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Women and war: implementation of the ICRC pledge to the 27th International Conference

04-12-2003 Statement

Speech by the President of the ICRC, Dr. Jakob Kellenberger, to the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva, 4 December 2003.

" War often forces women to become the sole provider for the family, and to secure the basic necessities of life while confronting all the risks that a woman may encounter under such circumstances. She may find herself a target, either by being taken captive, raped, kidnapped, killed or displaced in the midst of conflict. "

These words from Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan provide insight into the perils women face in times of war. I have the honour of being joined on the podium by Her Majesty today and take this opportunity to express my gratitude for her valuable and continuing contribution to the work of the ICRC on women and war. Your Majesty, thank you.

" As long as I can, I will fight for the truth about where my husband is and where my children are.

I live on their memories.

I have their voices in my head. "

These are the words of one woman, whose loved ones remain unaccounted for as a result of armed conflict, describing to the International Committee of the Red Cross the reality of the impact of hostilities on her life. I open with these two quotations because it is important to realise that these words and those of countless other women eloquently outline the importance of, and indeed the reason for, the pledge made four years ago.

Four years ago, the ICRC announced to the 27th International Conference its grave concern about the plight of women in situations of armed conflict. It affirmed the importance of listening to the voices of the victims, such as the words of this woman, tinged with anguish and loss, and to respond to their needs. Four years ago, the ICRC p ledged to take action to improve the protection and assistance of women affected by armed conflict whether in relation to programmes providing protection (efforts to reunite separated families; the promotion of the legal protection afforded to women; and in the training provided to arms bearers) and assistance (health care, water and sanitation). Special emphasis was placed on promoting the respect which must be accorded to women and girls, with a focus on the prohibition of all forms of sexual violence.

Today, ensuring the protection and assistance of women in wartime is as crucial as ever. Humanitarian organisations are facing unprecedented dangers and difficulties in securing access to those affected by armed conflict – yet it is vital to do so. I would like to outline some of the ways the ICRC has and continues to fulfil this pledge.

One of the major accomplishments during this period of the pledge has been the publication of Women Facing War , an in-depth study on the impact of armed conflict on women . Although it had been initiated as part of an internal review process, the study acquired added significance as a result of the pledge, and the findings of this research were made public in October 2001.

 Women Facing War served four main tasks. Firstly, to assess the impact of armed conflict on women and identify their needs; secondly, to review the extent to which international law affords protection to women; thirdly, to give a realistic and comprehensive picture of activities undertaken by the ICRC on behalf of women affected by armed conflict; and finally to compile a list of key recommendations.

I would now like to share with you two significant findings of this research.

Turning firstly to the impact of armed conflict on women, the study found that women's experience of armed conflict is multifaceted. In wartime, women may face grave risks to their security, they may lose loved ones, they may suffer from reduced access to the means of survival, they may face increased risk of sexual violence and injury, they may be forcibly displaced from their homes. Yet women should not be classified solely as vulnerable. They demonstrate resilience in countless ways, such as holding their families together and supporting dependants. They are often actively engaged as politicians, leaders of non-governmental organisations and campaigners for peace. They may take up arms, voluntarily or involuntarily, or participate in logistical support roles to the armed forces or armed groups. Thus the Women Facing War study demonstrates that the words " victim " and " vulnerable " are not synonymous with " women " .

This research confirms that if women continue to suffer in situations of armed conflict, it is not from any shortcomings in the legal regime protecting them, but rather because these laws are not implemented and respected. The study shows that international law adequately affords protection to women in situations of armed conflict. The challenge lies in ensuring respect for and implementation of the existing obligations. All those present today must take up this challenge.


It is important that the ICRC communicates these messages to key audiences such as the armed forces, armed groups and the general public. This dissemination represents an important condition for ensuring respect for the law and thereby preventing violations, and contributing to the spread of humanitarian ideals. The ICRC has widely distributed a series of fact sheets projecting core messages relating to the impact of war on women and their protection under international humanitarian law, as well as a series of short films depicting different facets of women's experience in wartime such as displacement, loss of loved ones, acts and threats against personal security including sexual violence and limited access to food and health care. Each film also conveys a strong message on the legal protection accorded to women in situations of armed conflict. A number of television companies broadcast the films in 2002, reaching a vast audience and they have been shown in a range of other forums.

The ICRC has also participated, often as a keynote speaker, in over 80 conferences and meetings organised by donors, governments, academic institutions and regional, international and non-governmental organisations, to foster a greater understanding of the ways that women are affected by armed conflict and to call for better respect and implementation of international humanitarian law. This message has also been conveyed through events to launch the Women Facing War study. For example, the launches of the Arabic language version of the study were held under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan in Amman and Beirut enabling a wide audience to be reached throughout the region.

The effect of this research on ICRC operations is important to note. Heightened awareness of the impact of armed conflict on women has been reflected in a marked strengthening in the quality and quantity of programmes with and on behalf of women since the advent of the pledge. The majority of ICRC delegations now conduct activities better taking into account the needs of women and include women as a specific target population in annual planning. It is important to state that in reality such planning does not reflect the strengthening of programmes which has also been done where women are not the sole beneficiary group.

Those coordinating this work withi n the ICRC have visited over 30 countries to speak with women for the purpose of strengthening the ICRC's operational responses to their needs and in order to share best practices and lessons learned amongst our field staff. This has enabled the ICRC to be even closer to the victims of armed conflict and to better understand and respond to their needs. In fulfilling its pledge, the ICRC has reinforced its response through a better understanding of the specific risks, vulnerabilities and needs of women.

I am convinced that the ICRC has made considerable progress in realising the objectives of the pledge. This is clear from the way the institutional understanding of issues affecting women has, in many respects, broadened and evolved.

To be concrete, today, programmes to protect and assist victims of, for example, sexual violence are considerably more responsive to the needs of women than programmes carried out four years ago. I will provide you with just one of the many examples I could mention here today. In 2003, the ICRC participated in the training of traditional midwives as a way to increase proximity to women victims of violence in one region. The midwives are trained to provide pre and post-natal care, as well as to identify victims of sexual violence and to refer them to appropriate health care. This strengthens their role among the community and helped women who would not otherwise – whether through feelings of shame, lack of resources or lack of information – receive the necessary care they need for their physical and psychological wounds.

Paying increased attention to the plight of women has also enabled the ICRC to have a more in-depth understanding of the issue of the missing. The needs of the families who are left behind to bear the emotional and economic burden of having a missing relative have been brought to the fore. Psychological, social, legal and economic support has been provided to such families, the majority of which consist of women with dependants.

More systematic attention is also being given to the conditions and treatment of women deprived of their liberty in relation to armed conflict, to ensure that such conditions comply with international standards. There is a greater awareness of the value of having mixed teams of male and female delegates and translators, in order to make the ICRC more approachable for women and to foster dialogue. Wherever possible, the ICRC endeavours to provide women with the option of speaking with female staff.

I have described some of what has been undertaken so far. There is still work to be done. Building upon the study and the pledge, and pursuant to Resolution 1 of the 27th International Conference, the ICRC has drawn up a " Guidance Document " on protection and assistance for women adversely affected by armed conflict. It is hoped that this document, to be published in the coming months, will provide a useful operational tool for ICRC personnel working with women facing war, and for others who work in situations of armed conflict.

The pledge adopted in 1999, and the steps taken to fulfil this commitment, have not only improved the ICRC's understanding of women's plight in situations of armed conflict, it has also deepened the institutional approach to issues such as the missing, sexual violence, the link between protection and assistance and the very notion of vulnerability. Thus the commitment to women has, and will continue to, enrich the work of the organisation as a whole. As such, the protection of women against the effects of armed conflict remains a strong focus for the ICRC, despite the fact that technically the period of the pledge is completed. The ICRC's enhanced understanding of the plight of women enables the pledge on the missing, being made at the present Conference, to fully and naturally integrate the needs of affected family members, the majority of whom are women. This affirms that the ICRC views its work to improve the protection and assistance of women as a continuing commitment.

The ICRC endeavours to prevent violations against women by making representations to parties to conflict and perpetrators of violence, be they States or other entities, urging them to comply with international humanitarian law. While the ICRC must – and will – do its utmost to improve the situation of women adversely affected by armed conflict, the responsibility to protect those who do not or who no longer take an active part in hostilities rests with parties to an armed conflict. The protection of women in wartime is an obligation, not an aspiration. And it is an obligation on the part of the international community as a whole. All States and all parties to armed conflict must do more to prevent violations of international humanitarian law against women, in short to respect and ensure respect for the law. I take this opportunity to call for greater respect for international humanitarian law by all. I call on all those present to do their utmost to achieve real protection for the lives and human dignity of women facing war.

Thank you for your attention.