Women and Conflict Under International Law

This blog will be focusing on three issues about women and conflict under international law. The issues contain the list of problems that women usually face during conflict, addressing the needs of women affected by conflict, and the list of protection of women in international law.

In general, women face severe difficulties during conflicts such as sexual violence, displacement, forced abduction, pregnancy due to rape, food and essential household items, clean water, sources of livelihood, shelter, health conditions, hygiene and sanitation, losing members of families, widowhood, becoming female-headed households when men are detained, access to education and information and domestic violence during peace and war. Another problem is inequality to access facilities during conflicts that women usually face, in which Moser and Clark in 2001 pointed out that gender equality issues involving all sectors of society, and this is no different from the cases of political violence and armed conflict.

In addition, Moser and Clark (2001) and Lentin (1997) argued that women presently are more involved in conflict both deliberately and coercively in comparison with the past decades. For example, the involvement of women in war in Rwanda in 1994 was considered coercive participation, which caused the death of a considerable number of women.

In order to expand on this theme, one must address the needs of women affected by conflict such as the need for personal safety, accommodation, food and water, treatment and safety, health and medical care, hygiene and sanitation, accessing to organisations to support their families, educational facilities, religious and cultural practices, and judicial guarantees.

The international community emphasises the important that women need to access special assistance in order to reach equality in their societies. For example, the international community provides many humanitarian agencies in countries like Bosnia and Rwanda to pursue programmes that can help women to deal with cases such as rape during conflicts.

In noting that women need special assistance, the international community has created international laws such as Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defined violence as any “act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’’.

In addition, International Law has several treaties to support women’s rights during conflict with regard to equality, security, liberty, integrity and dignity of all human beings which included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel; and so on. For instance, Article 3 of Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women stated that women are entitled to access protection and have fundamental rights which include:

  1. “The right to life;
  2. The right to equality;
  3. The right to liberty and security of person;
  4. The right to equal protection under the law;
  5. The right to be free from all forms of discrimination;
  6. The right to the highest standard attainable of physical and mental health;
  7. The right to just and favourable conditions of work;
  8. The right not to be subjected to torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’’.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly with its 30 articles defines how international law can protect women.  For example, the 30 articles oblige States to end discrimination against women in all forms, including: “ending inequality between men and women, establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure that effective protection of women against discrimination, and to ensure elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organisations or enterprises’’.

Furthermore, according to the Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict, all member states must follow the following regulations:

  1. “Attacks and bombings on the civilian population, inflicting incalculable suffering, especially on women and children, who are the most vulnerable members of the population, shall be prohibited, and such acts shall be condemned.
  2. The use of chemical and bacteriological weapons in the course of military operations constitutes one of the most flagrant violations of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the principles of international humanitarian law and inflicts heavy losses on civilian populations, including defenceless women and children, and shall be severely condemned.
  3. All States shall abide fully by their obligations under the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949, as well as other instruments of international law relative to respect for human rights in armed conflicts, which offer important guarantees for the protection of women and children.
  4. All efforts shall be made by States involved in armed conflicts, military operations in foreign territories or military operations in territories still under colonial domination to spare women and children from the ravages of war. All the necessary steps shall be taken to ensure the prohibition of measures such as persecution, torture, punitive measures, degrading treatment and violence, particularly against that part of the civilian population that consists of women and children’’. These regulations and laws have been helpful to some extent, however, if these are not correctly enforced or not adapted then these ‘helpful’ laws have no effect, positive or negative.


Additional reading:

Kumar, K. (ed.), Women & Civil War. Impact, Organisations and Action. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 2001

Lindsey, C., Women Facing War. ICRC Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women. Geneva: ICRC,2001 http://www.icrc.org/web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/iwpList528/8A9A66C7DB7E128DC1256C5B0024AB36

Kamil Alboshoka is an international law and human rights researcher at LCILP. He holds an LLM in International Law and Human Rights from Birkbeck University of London, and a BA from Kingston University of London in Human Geography. His research explores issues of human rights, criminal justice, equality and inequality, conflict and terrorism impacts on human rights, and peace and security.


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