Vulnerability during armed conflicts

November 26, 2023

Historically, women and girls have been targets of violence during wars

Vulnerability during armed conflicts


ngoing conflicts in more than 32 countries across the globe, ranging from civil war to insurgencies, have triggered significant impacts on the general population in these areas. The impact on women and girls during armed conflict is particularly significant. It ranges from physical and sexual to psychological violence perpetrated by both state and non-state actors. The acts of violence include unlawful killings, torture, abductions, maiming and mutilation, forced recruitment as combatants, sexual exploitation and other cruel or degrading treatment including arbitrary detention and forced marriage.

The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, adopted a Platform for Action that emphasised the need for promoting equal participation of women in conflict resolution at decision-making levels and listed the effects of armed conflict on women as one of 12 critical areas of concern requiring action by governments and the international community.

The key protection available to female victims in international law takes various forms with redress and prevention found in protocols to the Convention of Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women as well as the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and the two 1977 Additional Protocols. A system of equal treatment is established in the latter, which forbids discrimination against civilians, prisoners, displaced people, special people, the ill, injured, shipwrecked or those subject to punishment. Sexual discrimination is only acceptable when it is anticipated to have a positive outcome. The regulations granting women extra protection under the Geneva Convention and its Additional Protocols are authorised by this perspective on equality.

Broad definitions demanding that women be accorded particular respect and protection form the foundation of the system of special provisions for women. Women must be treated with all consideration due to their sex, according to Articles 12(4) and 12(5) of the Geneva Conventions I and II. Additionally, Article 76(1) of the Additional Protocol I states that women shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected in particular against rape, forced prostitution and any indecent assault. Article 88 of the Geneva Convention III declares that women prisoners of war must be treated with all the regard due to their sex and must in all cases benefit from treatment as favourable as that granted to men.

Women who are prisoners of war are granted extra protection to guarantee equitable treatment with them being entitled to separate quarters and immediate supervision, as stipulated in Articles 25 and 76 of the Geneva Convention III, Additional Protocol II, and Article 76 of the Geneva Convention IV. Geneva Convention III Article 88 states that female prisoners of war may not be sentenced to more severe punishment or be treated more severely when undergoing punishment than female or male members of the detaining power’s forces for a similar offence. Article 14 of the Geneva Convention III states clearly that women prisoners must, in all cases, benefit from treatment as favourable as that granted to men. These clauses are crucial because they demand equitable treatment. These rules are also crucial because they demand that male and female inmates be treated equally and that women’s sentences for comparable offences not be harsher than those meted out to men.

Violence against personal dignity is forbidden by Common Article 3, especially when it takes the form of cruel or degrading treatment. Although not specifically mentioned, rape and other sexual violence constitute crimes against human dignity and dehumanise the victim. As such, they fall under the purview of Article 3(3) of the Geneva Convention IV. Article 27 stipulates that women are especially vulnerable to protection from attacks on their honour, including but not limited to rape, forced prostitution and indecent assault.

Sexual violence is forbidden as a serious violation of Common Article 3 and is classified among “crimes against humanity” under Rome Statute Article 7 and “war crimes” under Article 8(2)(b)(xxii) for international armed conflicts and Article 8(2)(e)(vi) for non-international armed conflicts. Other forms of sexual violence include forced pregnancy, forced prostitution, rape and forced sterilisation.

Women refugees also remain susceptible to abuse and exploitation during their flight, in their countries of asylum and during their repatriation.

The number of forced internal displacements and refugee flows have increased as a result of the growing number of armed conflicts and the violations that go along with them. Generally speaking, women and children make up more than 75 percent of those displaced. In some refugee populations, they make up 90 percent.

Guidelines on the prevention and handling of sexual violence against refugee women were released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1995. The UNHCR has worked to guarantee that refugee women receive sufficient protection under international law, especially when they are subject to discrimination on the basis of their gender.

In order to address gender-related violence in conflict, the UN also adopted international resolutions including the UN Security Council resolution 1960, which mandated the establishment of specific time-bound commitments from member states as well as a coordinated and timely information collection system for sexual violence related to conflicts. In the meantime, humanitarian assistance is required to guarantee access to sexual and reproductive health services, including for pregnancies brought on by rape, as stated in Security Council Resolution 2122.

Women and girls have historically been the targets of violence during wars, particularly sexual violence. While they are addressed in situations of armed conflict, they have been left out of initiatives aimed at preventing and resolving conflicts. Women and girls in conflict still face many obstacles in spite of growing awareness and mobilisation at the local and international levels.

Women are frequently left out of discussions about peace and security council negotiations due to a lack of high-level leadership committed to integrating women’s rights. It is difficult for grassroots groups focusing on women’s local peacebuilding and service delivery to secure sufficient and reliable funding.

The writer is an advocate of the high court, a founding partner at Lex Mercatoria and a visiting teacher at Bahria University’s Law Department

Vulnerability during armed conflicts