Wars today are no longer fought at isolated battle fronts – the battlefield is in the midst of the civilian population. Civilians, not combatants, make up the largest number of casualties, and among civilians, women are particularly vulnerable, and victimized and they outnumber men in casualties in most conflicts.
As survivors women have to face new living conditions without their spouses, perhaps in a refugee camp where food, water and health care is scarce, and where threats of sexual violence are present.
However, women do not always take on the role of a victim, but are also joining armed forces or other armed groups as combatants. As such, they sometimes become the perpetrators of serious violations of international humanitarian law (IHL).
Irrespectively of their capacity as civilians or combatants, women face systematic disadvantages which are the product of gender inequality, which normally intensifies during armed conflict.
Where can you find reference to women in IHL?
Reference to women can be found in various international humanitarian law instruments, such as the four Geneva Conventions, the First and Second Additional Protocols as well as in the Statute of the International Criminal Court in Hague.
Prior to the First World War the number of women participating in armed conflicts was insignificant, and consequently, women were not specifically mentioned in international humanitarian law instruments. However, they have always been protected under the general provisions of IHL, which apply equally to men and women, such as the Hague Laws from 1899 and 1907.
In the First, and foremost in the Second World War, women took part in the hostilities as combatants, and as a result reference to women were introduced in the texts of IHL. Already in the first version of the Third Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war in 1929, it was stated that; “women shall be treated with all consideration due to their sex” (former article 3 IIIGC).
Special protection for women was also reflected in former article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention; " Differences of treatment between prisoners are permissible only if such differences are based on the military rank, the state of physical or mental health, the professional abilities, or the sex of those who benefit from them" .
After the Second World War it became clear that the civilian population, especially many women and children, suffered extensively during armed conflicts, including occupations. Therefore women gained special protection also in their capacity as civilians with the adoption of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the protection of civilians in 1949.
The Additional Protocols
Civilian casualties in conflicts post Second World War often outnumbered casualties among combatants. This fact contributed to the adoption of the two additional protocols of 1977, which further stretched the protection of civilians during war, and consequently the protection of civilian women. Women enjoy special protection both in international and non-international armed conflicts (civil wars).
At present, around thirty articles of the four Geneva Conventions, and its Additional Protocols, relate in specific to the protection of women either as civilians or combatants.
Santosini Senafati is one of the daugthers in an Indian peasant family. Santosini has joined a women's network where they loan money to each other, in order to make it possible to create new incomes and a new way of living. Photo: Ankin Ljungman