Women protected under international humanitarian law

29 October 2010

International humanitarian law aims to prevent and alleviate human suffering in war without discrimination based on sex. But it does recognize that women face specific problems in armed conflict, such as sexual violence and risks to their health.

War is not just a man's business. In today's conflicts, the impact of fighting on women can be severe. Humanitarian law recognizes this in the general protection it affords to both women and men, as well as in some specific provisions providing additional protection to women.

In general, IHL requires humane treatment for the wounded and sick, prisoners and civilians caught up in a conflict, without any "adverse distinction" based on sex, race, nationality, religion, political opinions, or any similar criteria. This general protection is provided by the four Geneva Convention (1949) and their Additional Protocols (1977), as well by customary humanitarian law.

The general provisions of IHL also forbid hostage taking and the use of human shields. In recent conflicts there have been abuses, particularly the use of women and children to shield combatants from attack.

In addition, women must be "especially protected" from sexual violence. This includes rape, forced prostitution and any other form of indecent assault, all of which constitute war crimes. The threat of sexual violence against women is also prohibited. Women prisoners must be housed separately from men in particular to avoid sexual abuse.

IHL further requires that expectant mothers and mothers of young children, in particular nursing mothers, be treated with particular care. This applies, for example, with regard to the provision of food, clothing, medical assistance, evacuation and transportation.

Women are particularly vulnerable to the separation of family members and the suffering caused by the unknown fate of a missing relative, both during and after an armed conflict. Humanitarian law provides families with the right to know the fate of their missing relatives and obliges parties to armed conflicts to take all feasible measures to account for persons reported missing.

In recent years, the ICRC has undertaken a specific campaign to tackle the problem of the missing. As the large majority of those gone missing are men, it is often the women in a family who face the anguish of waiting for news of a missing husband or child. They are often the persons who take on the burden of trying to trace relatives, especially children, separated by the fighting. The ICRC plays a leading role around the world in restoring family links both during and after armed conflicts.

Women in the civilian population also take on major responsibility for coping with other consequences of armed conflict. War disrupts food supplies and production. Health facilities, so essential to mothers and children, are destroyed. Transport, water and fuel may be affected.

Parties to a conflict are required under humanitarian law to protect the health, economic and physical security of the civilian population. When they fail, it is often women that have to deal with the consequences. In the absence of the man who is often the breadwinner women have to ensure the family's day-to-day survival. They often have to travel long distances to find water, food, firewood, medicines and other basic necessities, thereby exposing themselves to risks to their physical safety. In addition, they often care for sick family and community members.

The ICRC therefore intervenes to support them by providing medical facilities and the essential needs for survival such as food, household items and shelter. It also tries to convince the parties to the conflict to allow adequate supplies through to civilians. Indeed, IHL obliges parties to the conflict to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need, which is impartial in character and conducted without any adverse distinction.

After an armed conflict, women often play a key role in rebuilding communities. In rural areas, they are frequently the main beneficiaries of the supply of seeds, tools and livestock to promote economic security in the wake of a conflict. Women are also pivotal in the action of the ICRC and others in raising awareness of, and preventing injury from, landmines, which continue to cause injury and death to children after the end of hostilities.