Advancement of women
United Nations, General Assembly, 59th session, Third Committee, item 98 and 99 of the agenda, Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 15 October 2004
Implementation of the Outcome of the Fourth World Conference on Women and of the Twenty-Third Special Session of the General Assembly, entitled "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-First Century"
Thank you, Mr Chairman, for giving the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) the floor.
As a humanitarian organisation mandated to protect and assist victims of armed conflict, the ICRC has long been concerned with the needs of women. Women represent a large part of all those who are directly or indirectly affected by armed conflict, and accordingly are among our main beneficiary groups. While it is important to acknowledge and understand women's suffering in wartime, " suffering " does not tell the whole story. Women are not merely passive victims in today's conflicts. Much of the time it is women who demonstrate the resilience to hold families and communities together in the face of adversity. It should also be recalled that women often suffer the impacts of violence and the loss of loved ones long after the conflict ends.
In recognition of the multiple roles women play in contemporary armed conflict the ICRC pledged in 1999 to promote the respect which must be accorded to women and girls, with a particular focus on sexual violence, and to appropriately assess and address their needs. As a first step in this process, our Institution carried out an in-depth study of the needs of women affected by armed conflict and the adequacy of international law to respond to those needs. The study provided a foundation on which to build an improved operational response. As a follow-up, the ICRC recently elaborated a guidance document on addressing the needs of women affected by armed conflict - a practical manual for our colleagues working in the field, on how to work more effectively with and for women. Having produced and widely distributed this text, the next priority is now to ensure that its conclusions are effectively integrated into ICRC's field operations. The ICRC approach is two-fold: to cultivate a " planning reflex " to better analyse, address and integrate the specific needs of women into operational planning and strategies; and then to develop specific programmes in response to these needs.
In its prevention activities, the ICRC endeavours to integrate the needs of women and the prohibition of sexual violence into its dissemination sessions to armed forces and armed opposition groups. The ICRC considers sexual violence as one of the most serious violations of international humanitarian law – entailing individual criminal responsibility – and deems it essential to convey this message to arms bearers. Communication campaigns aimed at preventing violations against women have been developed using culturally appropriate images and language, tailored to the particular target audience.
It is important to specifically highlight the prevalence of sexual violence, both because it is one of the most frequent and traumatic violations women suffer in wartime, and also because it is one of the most difficult issues for humanitarian organisations to address. The difficulty in dealing with sexual violence stems in part from the need to avoid stigmatising women as " rape victims " in the eyes of their family or community, so that the social repercussions do not add to the trauma of the act itself. Moreover humanitarian workers are confronted with so many competing priorities in war zones that sexual violence may become " inv isible " – you can't see rape the way you can see a landmine injury, for example.
As part of its protection activities for women deprived of their freedom in relation to an armed conflict or internal disturbance, the ICRC works to ensure humane detention conditions in accordance with international humanitarian law. Measures to this end include having separate accommodation from men, being under the supervision of female guards, and monitoring of any possible discrimination.
In terms of assistance, the ICRC has programmes aimed at responding to the immediate needs of women and their families, and others which seek to improve, in a more sustainable way, their economic situation in order to help them preserve or re-establish their autonomy and dignity. Often the programmes also serve as a means to recreate the social links destroyed by conflict.
In conclusion, constant efforts must be made to promote knowledge of the plight of women affected by armed conflict, to improve compliance with the obligations of IHL and to ensure humanitarian programmes and activities take the needs and perspectives of women into account. The role of women as actors in armed conflict should no longer be overlooked and undervalued. 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. As Henry Dunant, the founder of the ICRC wrote in the mid-19th century: " The influence of women is an essential factor in the welfare of humanity, and it will become more valuable as time proceeds " .