Women facing War: ICRC study on women affected by armed conflict


From left to right: Guy Mellet (HOD Jordan), Mrs Hariri, Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah,   First Lady Madame Lahoud, Mrs Berri, Antoine Bieler (HOD Libanon), Florence Tercier. 


Your Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah, First Lady Madame Lahoud, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you very much for being here today to launch the Arabic translation of the ICRC study, Women facing War. Your presence here is a positive sign of interest in understanding the impact of armed conflict on the civilian population, and more specifically on women affected by war. 

The publication of the study was an important moment for ICRC, however, it is just one step in ICRC's effort to improve the situation of women who are facing the challenges and horrors of war. The Study was originally published in 2001 and translated into different languages. This broad dissemination came from the importance of raising awareness of the plight of women facing war throughout the world. And we welcome the opportunity to launch this publication for the Arab world in Jordan and now in Lebanon.

 The ICRC study had three goals:  

  • First goal was to gain a better understanding of the specific needs of women affected by armed conflict. The study focused on issues like physical safety, sexual violence, displacement, access to health care and hygiene, sources of livelihood, water and shelter, access to personal documentation, as well as detention.

  • The second goal was to analyse the extent to which international law affords protection to women during armed conflict.

  • The third goal was to assess ICRC activities for women and to review its operational response to the needs of women affected by armed conflict.

Let me now share with you some of the findings and conclusions of the study. 

First, women are not vulnerable because they are women. 

Indeed there is a public perception that women are, like children, vulnerable. However, we met in the field women who were combatants, who were politicians, who were social and political leaders, who were actively promoting peace. Women not only play an important role at the community level, but also at the family level to ensure the survival of their relatives. 

They have to develop new skills and play new roles that they have not been prepared or educated for and they have to deal with this increased burden often alone.

As one displaced woman eloquently explained " Everyone suffers but women suffer more because they lose their husbands, sons, property and, in addition, they have to earn a living for the remaining children and relatives…Most men die in war, and women bear this weight on their shoulders " .

Women are not vulnerable, however they are suffering and made vulnerable by the situations they face in war. They are particularly susceptible to poverty and suffering in situations of armed conflict, especially when they were already discriminated in peacetime. Vulnerability is not easy to define and the Study helped us to identify what are the factors that can put women at risk in conflict situations.

Women experience war in many different ways. It means separation, the loss of family members and their sources of income.

For example, one of the most painful consequences of armed conflict is the number of women searching for news on the fate of relatives – generally male – who are missing. The inability to mourn and bury their loved ones has an enormous impact on the survivors and the coping mechanisms they adopt. 

One woman told us: " We used to say that the worst thing that could happen was to bury your child. Today, we say that the worst thing is to not know what has happened to your child " .

Not only do women have to play the role of the missing male relatives, but they are often targeted for having transgressed the traditional role expected of them. War also means an increased risk of sexual violence for women seen as bearers of the family, community, ethnicity and national identities. War can also expose women to deprivation, wounding and death. 

Earlier, I mentioned that one of the goals of the Study was to assess the protection accorded to women by international law. After a review of international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law, the study concluded that on the whole these three bodies of law provide adequate protection for women in situations of armed conflict if considered at the same time.

If we look more specifically at IHL, it seeks first and foremost to protect the civilian population from the harmful effects of war and protects active combatants by laying down limitations on means and methods of warfare. Therefore, women who are not or no longer taking part in hostilities are protected against abusive treatment by the parties to the hostilities. 

IHL is applicable in international and non-international armed conflicts and is binding on both states and armed opposition groups, as well as on troops participating in multilateral peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations if they take part in the hostilities. 

IHL affords women general and specific protection. Women are entitled to the same protection as men, be it as combatants or as civilians, but also they are afforded additional protection related to their medical or physiological specific needs.

If women are suffering in situation of conflict, it is not then because of a lack of laws protecting them, but because these laws are not implemented and/or respected. In its role as promoter and guardian of international humanitarian law, ICRC will continue to call upon all parties of armed conflict to respect and ensure respect of IHL; general and specific protection to which women are entitled must become a reality. 

A very specific form of violence affecting women – although not exclusively – is sexual violence. This is an issue that is of particular concern to the ICRC and one highlighted in our Study. Firstly, we must be categoric here – sexual violence in any form is unacceptable. It is unacceptable and expressly prohibited by IHL as a method of warfare, as a form of torture or as a means of " ethnic cleansing " . It is unacceptable as a means of dishonouring the opponent or as an act of aggression against a nation or community . Sexual violence should not be seen as a " by-product " of war, a reward or as a " payment " in return for protection or assistance.

While both men and women are victims of sexual violence, due to the nature of conflict women are at greater risk. 

As Sarah, a survivor of sexual violence, says: " This man, he had a gun. And he had the power. I just wanted my life to be spared " . 

Sexual violence is preventable; this must be recognised and realised. Therefore, prohibitions of rape and other forms of sexual violence must be included in national law and in the military codes and training manuals of arms bearers, as well as peacekeeping forces. It also means that the breaches of this law and of instructions given to arms bearers must be appropriately punished. Recent developments, at the national and international level, in the prosecution of those responsible for war crimes included charges of sexual violence. This marked an important step forward in the fight against impunity. Not only because the perpetrators are brought to justice but also because of the deterrent effect that we hope it will have.

While prevention must improve, response to victims of sexual violence should be increased. Victims of sexual violence need rapid access to appropriate and adequate medical and health care. Their situation needs to be handled by trained female staff with confidentiality and sensitivity, respecting their cultural environment.

The study's conclusions also highlighted the importance of involving women in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of assistance programmes carried out in their favour. It allows us to increase knowledge of their specific problems and needs and to implement controls to ensure that women are not being exploited or abused as beneficiaries. For ICRC, involving women means that our teams carrying out field activities are balanced, with expatriate and national men and women. This is not without difficulty. In some contexts, for example, it is impossible for women working for ICRC to travel long distances and away from their homes for several days.

Although this Study focuses on the needs of women, ICRC in no way intends to negate the particular needs of men. The fact that men are members of the civilian population is rarely recognized. The ICRC's experience has shown that, for example, men are more frequently detained because of armed conflict. 

For example, approximately 96% of populations detained in relation to armed conflict and visited by the ICRC are men. This is why ICRC has important programmes like in the Palestinian Occupied Territories to organize and facilitate the transport of the families, mostly women to visit their relatives in prison. 

In Bosnia-Herzegovina 92% of persons reported missing in relation to this armed conflict are men. In Kosovo, this figure is 90%. The majority of these missing men were not members of the armed forces or armed groups, but civilians. These civilian men were targeted (often for detention and disappearance) simply because they were of military-age.

The ICRC has recognised that the impact of war on women is inextricably tied to the impact of war on men. So it is essential that there are more efforts to prevent violations against women in wartime, as well as against men. 

Civilians are often placed at the heart of conflicts, endangered not only because of the proximity of the fighting but also because they may be its main target. More needs to be done to try to ensure better protection for all, in light of the trend to total war - where combatants feel free to attack both combatants and civilians to weaken the enemy. This trend has led the ICRC over the past yea rs to try to raise awareness because of its terrible implications for humanity. If this trend continues even more civilian women and men will be the victims of armed conflict.

Access to areas and persons affected by armed conflict is absolutely essential. This sounds obvious, but it is something that a humanitarian organisation like the ICRC must continually negotiate. Access is the key to provide protection and assistance to women in situations of armed conflict. States have the initial responsibility to care for their citizens. In its absence, international humanitarian organizations must be able to reach civilian populations in need. Unfortunately, this access is often denied to areas where and when the worst abuses against protected populations are taking place. Threats to or attacks upon humanitarian personnel are another way to prevent access – another violation of international humanitarian law. 

 In Conclusion  

The ICRC is providing assistance and protection for women affected by armed conflict throughout the world. Is this enough? Certainly, the Study was an important step to help us recognize the specific needs of women among those affected. Further to the Study's publication and the promotion of its conclusions, the ICRC has made and continues to make changes in its own operational responses to the needs of women. Women in situations of displacement, women in detention, women as heads of families, women searching for their missing relatives and women in need of medical, food and material assistance need the help of the ICRC. 

For these women, the ICRC has strengthened its assistance and protection. Using our field experience and as a follow-up of the Study's implementation, we are currently formulating a guidance document on the protection and assistance of women in situations of armed conflict. It will be p resented in December at the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. 

The ICRC is determined to understand the impact of armed conflict on its victims. Listening to them is a very important part of these efforts. Greater efforts must be made to promote knowledge and compliance with international law with all means and to all audiences possible. The ICRC is doing, and will continue to do, its part. However, it must be realised that everyone must be responsible for improving the plight of women in times of war, especially parties to armed conflict. 

Thank you very much.

Florence Tercier

Women and War Project