Women in war: a particularly vulnerable group?

01-03-2007 Feature

Women are often considered particularly vulnerable in conflict situations. And yet they often prove to be surprisingly strong and remarkably ingenious at coping with difficulties. In any given situation, the ICRC assesses risk and vulnerability so that it can give help to those in greatest need as a matter of priority.

Among the general public – although not under international humanitarian law – there is a tendency for women caught up in armed conflict to be systematically viewed as an especially vulnerable category of " victims. " Is there any justification for this view?

  Risk and vulnerability

  • When assessing risks, the ICRC takes into account the nature of the event that constitutes a risk, the probability of its occurrence and the seriousness of its potential consequences. Determining who is at risk comes down to determining who is most susceptible to a particular danger so as to be able to anticipate and take preventive action.

  • The ICRC identifies vulnerable people so that, after assessing a given situation and the problems involved, it can focus on giving help to those who need it most. In order to assess vulnerability, it must consider how exposed people are to a specific risk, problem or abrupt change in situation, then take into account their coping mechanisms and resilience. The vulnerability of various groups – men, women, children and elderly people – will vary according to the nature of the problem and its consequences, the extent to which these groups are exposed to it, its impact on these groups and their ability to overcome it.

In fact, women are not vulnerable as such. On the contrary, they show remarkable strength, as can be seen from their roles as combatants or peace activists and the duties and responsibilities they take on in wartime to protect and support their families. Throughout the world, women affected by conflict can be extremely determined and brave and they often find ingenious ways of coping with the difficulties they face when fulfilling the role of head of household, caring for and earning income for their families or taking part in community life.

Vulnerability is not an easy category to define. What we must therefore ask is: who is vulnerable to what particular risk?  

How to assess vulnerability 

 1. Vulnerability arising from physical characteristics  

Under international humanitarian law, some groups of people are entitled to special protection. For example, women and children are the object of special respect and must be protected in particular against all forms of indecent assault (see articles 76 and 77 of Protocol I additional to the 1977 Geneva Conventions). Such special protection is granted to children because of their age, whereas in the case of women it is granted in consideration of their specific health, hygiene and physiological n eeds and their roles as mothers. Under humanitarian law, women are not considered " vulnerable " as such. Rather, the law recognizes that women are vulnerable in certain circumstances owing to their physical characteristics and specific needs, such as those of pregnant women, maternity cases or mothers of young children. As for children, they are rightly considered vulnerable because of their physical and mental immaturity, their limited abilities and their dependency on adults.  

 2. Vulnerability arising from social, economic, political and cultural factors  

For the ICRC, vulnerability is the result of the precarious conditions of existence of individuals, families or communities placed under threat by a brutal change in their environment. Such changes are commonplace occurrences in armed conflicts and situations of internal disturbances. The particular circumstances of each context and the situation of each group or individual determine who is truly vulnerable. Those who are vulnerable in one context may not be so in another. For example, widows may benefit from solidarity mechanisms in some contexts and be stigmatized in others. In assessing a population's vulnerability, the ICRC takes into account socio-economic factors such as employment (or income), human assets (access to education and health care), housing, socio-economic roles and their distribution within households, social assets (solidarity networks, reciprocal relations between households, relations with the State and private institutions), etc.

In patriarchal societies, women are the victims of sexism and face discrimination at home, at work and within the community at large. In some contexts, this can make women socially and economically vulnerable and it is a factor that must be taken into account in assessing the situation and people's needs.


 3. Vulnerability arising from the actual conflict  

  ©ICRC/B. Heger/sd-e-00689    

The vulnerability of women often derives from the fact that armed conflicts today have chan ged in such a way that civilians are increasingly caught up in the fighting and that women bear the brunt of the burden of ensuring the day-to-day survival of their families. Women are especially susceptible to poverty, exclusion and the sufferings caused by armed conflict when they are already subject to discrimination in times of peace.

In some conflicts, when women, as the bearers of future generations, are considered to be the depositories of cultural and ethnic identity, they may be vulnerable to attacks or threats from within the community if they do not conform to their assigned role. They may also be targeted by the enemy with a view to changing or destroying this role. The use of sexual violence as a method of warfare and the requirement that women bear more children to replace sons that have died make women especially vulnerable. The specific needs that result from such a situation must be taken into account.

The degree of vulnerability of individuals and groups at risk must be constantly reassessed in light of changes in the situation on the ground. A group that was not considered vulnerable during the initial assessment may later be perceived as such, and vice versa.


Are women more vulnerable than men? 

Are women more vulnerable than men in situations of armed conflict? In principle, they are not. In today's conflicts, however, it is true that women are increasingly targeted as civilians.

Men are also vulnerable to the violence of armed conflicts. In some contexts, up to 96 per cent of detainees and 90 per cent of missing persons are men. Men are also particularly likely to be wounded or killed a s legitimate targets, since armed forces and armed groups mainly recruit males.

Vulnerability factors therefore affect different groups in different ways, and it would be a gross oversimplification to consider either sex as inherently more vulnerable than the other. Women and men alike are at risk of being " disappeared " or detained as political opponents, but men are generally at greater risk of being detained or summarily executed because of their potential or actual role as military opponents. On the other hand, women and girls are much more exposed to sexual violence, whatever the motives of the aggressor may be, even though men can also be the victims of such abuse. Moreover, women and girl soldiers can either commit or incite others to commit violent acts, as is the case with men, and they can sometimes be tougher and crueller than men in order to achieve recognition.

To conclude, women are not vulnerable as such, nor are they more vulnerable than men in situations of armed conflict. Only in light of the specific nature of a given situation and of the various factors at play can women be considered as particularly vulnerable and in need of special help. In each situation, a thorough assessment of needs must be carried out in order to identify the most vulnerable groups, keeping in mind possible situations and needs specific to women.


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