Situation of women in armed conflicts


Through the experiences of women, the multi-dimensional reality of participation of women in war has brought out and has put forward, the multi-faceted vulnerabilities in terms of economic depravity, psychological stigma and social evils of rape, forced marriage, forced sexual abuses, slavery and indentured labour. Even though the whole community suffers as a result of the spoils of the war whether adults, infants, men or women, yet it has been observed that the women have been discretely affected by the spoils of the war irrespective of the gender not being the direct consequence of inception of a war.


It is estimated that close to 90 per cent of current war casualties are civilians, the majority of whom are women and children, compared to a century ago when 90 per cent of those who lost their lives were military personnel (Review and Appraisal of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action: Report of the Secretary-General" (E/CN.6/2000/PC/2)

The Maternal Mortality rate as of 2013 for deaths per 100,000 live births is 531 (conflict and post-conflict) whereas it is 210 as per the global rate. (per UN Maternal Mortality Estimation Inter-agency Group)

The Land rights percentage of women with legal titles to land as of 2014 stands at 9% during conflicts and post conflicts while its global rate stands at 19%.

 For education, net enrolment ratio in primary school for girls as of 2013 stands at 76% during conflicts and post conflicts while its global rate being at 91% (per UNESCO Institute statistics (education data as of June 2015)

Regarding Child marriages, Percentage of women aged 20-24 who were married before age of 18 as of 2014 stands at 45% in Somalia, 52% in Guinea, 55% in Mali and 68% in the African Republic (per Monitoring of situation of Children and Women & UN World Population Prospects, UN DESA, 2012)


The legal position of women was initially defined through the array of the general acts of international humanitarian law. Later, the international legal framework developed and in the course of time, the natural need for the special legal protection of women and their rights in the armed conflicts were observed.

Geneva Conventions 1949

Art. 12 of Geneva Convention I for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field (1949) created the rule of equal treatment of women and men. At the same time however it, indicates that women should be treated with “all consideration due to their sex”

Similarly, Geneva Convention III relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War provides equality of treatment of women and men and ensures treatment of women with all the regard due to their sex under Art.14, 88, 97. Correspondingly Geneva Convention IV relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949) reads that women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault Article 27 and it also determines specific protection of maternity under the Article 14, Article 16, Article 23, Article 27, Article 38, Article 50, Article 76.

Statutes of International criminal tribunals

The first major change in the prosecution of crimes committed against women during the armed conflict has been brought with the creation of International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) as they were advised by the United Nations General Assembly to pay particular attention to crimes of sexual violence. Art 5(g) of ICTY empowers the Tribunal to prosecute persons for committing crimes against humanity directly indicates to rape.

Both Tribunals have prosecuted defendants with rape charges, and significantly in 48% of cases before ICTY the accused have been charged with the systematic use of various forms of sexual violence against women (UN Review of the Sexual Violence Elements, 2010)
According to Article 7 of the Rome Statute (1998), crimes against humanity include “rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”


In an international armed conflict, women are among the persons protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the protection of civilian persons in time of war. Under these conditions, they benefit from all the provisions which state the basic principle of humane treatment, including respect of life and physical and moral integrity, particularly forbidding coercion, corporal punishment, torture, collective penalties, reprisals, pillage and the taking of hostages.

In addition to the general protection from which all civilians benefit, "women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution or any form of indecent assault" (Art. 27, para 2, C. IV; Art. 75 and 76, P.I). This provision was introduced to denounce certain practices which occurred, for example, during the last World War, when innumerable women of all ages, and even children, were subjected to outrages of the worst kind: rape committed in occupied territories, brutal treatment of every sort, mutilations, etc. In areas where troops were stationed or through which they passed, thousands of women were made to enter brothels against their will and Acts against which women are protected by Art. 27, para 2, C. IV remain prohibited in all places and in all circumstances, and women, whatever their nationality, race, religious beliefs, age, marital status or social condition have an absolute right to respect for their honour and their modesty, in short, for their dignity as women.

In a non-international armed conflict, women are protected by the fundamental guarantees governing the treatment of persons not taking part in hostilities which are contained in Article 3, common to all four Conventions. However, this article does not provide special protection for women. Protocol II completes and develops this provision. Its Article 4 expressly forbids "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault ".  

Under the terms of Protocol I, "Women whose liberty has been restricted for reasons related to the armed conflict shall be held in quarters separated from men's quarters. They shall be under the immediate supervision of women. Nevertheless, in cases where families are detained or interned, they shall, whenever possible, be held in the same place and accommodated as family units" (Art. 75, para 5).

 Art.76 of Protocol I conveys that "pregnant women and mothers having dependent infants who are arrested, detained or interned for reasons related to the armed conflict, shall have their cases considered with the utmost priority". This is intended to make sure that pregnant women are released as rapidly as possible.


Like men, women who take part in hostilities are protected by international humanitarian law from the moment they fall into the power of the enemy. It is essential for them to be members of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict if they are to be considered as combatants entitled to the status of prisoners of war, once captured.

In particular, the compliances requires combatants to distinguish themselves from civilians, by a uniform or other distinctive sign, visible and recognizable at a distance, or, at least, they must carry their arms openly while taking part in an attack. Violation by a combatant of the rules applicable in armed conflict is punishable but he is not deprived of his right to the status of prisoner of war in case of capture. In case of doubt, this status must be presumed, until the question has been decided by a competent authority

 In an international armed conflict, Protocol I specifies that "pregnant women and mothers having dependent infants who are arrested, detained or interned for reasons related to the armed conflict, shall have their cases considered with the utmost priority " (Art. 76, para 2). This is the principle we considered earlier with respect to the protection of women as members of the civilian population. The authors of the Protocol thus sought to assure that pregnant women and mothers of young children would be released as rapidly as possible.

The Third Convention contains various provisions based on the principle in Article 14, para 2, stipulating that "women shall be treated with all the regard due to their sex". Article 25, para 4 states that "in any camps in which women prisoners of war, as well as men, are accommodated, separate dormitories shall be provided for them ".  

Articles 97 and 108 of Third Convention convey in particular that "women prisoners of war, undergoing disciplinary or penal punishments, respectively, shall be confined in separate quarters from male prisoners of war and shall be under the immediate supervision of women".  


Women are entitled to the same general protection, without discrimination, as men during a conflict – be it as combatants or as civilians or persons hors de combat. The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977 and customary IHL convey this general protection.

IHL requires humane treatment for the wounded and sick, prisoners and civilians caught up in a conflict, without any “adverse distinction” based on sex, race, nationality, religion, political opinions, or any similar criteria. The provisions of IHL also forbid hostage-taking and the use of human shields.

‘Wherever there is a conflict, Women must be a part of the solution’


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