How does International Humanitarian Law protect women during war?

By Karyn Stone

November 25th is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Violence against women and girls is widespread, occurring every region and country of the world. Gender-based violence, in all its forms, is a violation of human rights with devastating, long-lasting consequences for those affected. While gender-based violence can happen to anyone, some women and girls are particularly vulnerable to these crimes, including those living in war-affected areas.
Two women talk at a makeshift settlement in BangladeshViolence against women during armed conflict is a violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).  The 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols have provisions that address non-discrimination. This means that female civilians and combatants who are no longer participating in hostilities must be afforded the same protections as men under international humanitarian law. In addition, there are specific protections provided for women prisoners of war such as the provision for separate detention quarters for female detainees. The specific needs of women affected by armed conflict must also be respected. Additionally, the needs of expectant mothers and mothers with young children, especially nursing mothers, requiring particular care, must be addressed.
International humanitarian law has provisions that explicitly prohibit rape and other forms of sexual violence against women, all of which may constitute war crimes. The Fourth Geneva Convention for the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War states: Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault” (Art 27, Geneva Convention IV, 1949).
Despite these legal protections, the historically widespread physical, psychological and sexual abuse of women and girls still occurs in armed conflicts. Violence against women during war is common, and more needs to be done to address these crimes. Women who are forced to leave their homes as a result of armed conflict become particularly vulnerable to violence and exploitation, especially if they are travelling alone or with small children. Even women who make it to camps for displaced persons are at risk due to inadequate security structures or lack of programs to address sexual violence.
Sexual violence that occurs during armed conflict is vastly underreported and victims often face challenges in getting the help and support they need. Some experience social stigma, fear of rejection by their families or communities, and limited access to medical care, including psychosocial supports. The Canadian Red Cross works alongside other humanitarian actors, including other components of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, to prevent violence against women and respond to the needs of victims and survivors. Today, on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, we urge all states to respect international humanitarian law and address violence against women and girls during armed conflict.

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