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Human Rights Quarterly 22.1 (2000) 148-166

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Protection of Women in Armed Conflict

Judith Gardam & Hilary Charlesworth *

I. Introduction

Women increasingly bear the major burden of armed conflict. 1 In recent years particular attention has been given to the question of violence against women in armed conflict. 2 The significance of these developments is considerable. However, the focus on violence--in particular on sexual [End Page 148] violence 3 --tends to obscure other important aspects of women's experience of armed conflict that to date have been largely ignored. 4 The purpose of this comment is to consider a range of ways in which women are affected by armed conflict and to assess the adequacy of international law in protecting them. This issue is, in theory, on the international agenda. For example, the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action calls on "[g]overnments, the international community and civil society, including non-governmental organisations and the private sector . . . to take strategic action" in relation [End Page 149] to the "[t]he effects of armed or other kinds of conflict on women, including those living under foreign occupation." 5 However, the available information is fragmented, making "strategic action" difficult to formulate.

Considerable work has been done regarding women and armed conflict by institutions concerned with human rights violations against women generally. Indeed, the process of identifying women's particular experiences and demonstrating the failure of the law to acknowledge them is more advanced in this context than in organizations focusing solely on armed conflict. 6 However, even when gender-based violence is addressed in these fora, the wider aspect of the problem is ignored. 7 Traditionally, reports and studies on the effects of armed conflict tend to incorporate women in the general category of civilians without regard to the different experiences of men and women civilians. The particular concerns of women have, to date, been regarded as peripheral in such analyses. For example, until recently, sexual violence against women was regarded as an inevitable aspect of armed conflict. 8

We now have evidence that women experience armed conflict in a different way than men. 9 These effects differ widely across cultures depending upon the role of women in particular societies. One thing is clear: armed conflict often exacerbates inequalities (in this context, those based on gender) that exist in different forms and to varying degrees in all societies 10 and that make women particularly vulnerable when armed conflict breaks out. Of the more than one billion people living in poverty [End Page 150] today, the great majority are women. 11 They are, moreover, generally disadvantaged in terms of education and are considerably less mobile because of their traditional role in caring for others. 12 Further, these inequalities continue after the cessation of hostilities. Women are often excluded from the reconstruction processes that take place after armed conflict as well as from peacebuilding initiatives. 13

The rules of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) are intended to provide protection for victims of armed conflict. 14 This regime has been criticized as inadequate in performing its task in modern-day armed conflict. In addition, many practitioners and academics regard law as largely irrelevant in armed conflict or place more confidence in the ability of human rights law, rather than IHL, to adapt itself to provide effective safeguards for the protection of the victims of armed conflict. Whatever the [End Page 151] general inadequacies of IHL, it is clear that its provisions operate in a discriminatory fashion in relation to women. 15

II. Women's Experience of Armed Conflict

Armed conflict is by no means always negative in its impact on women. Indeed for some women it can be a time of empowerment as they take over roles traditionally performed by men. 16 In some cases armed conflict removes abusive partners from the home and allows women the opportunity to develop new skills. 17 Upon the cessation of hostilities, however, many of these advantages are lost. 18 Overall, an assessment of the effect of armed conflict on women requires a consideration of a wide variety of...


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