.  There are permissible means and methods of warfare and there are rules brought into being to protect women, as well as girls, men and boys, hors de combat.  Implementing these rules will lead to a dramatic improvement of the plight of women in wartime. Most importantly the responsibility of those who wage war must be recognised. The responsibility to : prevent violations against protected populations occurring in the first place; to put a stop to violations which are being perpetrated; to ensure safe access for humanitarian organisations carrying out activities without any adverse distinction; and to bring perpetrators of violations to justice in national, or international courts if national measures are inadequate.