Violence Against Women in War and Armed Conflict

Over the past century, the nature of war has changed. Whereas wars were once fought by men on battlefields largely removed from civilian populations, today civil wars in populated areas, often divided along ethnic or religious lines, are increasingly prevalent. For example, from 1989 to 1997, in 103 conflicts taking place in 69 countries, civilian causalities accounted for seventy-five percent of all deaths resulting from armed conflict. By contrast, civilian causalities in the 19th century were as low as five percent. This means that even though the majority of soldiers and armed fighters are still male, women and girls have been increasing impacted by violent conflict.  From:  Ward, Jeanne and Marsh, Mendy, “Sexual Violence against WOMEN AND Girls in War and Its Aftermath – Realities, Responses, and Required Resources,” A Briefing Paper for the Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond, United Nations Population Fund, June 2006. Most recently, studies have documented the violence and serious human rights violations experienced by women during armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and other African nations, and which they continue to suffer during ongoing armed conflicts in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

 

However, these changes in the nature of warfare cannot, on their own, explain the type and extent of violence perpetrated against women during armed conflict. The majority of scholars agree that violence against women in armed conflict is the result of exacerbated gender inequalities that already exist in society. Many women and girls around the world experience unequal access to education, healthcare, political power, compensation for employment, and freedom of movement. Amnesty International estimates that 70% of the world’s poor are women, that women own only one percent of the world’s wealth, and that women constitute two-thirds of the illiterate population around the globe. From: “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Women – A Fact Sheet,” Amnesty International, 20 July 2005. During and after armed conflict, women and girls experience gender-based violence, “an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will, and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between males and females.”  From: “Guidelines for Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings – Focusing on Prevention of and Response to Sexual Violence in Emergencies,” United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on Gender and Humanitarian Assistance, September 2005. 

 

Gender-based violence (GBV) in conflict situations takes on many forms.  Rape and sexual violence are perhaps the most widely researched forms of GBV, but other acts include trafficking in women, sexual and economic slavery, direct killing, domestic violence, and forced marriage. Many theories exist to explain gender-based violence during war. More conventional arguments claim that rape and other forms of GBV during armed conflict are a result of the breakdown of the rule of law during war, allowing frustrated or sexually aggressive individuals to carry out acts of violence that they would otherwise not commit due to fear of legal or social sanction. However, many contemporary theories address the fact that armed groups have increasingly used violence against women as a tactic of warfare. These theories hold that women are not simply raped or killed as a byproduct of individual acts committed during conflict. Instead, combatants systematically target women in an attempt to commit genocide, contribute to ethnic cleansing, or psychologically disrupt and terrorize communities and families. And most recently, research suggests that sexual violence and other forms of GBV that occur during armed conflict are a result of exacerbated gender inequalities that already exist within a society prior to the conflict.  From: “Theories of Sexual Assault,” Stop VAW website, The Advocates for Human Rights, 1 February 2006; “Broken Bodies Broken Dreams – Violence against Women Exposed,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Integrated Regional Information Networks, 2005; Rehn, Elisabeth and Johnson Sirleaf, Ellen, “Women, War and Peace – The Independent Experts’ Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women’s Role in Peace-building,” United Nations Development Fund for Women, 2002.

 

Until recently, few protections and remedies for victims of armed conflict have been geared specifically toward women. However, since the gender-specific atrocities of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, increasing attention has been focused on the needs of women both during and after armed conflict. Greater awareness of gender-based violations has been noted in the jurisprudence of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and through the development of the International Criminal Court.  Protection measures against sexual violence during armed conflict have been called for by the United Nations Security Council through Resolutions 1325, 1820, and 1888.  Programs for the prevention of and response to wartime rape and other forms of GBV have also been instituted by the United Nations and other humanitarian NGOs.  Ending impunity for perpetrators of violence against women during conflict and increasing the scope and availability of victim services are incredibly important first steps.  However, if sexual and physical violence against women during wartime is a continuation of gender relations and inequality throughout societies and cultures during peacetime, prevention programs must address these deeper causes as well.  A 2005 United Nations Population Fund Briefing Paper suggests that “Eliminating GBV is a profoundly political challenge because it necessitates challenging the unequal social, political and economic power of men and women, and the ways in which this inequality is perpetuated through institutions at all levels of society.” From: Ward, Jeanne and Marsh, Mendy, “Sexual Violence against WOMEN AND Girls in War and Its Aftermath – Realities, Responses, and Required Resources,” A Briefing Paper for the Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond, United Nations Population Fund, June 2006.

 

 

Compiled from:

 

“Broken Bodies Broken Dreams – Violence against Women Exposed,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Integrated Regional Information Networks, 2005.

 

“Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Women – A Fact Sheet,” Amnesty International, 20 July 2005.

 

“Guidelines for Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings – Focusing on Prevention of and Response to Sexual Violence in Emergencies,” United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on Gender and Humanitarian Assistance, September 2005. 

 

“Theories of Sexual Assault,” Stop VAW website, The Advocates for Human Rights, 1 February 2006. 

 

Rehn, Elisabeth and Johnson Sirleaf, Ellen, “Women, War and Peace – The Independent Experts’ Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women’s Role in Peace-building,” United Nations Development Fund for Women, 2002.

 

Ward, Jeanne and Marsh, Mendy, “Sexual Violence against Women and Girls in War and Its Aftermath – Realities, Responses, and Required Resources,” A Briefing Paper for the Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond, United Nations Population Fund, June 2006.