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Advancement of women: Implementation of the outcome of the Fourth World Conference on Women

23-10-1997 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 52nd session, Third Committee, Agenda item 105 and 106. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 23 October 1997

Mr Chairman,

Are women more vulnerable than men? We could answer both yes and no. In principle, they should not be more vulnerable, which is why some people consider that they should not be placed in a separate category. It must be recognized, however, that women are particularly susceptible to marginalization, poverty and the suffering engendered by a war. Already often subject to discrimination in peacetime, they are even less able to deal with the effects of violence. This applies in particular to women refugees and displaced women, who have to assume responsibilities which they never had before and for which they are unprepared. In addition, they have to face the censure of those who disapprove of this divergence from their traditional role. 

In today's conflicts, the victims are increasingly the civilian population - beginning with women and children - who become both the issue at stake and the target of the fighting. Far from being spared, women are the main victims of confrontations. Women are killed, wounded, tortured, imprisoned, separated from their children, displaced or driven into exile; they are prey to rape and fall victim to anti-personnel mines. In short, women are subjected to innumerable acts of violence, sometimes repeated or even systematic.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has never failed to denounce this stark reality. Above all, it has also tried to prevent such violations by making constant representations to parties to conflict, urging them to comply with the rules of international humanitarian law and to spare and pr otect the victims.

Due account must therefore be taken of the special situation of women victims of armed conflict. Any move to set up programmes for their benefit must be commended and encouraged, so that they may receive medical, psychological and social assistance tailored to their needs and administered by qualified personnel.

Mr Chairman,

From its inception, humanitarian law has accorded women general protection equal to that enjoyed by men. It thus reaffirms the fundamental principle of the equality of men and women. This principle is backed up by a non-discrimination clause.

As reaffirmed at the Beijing Conference, humanitarian law recognizes the need to accord women special protection tailored to their specific needs, in addition to the protection enjoyed by every person not, or no longer, participating in hostilities.

Certain provisions of humanitarian law are thus especially designed to protect the integrity and dignity of women (prohibition of rape and attacks on their honour), while others safeguard maternity (protection of expectant mothers, maternity cases and mothers of small children).

It is clear that acts of violence perpetrated against women, such as rape, enforced prostitution or any other form of indecent assault, are unacceptable. Rape constitutes a war crime and, moreover, is listed among crimes against humanity in the statutes of the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. Finally, the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (Geneva, 1995) strongly condemned sexual violence and rape.

Mr Chairman,

Preventing and alleviating the suffering of conflict victims without any discrimination is the raison d'être of the ICRC. This objective corresponds to the principle of impartiality, one of the seven Fundamental Principles that guide the work of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The principle of impartiality means endeavouring to remedy in priority the most urgent cases of distress and prohibits any adverse discrimination based on nationality, race, ethnic origin, political opinions, religion, social position or sex.

The principle of non-discrimination consecrated by humanitarian law nevertheless does not rule out any distinction at all based on sex, as such distinction is prohibited only when it is prejudicial to women. The ICRC follows this precept in its visits to prisons and camps for internees and displaced persons, for example, by trying to make sure that the conditions of detention for women are appropriate to their situation. Moreover, it may make specific representations to ensure that women's living quarters are separate from those of men, and arrange for them to have special medical examinations.

The ICRC also monitors respect for the principle of non-discrimination if in certain situations differences in treatment prove to be prejudicial to women. Realities in the field sometimes show that ways of viewing the status of women may vary considerably from one context to another, from one culture to another and even within the same culture. The humanitarian response serves the interest of the victims above all, and it is this overriding consideration that will determine the approach to be adopted.

When one thinks of " women " , one also naturally tends to think of " family " . The preservation of the family unit is of crucial importance in times of conflict, when the social fabric is falling apart and there is so much anguish and uncertainty about the fate of loved ones. In its day-to-day field activities and under its protection mandate, the ICRC takes action to maintain or restore contact between separ ated family members. This task has various aspects, including the exchange of Red Cross messages, organizing family visits across front lines or to places of detention, or again - quite frequently - arranging transfers so that families can be reunited outside conflict zones.

In addition to its treaty-based protection and assistance activities, the ICRC is getting involved in programmes specifically designed for women. These programmes contribute to the social and economic reintegration of women victims of especially violent and deadly conflicts by giving them vocational training to enable them to support their families. Efforts are also made to develop networks of entities that can offer psychological and social assistance to the families of missing persons. Another immediate and practical form of assistance is to help widows or women with no news of their husbands to obtain financial support. Moreover, especially in situations where most of the men are away and the survival of the community depends upon the women, these become partners or organizers in such programmes. In some places, for example, community kitchens are set up in cooperation with the women directly concerned or with women members of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and it is they who actually run the kitchens.

And what about women as a factor for peace? In situations of armed conflict, women often assume a leading role in the community, being the nucleus of the family and the guardian of family unity. This role enhances their perceptiveness, their sensitivity and their interest in social issues. They are tending to play an ever-greater part in the consolidation of peace and in dealing with the aftermath of conflict, because they are close to the realities on the ground. As mothers and wives, women can also dispense advice and act as a moderating force in their everyday environment.

It should be mentioned that in ICRC delegations an increasing number of women are holding positions of responsibility in which their special sensibilities are a major asset. In difficult and often dangerous situations, they work untiringly in the service of conflict victims, and sometimes even pay for their commitment with their lives.

In conclusion, the ICRC cannot overemphasize the fact that the legal norms exist in order to reinforce the protection to which women are entitled, and it can never urge strongly enough that they be applied. To this end, genuine measures for implementing these norms must be adopted to guarantee respect for women's dignity and fundamental rights.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

Ref. LG 1997-108-ENG