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Women and Armed Conflict

08-03-2005 Statement

The following is the transcript of a speech made by Gabrielle Nanchen, Assembly member of the ICRC, to the 49th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York, on March 7th 2005.

Mme Chair,

Twenty years ago, at the opening ceremony of the World Conference on Women in Nairobi, I was one of over 10,000 women participating both in the official conference and the NGO Forum. I remember we sang together " We are the women, we are the world " . I am here today in another capacity. As we celebrate today the 10th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, I have mixed feelings: on one hand satisfaction – that the needs and perspectives of women remain firmly on the international agenda; and on the other hand regret – that there remains ample reason to draw the world's attention to the suffering of women.

As you are no doubt aware, the subject of particular concern to the ICRC is addressed in Section E of the Beijing Platform for Action – " Women and Armed Conflict " . While my remarks today will focus on this in particular, they inevitably invoke a broader range of issues affecting women.

In 1999, at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the ICRC pledged to promote the respect which must be afforded to women and girls. Particular emphasis was placed on the need to actively disseminate knowledge on the categorical prohibition of all forms of sexual violence. It reflected a commitment to ensuring that the specific needs of women and girls are appropriately assessed and addressed throughout ICRC activities. To follow-up, the ICRC undertook a study on the needs of women affected by war and the extent to which existing laws meet those needs, incorporating perspectives from field staff and from women themselves, in the contexts in which we work. The findings of this research were publ ished in 2001 as a study entitled, " Women Facing War " . Recently, the study's findings and recommendations were translated into practical terms for personnel working with women affected by armed conflict, through the production of an ICRC guidance document. Implementation of the ICRC's Pledge regarding women has been a unique undertaking, influencing all levels of the Insitution and its field operations, leading to a deeper understanding of the impact of conflict on women and the best ways to address their needs.

In light of the foregoing, the plight of women whose lives are touched by war – be they actively engaged in hostilities or inadvertently caught in the midst of conflict – can be improved only if the political will exists. Let us be clear : If women continue to suffer in situations of armed conflict, it is not because there is insufficient law to protect them, rather because this law is insufficiently respected. The sooner the international community treats the protection of women as an obligation rather than an aspiration, the sooner we will witness concrete change.

Allow me to draw your attention to a statement from the Beijing Platform for Action that illustrates this point: " International humanitarian law, which prohibits attacks on civilians, is at times systematically ignored, and human rights are often violated in armed conflict, affecting the civilian population, especially women, children, the elderly and disabled " . The Platform further states: " while entire communities suffer the consequences of armed conflict and terrorism, women and girls are particularly affected because of their status in society and their sex " .

Indeed, there are risks to which women and girls are particularly exposed. One horrific example is the continuing use of sexual violence as a method of warfare, to shatter not only individual lives but entire communities.

War is no longer, if it ever was, a man's business. The category of war-wounded is not limited to soldiers struck by bullets. Today, entire populations are swept up in situations of primarily non-international armed conflict, and rape, though often inconspicuous, undoubtedly numbers among the wounds resulting from war.

The ICRC has, on many occasions, emphasised the need to listen to the voices of the victims of armed conflicts. One such victim used the following terms to describe her rape: " This man had the gun and he had the power. I just wanted my life to be spared " . The words may be simple, but they speak volumes about the reality of war for women. In the face of small arms and light weapons proliferation, women are further disempowered. They may be reduced to submitting to whatever suffering they must to simply save their life. In wartime, this can mean not only enduring sexual violence, but also forced displacement, inappropriate detention, exploitation and abuse.

Shocking as this is, it is even more difficult to comprehend the abuse and exploitation that women and girls have happened to suffer at the hands of humanitarian and peacekeeping personnel – the very people mandated to assist and protect them.

In wartime women play many roles from actively bearing arms, to sustaining families, to leading peace movements. The resilience and courage many women demonstrate in the face of adversity belies the clichés that women are the most vulnerable in situations of armed conflict. Nonetheless, the outbreak of war can expose women to great risks – some common to the community as a whole, and others specific to their gender.

It is naïve to imagine an improvement of women's plight in wartime, without recognising the fact that they remain structurally disadvantaged in times of peace. Women are particularly susceptible to the marginalisation, poverty, and suffering engendered by arme d conflict, as they are often already victims of discrimination in peacetime.

Discrimination against women and girls in terms of access to food, water, shelter, education, social and health services, as well as political power – issues canvassed in the Beijing Platform for Action – continue in times of war. In such circumstances, access to these commodities is greatly diminished, due to scarcity, prevailing insecurity and the fact that mechanisms for the maintenance of law and order may be held in abeyance. If, for socio-cultural reasons, women are economically and socially dependent on men, they may find themselves ill-equipped to support themselves and their families when their men folk take up arms, are missing, captured, or killed in combat. This continuum of discrimination against women – from the private to the public sphere; from times of peace to times of war – demonstrates the importance of the role and work of the ICRC in situations of armed conflict, and its complementarity in relation to the work of human rights and development organisations in times of transition and peace.

Discrimination against women is both a cause and a consequence of the deprivations they suffer in wartime. It is imperative that humanitarian workers bear this in mind, and ensure that women are directly consulted and closely involved in all activities undertaken on their behalf. Within the framework of its mandate, the ICRC addresses these issues to the greatest extent possible, to ensure women's voices are heard in determining the needs of war-affected populations.

Mme Chair,

Despite diverse organisational affiliations, mandates and areas of expertise, the focus of bringing about improvements in the lives of women unites all those present at this forum. For its part, the ICRC will pursue its action in situations of armed conflict across the globe, seeking to respond to the needs of all victims while usin g a thorough approach tailored to the specific needs of women and girls.

Thank you for your attention.