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Advancement of women

17-11-2007 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 62nd session, Third Committee, Item 63 (a) of the agenda, Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 15-17 Octobre 2007

Mr Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The ICRC is seriously concerned by the situation of all women affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence.  Today we wish to address some of the terrible risks and challenges that women face in these situations.

For women, armed conflict and other situations of violence can mean displacement, loss of family members and the loss of sources of income. However, they adapt and organize, ensuring that their families and communities survive. Their resilience disproves the cliché of women always being among the vulnerable. Nonetheless, war does expose women to great risks. Some risks, such as threats to physical safety, are common to the community as a whole. Others, such as sexual violence, may be specific to their gender.

While international humanitarian law adequately addresses the needs of women in armed conflict, greater efforts are required to make their plight known and to improve respect of international humanitarian law.

As civilians, women must be protected against the dangers arising from the conduct of hostilities and must be able to live without fear of unlawful killing, ill-treatment, trafficking or abduction. Unfortunately, this is frequently not the case.

One of the most frequent and traumatic violations that women suffer in wartime is sexual violence. Rape and other forms of sexual violence constitute serious violations of fundamental rules protecting people in situations of violence, and if committed against a person protected under IHL, they constitute war crimes. Often, sexual violence is not an isolated phenomenon. Especially in so cieties where the integrity of the community and the family is bound up with the “virtue”   of women, rape can be deliberately used to destabilize whole families and communities – the mere threat of sexual violence can cause entire communities to flee their homes. In many societies, a woman who has been raped faces a high risk of double victimization: not only has she suffered an attack with potentially severe and lasting effects, but she may also be stigmatized or abandoned by family, friends and community. She may have to raise an unwanted child, she may be left economically destitute and she may become the victim of a so-called " honour” crime.

The measures the ICRC undertakes to help the victims of sexual violence include medical, psychological, economic and social support, depending on the needs. In addition, ICRC action also aims to reduce exposure to the risk of sexual violence and to raise awareness of the problem, so that communities will accept victims and offer them support.

Sexual violence is preventable. It is the States'and other actors'obligation to enforce the rules prohibiting sexual violence. In this regard, we note with satisfaction recent developments at international and national levels to end impunity for perpetrators of violations against women. Efforts must continue to be done to prevent this violation and to put in place adequate assistance for its victims.

The risks women face during armed conflict may be aggravated when they are displaced. Displacement deprives civilians of most of their sources of livelihood – especially their land. Women are particularly vulnerable when they are heads of households, since they have to shoulder full responsibility for the survival of their families. Women may also be subject to abuse and exploitation while trying to obtain food and material assistance, and they may run into danger if they leave a camp to look for food. To live in dignity, people require sources of income, food and other goods, yet these often become scarce in times of conflict and particularly so during displacement. Appropriate assistance taking into account women's needs can reduce the specific risks they are exposed to. For example by providing them with water, food rations requiring less cooking time or fuel efficient stoves, women's need to venture out to the fields on the outskirts of the village can be minimized thereby avoiding risks to their physical safety. The ICRC, based on its thorough study Women facing War, tries to ensure that its humanitarian programmes and activities take the specific needs and perspectives of women into account and enable them to restore their means of production so that they can become self-sufficient.

Once the conflict ends, the situation of most women becomes at least a little easier. For women whose loved ones are missing, this is not necessarily the case. For them, peace does not bring peace of mind. Instead, they experience the psychological anguish of not knowing the fate of a relative and of not being able to complete the grieving process. The great majority of those unaccounted for are men who have been abducted, imprisoned or executed. Yet there is another part of the problem that is often overlooked: the fate of the woman left behind to bear the emotional and economic burden of a missing family member, often the breadwinner. There is frequently no official acknowledgement of the status of missing persons. Consequently, women whose husbands are missing lack a clear legal status – they are neither wives nor widows. This may affect their rights to property, inheritance or the guardianship of children, their prospects of remarriage and their entitlement to any benefits or support that may exist for widows. The ICRC helps them by providing material assistance or by supporting them throughout the administrative procedures involved in applying for financial su pport or legal advice, and supports psychosocial workshops for families of missing persons. It also sensitizes the authorities and other bodies to the need to support these families. All should be done to prevent disappearances and elucidate the fate of the missing in the briefest delays. In addition, States should acknowledge the situation of wives of the missing in their laws and provide them with the assistance they need.

Mr Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Women are affected by armed conflict in a variety of ways, some of which we have just outlined. The hardships they face in these situations could be prevented or at least significantly eased through better respect of international norms and rules designed for their protection. The ICRC strongly urges all States to ensure application of the law.

Thank you for your attention.