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International law still fails women in war

Women can be targets of aggression during conflicts Keystone

International Women's Day on Saturday is designed to raise awareness of issues affecting women around the world.

This content was published on March 8, 2003 - 11:50

One such concern is the effect of armed conflicts on women, and how international law fails to protect them properly.

A report issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2001 - entitled "Women and War" - said that while international laws have adequate provisions to protect women, they are often ignored during conflict.

As a consequence, women are subjected to rape and other forms of violence, and they can also be ostracised by their own communities after the fighting has stopped.

The Geneva-based ICRC says women may be targets for abuse because they are seen as representatives of the enemy culture and producers of future generations.

The ICRC believes international laws against the abuse of women need to be given greater prominence to ensure they are implemented more effectively.

"The plight of women can be dramatically improved if this law is respected," Charlotte Lindsey, Head of the Women and War project at the ICRC, told swissinfo. "Everyone must be made responsible for respecting and implementing this law."

But although some measures have been taken to inform political, judicial and military groups - for example, in Jordan - the ICRC says it is difficult to ensure that warring factions respect the prohibitions.

More than victims

The effect of war on women is often misunderstood. One common misapprehension is that they are always victims in a conflict.

Lindsey says the image of women as victims does not help to improve their plight.

"Women should not be perceived as victims and vulnerable, as that implies something very passive," Lindsey said. "In fact, women take on many roles in armed conflict."

One role is as active combatants. They can be members of the armed forces, military support services or other military groups.

Women are also increasingly active in non-combatant roles, such as political positions or membership of non-governmental and peace groups, which have varying influences on warfare.

The ICRC says women have always been active on a local level in wartime, often taking the lead in running their communities - in some cases, they set up small businesses and schemes to generate income when conflict has disrupted the local economy.

Specific problems

But despite their active roles during conflict, war continues to affect women in a range of harmful ways and many of the problems are specific to females.

As well as the increased risk of sexual abuse, they also have particular health requirements that are not dealt with, and are often left in charge of heading a household alone.

The ICRC is working to set up systems that provide women with the knowledge to re-start the economy in their community and to ensure they are aware of the health and dietary needs of themselves and their families.

In Rwanda, for example, female survivors of the genocide in 1994 have formed support groups and agricultural projects in an attempt to rebuild their communities.

Elsewhere, in Eritrea, women have joined re-housing projects in order to move out of refugee camps set up during conflict.

Female detainees are also of concern to the ICRC, as there is little available information on their situation in war-torn countries.

In particular, the organisation is concerned about the health requirements of women prisoners and the potentially degrading and inhumane treatment suffered while being detained. Measures to evaluate the physical and psychological effects of such treatment are also needed.

Another growing problem for women in war is the increasing tendency of warring factions to move close to communities and, in some cases, force them to take sides.

As a result, women, who were previously left behind while male family members went off to fight, are inadvertently becoming part of the fighting themselves.

swissinfo, Joanne Shields

In brief

The ICRC is concerned that international laws designed to protect women from sexual abuse and violence during conflict are not being adequately implemented.

Women are often attacked by enemies because they are seen as representatives of their culture.

Women are not always victims in a conflict: they can be members of the armed forces, political parties or non-governmental organisations.

Women play a key part in running their communities and local economy in times of war, by setting up support groups and income-generating projects.

Conflict causes certain problems particular to women, such as health and dietary problems, caring for families alone and inhumane detainment.

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