Women enjoy the general protection under international humanitarian law (IHL), afforded to both men and women, as well as specific protection in their capacity as women civilians or women combatants.
The general protection provided by international humanitarian law applies equally to women and men. All four Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols contain provisions stating that persons or categories protected shall be “treated humanely (..) without adverse distinction founded on sex”(article 12 IGC).
Women who do not take part in hostilities are part of the civilian population, and consequently benefit from the general protection of civilians afforded by IHL. Likewise, the general protection for combatants, and prisoners of war, apply equally to both women and men.
IHL contains a number of provisions, which provide special protection for women due to their status in society and biological needs. The foundation for this approach is that women shall be treated with all due regard to their sex (art. 12(4) GCI, 14 GCIII).
According to article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the fact that women enjoy additional protection under certain circumstances does not constitute discrimination on the basis of sex. The prohibition on discrimination does not mean that every differentiation is forbidden, but rather aims to ban adverse or unfavourable distinctions. "Without prejudice to the provisions relating to their (..) sex, all protected persons shall be treated with the same consideration by the Party to the conflict" (Article 27 IV GC).To ICRC and Article 27 IVGC
Special protection for women civilians
When it comes to the additional protection for women as civilians, there are, for example, rules stating that pregnant and nursing women shall be given priority in the distribution of relief services, such as food and medicine. Other provisions afford specific protection for women from rape, enforced pregnancy and other forms of assaults.
Moreover, women civilian internees are afforded with special protection in a number of provisions relating to detention facilities, hygiene conveniences and supervision. For example, a woman civilian internee must not be searched except by a woman.
Special protection for women combatants
IHL does not only relate to women as civilians, but also contains a number of provisions directed to the protection of women combatants, or rather to women prisoners of war (captured combatants). There are rules regulating the conditions of the prisoner of war (POW) camps or facilities for women. For example, rules providing separate sleeping quarters for women and men, rules relating to hygiene conveniences, as well as rules providing that women must be supervised by women only.
Sick and wounded women combatants enjoy the same protection as afforded to sick and wounded soldiers by the general provisions of IHL relating to this category.To the IHL analysis of women as combatants
Although women primarily take the role of civilians during armed conflict there are many examples of women engaging in armed conflict as members of the regular forces or other armed groups.
Involvement in the conflict can take various forms – from carrying arms and directly participating in the hostilities to hiding, sheltering and feeding combatants. Participation can be both voluntary and involuntary. Some countries where women are obliged to serve in the military through conscription are Eritrea, Israel, North Korea and Libya. In many conflicts women are forced to assist armed groups or otherwise face threats to their health and life.
Women who serve in armed groups have often subordinate positions and have a heavier workload than that of male combatants as they often have to continue to take care of reproductive tasks aside of the fighting. They are also often expected to provide sexual services to male colleagues.
Deviating from the stereotype
Women combatants are often “punished” by the enemy for deviating from the stereotype of the "proper woman". One means of punishment is sexual violence.
There are examples from conflict zones, where women combatants are seen as unworthy of having children, wherefore they are forcibly sterilized by male enemy combatants. Female combatants further face increased threats of sexual violence while in detention camps, either by prison guards or other male detainees. For example, women prisoners of war (POWs) are at times forced to confess through the use of sexual violence.
The existence of violent actions by women is often denied because it contradicts the traditional, stereotype conception of femininity. For example, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has been accused for applying this reasoning - the Court allegedly freed women from conviction as they were simply seen as incapable of committing genocide.
Women who use violence are commonly described as mentally instable, and women who kill are seen as much more cruel than men who kill.