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Women and war: the ICRC's response


The ICRC is dedicated to preserving the lives and dignity of people affected by armed conflict and internal strife, to aid those suffering the consequences of war and to act as the guardian and promoter of international humanitarian law. Recognizing that conflicts have a different impact on men, women, children and the elderly, and deeply concerned about the nature and magnitude of the violations committed against women in recent conflicts, the ICRC pledged in 1999, to assess the needs of women and girls and to promote respect for them, with a particular focus on sexual violence.


ICRC approach 

To implement this pledge, the ICRC launched a detailed study of the specific needs of women affected by armed conflict and how they may differ from those of men. The study also assessed the extent to which international law meets those needs and evaluated the ICRC's work in this area. It focused on issues such as physical safety, sexual violence, displacement, access to health care and hygiene, food, water and shelter, and the problem of missing relatives and its impact on survivors.

The findings and recommendations of the study are contained in the publication "Women facing War""Addressing the Needs of Women Affected by Conflict: A Guidance Document" , which serves as the basis for the organization's strategy on how to incorporate the needs and perspectives of women into all its activities and programmes. Building on the study, the ICRC produced a handbook ( ) that gives practical information on how to work more effectively with and for women.

The ICRC's main objective here is to incorporate the specific needs, problems and perspectives of women into all its activities and to launch special programmes for women when these are necessary to respond adequately to social, medical, psychosocial, economic and protection needs. The organization's multidisciplinary approach is designed to address such needs as effectively as possible at all levels.

The ICRC also endeavours to raise awareness of the situation of women affected by armed conflict and internal disturbances – and of the international law that grants them protection – among governments, representatives of the diplomatic, political, military and academic communities, international organizations and non-governmental organizations.

ICRC activities 

The ICRC's work to aid women reflects its organizational structure and programmes on the ground.

Prevention and Protection 

 International humanitarian law training – The very spirit of international humanitarian law is to exercise restraint in the use of force, always keeping it in proportion to the military objectives. The ICRC therefore promotes the whole range of humanitarian principles in an attempt to prevent, or at least limit, excesses in war. In particular it tries to reach those who determine the fate of people affected by armed conflict or who can obstruct or facilitate ICRC action. These groups include armed forces, police and other bearers of weapons, decision-makers and opinion-leaders at the local and international levels. The aim of promoting the law is to prevent violations. ICRC delegates frequently conducts training sessions with members of armed forces and armed opposition groups around the world. They stress the needs of women and the fact that sexual violence is a serious violation of humanitarian law and a criminal act.


 Campaigns to prevent abuses against women, in particular sexual violence, are designed using culturally appropriate images and language, tailored for a particular target audience. The ICRC also strives to identify other communication channels through which to reach the broader community regarding the need to prevent and respond to sexual violence.

 Detainee welfare – As part of its mandate, the ICRC visits persons deprived of their freedom in connection with armed conflict. Part of the delegates'work is to assess whether conditions of detention for women comply with international humanitarian law. For example, they seek to ensure that the specific needs of mothers with children are met; that women are detained in separate quarters from men; and that women are guarded by female staff. Reintegrating into society after release from prison can be especially difficult for women. The ICRC provides literacy and other courses for female detainees to facilitate their re-entry into society.

 Protection  The ICRC trains its delegates to collect data disaggregated between the sexes in a gender-sensitive manner. It encourages the use of staff teams comprising both men and women and the participation by local women in documenting cases of violations. The organization also endeavours to monitor and   document sexual violence, ensuring confidentiality for the victims. In addition, when appropriate, and   provided such action does not put the victim at risk, the ICRC makes   representations to the relevant armed authorities or group.

 The missing – Missing persons remain one of the most tragic legacies of armed co nflict and other situations of large-scale violence. Women are overwhelmingly the ones left behind. To the anguish of not knowing the fate of a loved one, of not being able to complete the process of grieving for a person very likely dead is often added the economic hardship that comes with the loss of a breadwinner. Women whose husbands have gone missing experience many of the same problems as widows, though without official recognition of their status. They are regarded as neither wives nor widows and lack the legal support widows are entitled to, thus jeopardizing their rights to property, inheritance, guardianship of children, and the prospect of remarriage.

Depending on needs and on local constraints, the ICRC can deploy a whole range of activities to alleviate the suffering of families. Whenever possible, it works closely with the relevant authorities and organizations to accelerate the tracing process. It aids in " ante-mortem data collection " (dental records, etc.) and the forensic process, and covers the transport costs for families of the missing to visit exhumation sites. It updates and publishes lists on its website of persons reported missing. It organizes meetings with family associations to ensure that their interests are represented in various forums and assists those associations financially and technically. It contributes to psychological support for the relatives of missing persons, principally women and their children, and promotes education and professional training for them. It also encourages governments to adopt measures (information bureaus, for example) to provide a public record of deaths and to help people separated from loved ones find and be reunited with them and to facilitate legal proceedings undertaken by families of missing persons.

 Sexual violence – It is essential to respond comprehensively to the protection, medical and psycho-social needs of women who ha ve suffered sexual violence. One of the most frequent traumas that women suffer in wartime, sexual violence, is also one of the most complex issues for humanitarian organizations because of the taboo and shame associated with it. The ICRC's multi-disciplinary approach involves prevention, awareness-raising and protection strategies to tackle the causes and consequences of sexual violence, while providing victims with timely medical and psychosocial support.


 Economic security – The ICRC strives to devise programmes that will help women regain autonomy and dignity. It often works with women's associations interested in taking part in economic programmes. It frequently helps women left alone after an armed conflict restore their traditional economic activity, rebuild their house or enhance their income-generating capabilities by means of other agricultural, pastoral or community-based schemes.


 Reducing exposure to risks – The ICRC takes measures to reduce women's exposure to security risks when collecting firewood. These include providing food aid and fuel-efficient stoves, and technical measures to reduce cooking time. The ICRC also repairs wells and other water points to minimize the risk faced by women and children (often the traditional water collectors) when fetching water outside the village or camp. Before undertaking repairs, the ICRC consults the community, especially the women, in order to adapt the water points to their needs.

 Mother and child care – In several countries, the ICRC is supporting medical facilities that enable women to receive curative, ante - and post-natal care, and emergency obstetric care as part of a comprehensive health-care strategy. It also often sets up immunization programmes for children and pregnant women, distributes safe delivery kits to pregnant women and raises awareness about safe motherhood practices and the advantages of breastfeeding. Providing obstetric training for traditional midwives is a key means of improving mother and child health. Where health-care facilities are scarce, these midwives are a significant source of support for women.

 Rehabilitation – In some cultures women who have suffered injuries resulting from landmines are not able to receive care owing to cultural restrictions on their freedom of movement, or simply owing to a lack of resources. The ICRC aims to ensure that women have the same access as men to physical rehabilitation. Often the ICRC facilitates or covers the cost of transportation to rehabilitation centres and provides vocational training in line with the patient's physical abilities.

War has historically been considered a matter of concern for men only – a notion that does not reflect reality. It is now recognized that women civilians are increasingly at risk, sometimes even specifically targeted. Yet their needs are often overlooked. Effective action requires women's own perception of their needs to be incorporated into the ICRC's work. It must act in concert with them.

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