Protection of women in situations of armed conflict
The importance of drawing attention to the protection of women in situations of armed conflict is not without reason. Women experience war in a multitude of ways from taking an active part as combatants to being targeted as members of the civilian population or just because they are women.
International Humanitarian Law (IHL) tries to protect the wounded, sick, prisoners of war and civilians in the hands of enemies. Though IHL instruments seem to be comprehensive, they do not cover the full range of human suffering caused by war. War is not just a man’s business. In today’s conflicts, the impact of war on women can be severe. Irrespective of their capacity as civilians or combatants, women face systematic disadvantages that are the product of gender inequality, which generally intensify during armed conflict.
Wars are no longer fought in secluded combat zones – the battlefield is in the midst of the civilian population. Civilians, not combatants, make up the largest number of casualties, and among civilians, women are particularly exposed and victimized. War disrupts food supplies, production, health facilities, transport, water and fuel. Parties to a conflict are required under IHL to protect the health, economic and physical security of the civilian population. When they fail, it is often women who have to deal with the consequences.
Women in these civilian populations, thus, take on the major responsibilities of coping with these other consequences of armed conflict. 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 necessities, thereby putting at risk their own physical safety. Women in wartime have shown tremendous courage and resilience as survivors and as heads of households - a role for which many of them have had no preparation and which is made more difficult by the social constraints often imposed on them.
It is also important to state that women in armed conflicts are not solely “victims” in need of assistance and protection. Women take part in armed conflicts as members of the regular armed forces or armed groups and in their support services.
IHL and other bodies of law, such as international human rights law, refugee law and domestic law protect women in situations of armed conflict. IHL provides a “two-tiered” protection to women. IHL 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.
Women are entitled to the same general protection, without discrimination, as men during conflict – be it as combatants or as civilians or persons hors de combat. The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977 and customary IHL provide this general protection. 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. The provisions of IHL also forbid hostage-taking and the use of human shields.
In addition, women are also entitled to special protection, which takes into account their specific needs. For example, women prisoners must be housed separately from men. 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.
Many experts increasingly maintain that IHL should do more for women. In 2011, the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent adopted a four-year action plan. It urges States and components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to take specific action to improve implementation of IHL. This includes enhancing protection for women in armed conflict. The States committed to taking appropriate legislative, judicial and administrative measures to fulfil their obligation, under IHL, to protect women and girls.