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Wartime violence against women: States must do more to end it

02-11-2010 Statement

Millions of women and girls bear the brunt of today's wars. They are particularly exposed to sexual violence and other injury. On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the UN Security Council resolution on women, peace and security, Christine Beerli, Vice-President of the ICRC, calls for better protection of women in wartime.

Ten years ago, the hopes and aspirations surrounding the birth of a new millennium found voice in various global initiatives aimed ultimately at righting some of the world's most glaring wrongs. The UN Security Council's resolution 1325 on women, peace and security was one of them. It put the international spotlight on the disproportionate and distinct impact of armed conflict on women, and called for women's full engagement in conflict resolution and peace building. It also signalled political recognition that women and gender are key to international peace and security.

The tenth anniversary of the resolution this October is an opportune time not for unreserved celebration, but more for sober reflection on what more must – and can – be done to translate good intentions into reality, words into meaningful action.

Be it in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Colombia, Afghanistan, or Iraq - to name but a few – millions of women and girls bear the brunt of today's wars. This is often because they are deliberately targeted as a tactic of warfare. They are particularly exposed to sexual violence and other injury. War often results in them being displaced and separated from family members, and hampers their access to food, safe drinking water and healthcare. It may also leave them as the sole breadwinner and with the responsibility of supporting their families on their own.

International humanitarian law provides a solid basis for the protection of women in wartime – primarily through the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols. Sexual violence, to take just one example, is unequivocally a war crime in both international and non-international armed conflicts.

Yet the continuing atrocities committed against women in eastern DR Congo are but one grim reminder that the existing rules are violated flagrantly, and often with total impunity. Ensuring respect for the rules is a perennial challenge. Primary responsibility for this lies squarely on States, which have universally ratified the Geneva Conventions. Not only must they ensure that the law is implemented, they must also ensure that it is properly enforced.

True, some progress has been made in terms of States' domestic legislation recognising the criminal responsibility of those who violate international humanitarian law, and actually holding them accountable for their crimes. Various international tribunals and the International Criminal Court have further strengthened accountability for war crimes.

But there is still a long way to go. Armed forces and armed groups alike must understand that sexual violence is a war crime and that violators face punishment. Here the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) plays a role in training and dissemination of international humanitarian law. But States and their judicial apparatus must play their role too. What better deterrent to potential war criminals than seeing that the law is actually enforced?

Prevention is undoubtedly better than cure. The consequences of sexual violence as a weapon of war go further than the terrible hurt and trauma suffered by its direct victims: they can profoundly destabilise societies even longer after the conflict ends. Stigmatisation and rejection of the victims, breakdown of societal and cultural norms, and economic instability may ultimately ensue.

Addressing these consequences requires a multidimensional response that – crucially – directly engages the victims of sexual violence themselves as well as other concerned women. Women must be fully involved in the search for solutions to their problems if those solutions are to have any chance of success. Aid organisations and donors, including States, must strive to ensure this in their programmes in all phases of an armed conflict – from prevention to protection and post-conflict recovery. Consigning women to the category of passive victim is disempowering and counterproductive, excluding them yet further from humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts.

As a woman, it is my wish that this tenth anniversary of the UN resolution on women, peace and security be remembered for heralding even one measurable achievement: that States not only take concrete steps to criminalise sexual violence in armed conflict in their national legislation, but that violators face justice accordingly. Then women everywhere would have real cause for celebration.