Protection challenges and needs faced by women and girls in armed conflict and post-conflict settings

30 January 2015

Security Council open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, statement by the Director of International Law and Policy of the ICRC

On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross, let me first thank you for inviting the ICRC to address the Council during this crucial and timely debate, and on a subject that is at the heart of our humanitarian mission. Protection of civilians in armed conflict has been a regular item on the Council's agenda for years – proof that it remains a matter of concern for the international community.

Yet, I regret to say that, based on our observations in the field, I cannot report any significant progress in the way armed conflicts are being waged, or any significant alleviation of their impact on civilians throughout the world. As in the past, civilians are all too often directly targeted by warring parties. Tens of millions more also suffer the indirect effects of armed conflict; this is most vividly illustrated by the fact that the number of refugees and internally displaced persons is higher than it has ever been.

(...) all our efforts will be for naught if States do not bear their primary responsibility in addressing the needs of victims and providing suitable remedies for them and their families (...)

The single most important measure to improve this situation is by making sure that State and non-State parties to armed conflict comply with their legal obligations under international humanitarian law and other applicable norms. "This is imperative whatever parallel efforts are under way to find political solutions to a conflict". In this regard, the Security Council has a significant role to play and ensure that those directly responsible for protecting civilians meet their responsibilities in full. Every State party to the Geneva Conventions also has an obligation in this connection: Article 1 common to the four Geneva Conventions calls on all States Parties to respect and ensure respect for the Conventions in all circumstances.

The Council having chosen today to address the "challenges and needs facing women and girls in armed conflict and post-conflict settings", I would like to highlight the situation of women during armed conflict, with a specific focus on the subject of sexual violence. All that follows is based on the ICRC's field experience and activities.

As a group, women are not inherently vulnerable in armed conflict. They may be victims or perpetrators, fighters or bystanders; or they may be actors of influence. Armed conflict changes the circumstances of all the people it touches. Women are made vulnerable mainly by the conditions that are imposed on them, not by their sex. At this point, it is critical to remind ourselves that fighters are also afforded protection by international humanitarian law, particularly after they are hors de combat. This includes protection against sexual violence. All victims of armed conflict must be treated humanely, without adverse distinction.

During armed conflicts, displaced women and girls as well as female heads of households are particularly vulnerable and at risk of certain kinds of violence, including sexual violence.

Because their husbands are missing, detained or taking part in the fighting, displaced women and female heads of households often have to shoulder the burden of being a single parent. This means providing – by themselves – the family's income, deciding – by themselves – about their children's education, and guaranteeing – by themselves – the safety of their family.

While also affecting men and boys during armed conflict, the impact of sexual violence on women and girls is disproportionally greater. The consequences of such violence – for victims, their families and entire communities – are extremely serious.

Sexual violence causes physical trauma and long-lasting mental health problems, and can be financially ruinous. It can lead to social stigmatization, and ostracism; it may be the cause of reprisals and sometimes it kills. These are only a few consequences of sexual violence that victims have to deal with every day.

Sexual violence remains comparatively invisible, and statistically underestimated. Because of cultural constraints and the strong feelings of shame and fear engendered by sexual violence, most victims do not dare come forward to seek help. This, of course, only adds to the devastating effects on them, their families and communities.

Constraints and obstacles notwithstanding, immediate and appropriate action must be taken – on the basis of systematic and thorough assessments – to respond to the multifaceted needs of victims of sexual violence.

Sexual violence is a medical emergency.

Victims of sexual violence need to be assisted and given immediate, unimpeded and free access to health services, including medical and psychological support, ideally within 72 hours of the assault. They should be treated with humanity and dignity at all times; their privacy must be respected and the strictest confidentiality maintained while responding to their needs.

Victims need to be protected against all forms of ostracization or re-victimization and from any further abuse – by making their environment safer and by providing guidance on risk awareness and risk reduction. These are essential components of this response. Victims willing to seek justice must also be able to report their allegations safely, without fear of reprisals or social stigmatization or of becoming entangled in lengthy legal procedures.

Victims should have access to economic support as well as to administrative and other legal remedies; for those who have been detained, detention should not be an additional barrier for them to access remedies. These remedies are extremely important: they enable victims to survive and rebuild their lives.

Victims also need to see perpetrators brought before a court of justice that respects fair-trial guarantees. In armed conflicts – international and non-international – rape and other forms of sexual violence are serious violations of international humanitarian law and entail individual criminal responsibility. All States have an obligation to criminalize these violations in their domestic legislation. Governments must ensure accountability for rape and other forms of sexual violence by investigating these acts and by prosecuting and punishing the perpetrators.

In 2013, the ICRC undertook a four-year commitment to intensify its response to the issue of sexual violence. It has been striving since then – in Colombia, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Lebanon and various other countries – to improve its delivery of impartial, holistic and effective humanitarian responses to victims of sexual violence, while also strengthening activities aimed at preventing such violence.

We believe that the ICRC and other humanitarian actors have an important role to play in preventing sexual violence and in providing a holistic response to its victims. But, we also know that all our efforts will be for naught if States do not bear their primary responsibility in addressing the needs of victims and providing suitable remedies for them and their families, with full respect for their own obligations under international humanitarian law.

Domestic laws, regulations, policies, reparation schemes and processes of restorative justice should respond to the many different needs of victims and must fully comply with international law.

Strengthening and building institutional capacities – within the judiciary, the police, the military and among all detaining authorities, including those dealing with displaced persons – should be a priority. It is equally important to bolster the ability of victims to heal and rebuild their lives.

Sexual violence during armed conflict is a violation of international humanitarian law. It is not inevitable. It must and can be stopped. What is required is a concerted effort by everyone concerned to prevent and put an end to it.

The ICRC will continue to encourage States to pursue action based on their pledges at the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to enhance protection for women during armed conflict. It also stands ready to support States – ahead of the 32nd International Conference, which will take place at the end of this year – in their efforts to draft measures specifically for combating sexual violence and responding to its consequences.