Advancement of women

Mr. Chairman,

The plight of women in today's armed conflicts continues to preoccupy the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Despite the specific and general protection women are entitled to under international humanitarian law, and the other bodies of law applicable in wartime, women continue to be regularly subjected to physical violations, forced displacement, random acts of violence, intimidation and other atrocities. Beyond these acts that affect them directly, their well being further suffers due to the effects of conflict on their loved ones. Women are often the ones left behind to pick up the pieces of their broken lives when their husbands, sons, fathers, die or go missing. Indeed, the impact of war on women is inextricably tied to the impact of war on men. Often, during and following war, women must embrace new roles, take on new responsibilities, and become the head of household, whilst coping with their grief and uncertainty as to the fate of their loved ones.

To quote a woman living in Bosnia and Herzegovina: " We used to say that the worst thing that could happen was to bury your child. Today, we say that the worst thing is not to know what has happened to your child " .

For the past four years ICRC has been implementing the pledge it made in 1999 at the XXVIIth International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent regarding the plight of women in situations of armed conflict. It will report on what has been achieved over the past four years at the XXVIIIth International Conference. The ICRC remains fully committed to its aims, and work in this area will continue. Much has been achieved during this time in ICRC's operations as well as at headquarters. The ICRC remains committed to maintaining its knowledge and understanding of the situation of women in armed conflicts while continuing to implement the many recommendations that came out of the ICRC study Women facing War , first published in English in 2001, on the protection and assistance needs of women.

Currently, a Guidance Document is being developed and will be published early 2004. The aim of this document is to provide an operational tool for ensuring that humanitarian programmes and services adequately address women's needs. It will be organised thematically reflecting a basic finding of the Women facing War study, namely that women's experience of armed conflict is multi-faceted, including detention, isolation, loss of relatives, physical and economic insecurity, various kinds of deprivation and an increased risk of sexual violence, injury and even death. Both the study and the guidance document itself endeavour to show that while women may be placed at risk by the outbreak of hostilities, they are not necessarily and inevitably victims . Around the world, women's experience of armed conflict also encompasses social, public or political activities and service in armed forces.

Mr. Chairman,

The ICRC takes this opportunity to reiterate the fact that sexual violence, in any form, is unacceptable and prohibited by international humanitarian law as a method of warfare, a form of torture or 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 a community. Sexual violence must not be considered an unavoidable'by-product'of war.

While men and boys also suffer from sexual vio lence, it is predominantly women and girls who are at a much greater risk of being subjected to this form of abuse. As a victim of sexual violence once put it: " 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. And while prevention must improve, the response to victims of sexual violence must also increase. Prevention and assistance must go hand in hand.

The ICRC is determined to better assess the impact of armed conflict on the people it strives to protect and assist. Being close to the victims, listening to what they have to say and appreciating their plight are important elements in this process. While the ICRC will continue its endeavours to improve its own action to respond to the needs of women affected by armed conflicts, greater efforts must be made for the overall improvement of the situation of women in these contexts by all those in a position to do so. Efforts to promote the knowledge of and compliance with the obligations laid out in international law among as wide an audience as possible remains an important means to do so. Improving the plight of women in wartime is achievable – it must be achieved.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.