Women and war - update to the ICRC project
Since its origins the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has endeavoured to bring assistance and protection to women affected by armed conflict. In 1998, the ICRC placed particular focus on trying to raise awareness of the ways women are affected by armed conflict and to endeavour to improve their plight. The ICRC is often asked why a particular focus on women and whether women are more vulnerable then men in situations of armed conflict. This focus came about because the ICRC considered there was a need to know more on the specific needs of groups of victims particularly affected by armed conflict. Women were identified as one such group. The present study focused on women, but it is also important to recognise the ICRC also has a project on children affected by armed conflict, as well as other groups like internally displaced persons. It is a fact that women in armed conflict often have special needs related to their sex and gender, which have to be taken into account. This ICRC aimed to increase understanding of these needs and the law which affords protection and assistance to women.
Are women more vulnerable than men ? The vulnerability of different groups - whether male, female, elderly, infant, etc. - differs according to their exposure to a given problem and their capacity to tackle it and to its impact on the group concerned. Vulnerability, as such, does not fit into an easily determined category or definition - especially where women are concerned. It is therefore in accordance with the specific nature of each situation and the different factors involved that groups of women could be identified as being particularly vulnerable and in need of special assistance, e.g. pregnant women, nursing mothers, mothers of small children, female heads of household.
As part of its endeavour to improve the plight of those affected by armed conflict, the ICRC carried out and published (in October 2001) a study entitled Women facing War on the impact of armed conflict on women. This study aimed to increase understanding by the ICRC and others of the needs o f women affected by armed conflict and the protection afforded to them through international humanitarian law, human rights and refugee law. This study also included a review of ICRC activities in favour of women and an internal and external literature review.
The study focuses on such issues as physical safety, sexual violence, displacement, access to health care and hygiene, food, water and shelter, as well as the problem of missing relatives and its impact on survivors, access to personal documentation, and access to sources of livelihood, as well as the situations of detention and internment.
The study is available in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian.
For the ICRC the intention when initiating the Women facing War study was to endeavour to improve the situation of women affected by armed conflict, thus the ICRC has drawn up an internal plan of action to implement the key findings of the study relevant to ICRC activities. This has been circulated throughout the ICRC with a specific instruction for it to be taken into consideration when defining operational objectives.
The Women facing War study and the ICRC's long experience of bringing protection and assistance to victims of armed conflict is currently being used as the basis for the formulation of a guidance document aimed at better addressing the protection and assistance needs of women affected by armed conflict. This initiative was taken up in the Plan of Action of the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 1999 and the ICRC is requested to formulate these guidelines to present to the 28th International Conference in 2003. This guidance document is currently being drafted.
In 1999 at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent the ICRC made a 4 year pledge specifically related to the protection and assistance of women. This pledge states that :
" The ICRC is gravely concerned at the occurrence of sexual violence in armed conflict. Sexual violence, in all its forms, is prohibited under international huma nitarian law and should be vigorously prevented.
For this reason, the ICRC pledges:
To put emphasis throughout its activities on the respect which must be accorded to women and girl children. Focus will be placed on actively disseminating the prohibition of all forms of sexual violence to parties to an armed conflict.
Furthermore, to ensure that the specific protection, health and assistance needs of women and girl children affected by armed conflicts are appropriately assessed in its operations with the aim to alleviate the plight of the most vulnerable. "
The ICRC has been implementing this pledge throughout the last 3 years. For information on specific country programmes and activities for women please see the document entitled " The ICRC and women - update 8 March 2002 " on the web. This document outlines some of the steps the ICRC has taken or is taking to promote more widely the protection accorded to women through international humanitarian law, and to ensure that ICRC activities appropriately meet the needs of women and girls. A pledge to which the ICRC is fully committed.
If women are subject to so many of the tragic repercussions of armed conflict it is not from any shortcoming in the rules protecting t hem, but rather because the laws are not observed. International humanitarian law grants wide-ranging protection to women. There are more than 560 articles in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977 which protect both women and men as civilians, as combatants by laying down limitations on permissible means and methods of warfare, and also as combatants who have fallen into enemy hands (captured, sick and wounded). Among these 560 articles (which all protect women) there are more than 40 specifically concerning women.
IHL affords women general and specific protection. Women are entitled to the same protection as men be it as combatants or as civilians or persons hors de combat. The general protection afforded by IHL is based on the principle of non-discrimination (the protections and guarantees it lays down must be granted to all without discrimination), the principle of humane treatment (minimum standards of treatment and fundamental guarantees which parties to a conflict must grant to everyone within their power), protection against the effects of hostilities (principle of distinction, parties to an armed conflict are required to distinguish between civilians and combatants at all times and not to direct attacks against civilians and the civilian population and prohibits indiscriminate attacks), and in relation to restrictions and prohibitions on the use of certain weapons (which cause casualties among combatants and civilians without distinction). The specific additional protection afforded to women can either be generic, for example, that “women ....be treated with all the regard due to their sex” (article 14, III GC) or more specific, spelling out how this general obligation should be implemented in practice, e.g. by the provision of separate detention quarters for female prisoners of war. These provisions provide additional protection for women with regard to their particular medical and physiological needs.
To improve the plight of women in wartime the ICRC is convinced that constant efforts must be made to promote knowledge of and compliance with the obligations of international humanitarian law by as wide an audience as possible. To this end the ICRC has produced a range of communication and presentation materials to promote the protection accorded to women (two films : Women facing War and, Working with Women in War; Women and War fact sheets and posters; a travelling display; Women facing War presentation and speaking notes.) The ICRC is currently producing a presentation on the protection accorded by IHL to women in war time which will be distributed in 2003.
Women's experience of war is multifaceted - it may mean separation, the loss of family members and livelihood, an increased risk of sex ual violence, wounding, deprivation and death. International humanitarian law has the provisions to protect women during armed conflict. Constant efforts must be made to promote knowledge of and compliance with the obligations of international humanitarian law by as wide an audience as possible and using all available means. Everyone must be made responsible for improving the plight of women in times of war, and women themselves must be more closely involved in all the measures taken on their behalf. With this in mind the ICRC has launched a number of initiatives to focus attention on the needs of women affected by armed conflict and promote international humanitarian law.