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Women and Girls

Women and children represent the largest number of civilian casualties in most conflicts, and women are the primary targets of sexual violence. Women enjoy the general protection under international humanitarian law (IHL), afforded to men and women, as well as specific protection in their capacity as women civilians or women combatants.

Wars today are no longer fought at isolated battle fronts – the battlefield is often 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.

Both during and post conflict women have to face new living conditions, those married 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 also join armed forces or other armed groups as combatants. As such, they sometimes become the perpetrators of serious violations of international humanitarian law (IHL).

General Protection

In terms of IHL women enjoy the general protection under international humanitarian law (IHL), afforded to men and women, as well as specific protection in their capacity as women civilians or women combatants.

The general protections provided by international humanitarian law apply equally to women and men. All four Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols contain, confirmed by customary international law, 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.

Sexual Violence

Sexual violence remains an abhorrent practice in all corners of human society. Women remain the primary, but not exclusive, victims of sexual violence. Such acts are strictly prohibited under IHL, but also under international criminal law.

Under IHL, women must be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault (article 27 IVGC).

Women must be the object of special respect and must be protected in particular against rape, forced prostitution and any other form of indecent assault (article 76 IAP).

Special Protection

IHL contains a number of provisions, which provide special protection for women. The foundation for this approach is that persons 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 prohibit adverse distinction.  "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 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.

To the full ICRC list of articles providing specific rights for women as civilians 

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.

Read more about sick and wounded soldiers

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. 

To supply the parties to the conflict with food or shelter is normally not considered, according to IHL, as taking direct part in the hostilities - these women are considered to be civilians protected by IHL. Women carrying arms may be, on the contrary, directly participating in the conflict, and will be seen as combatants as long as they fulfill the criteria for this category. If they take up arms, but do not fulfill the criteria for a combatant, the will normally be regarded as civilians but without complete protection under IHL. For example, they could be targeted when taking up arms.