Human Rights Advocacy
War's impact on women: Is the law adequate?
Barrister Harun ur Rashid
The effect of war on women is mostly ignored. Women are innately vulnerable during war. War forces them into unfamiliar roles.
It is not the war itself but its impact on women continues for generations. The real experience of war is not the shelling and bombardments. War for women is what happens afterward, the years of suffering hopelessly with a disabled member of families.
If husbands, brothers and children are injured or crippled, they have to be looked after years together by women. In addition, if men cannot work, it is devastating for women to run households. They have no money or are struggling when all property belonging to families are destroyed. Women either become beggars or menials or domestic helpers or take other humiliating jobs to earn money to keep the body and soul together.
Professor Hilary Charlesworth of Australian National University believes that there is considerable empirical evidence that women are affected by war or armed conflicts in ways that men are not. Globally women constitute only 2% per cent of regular army personnel ( 14% per cent of US forces are women) but as civilians they suffer disproportionately from armed conflicts.
TV footage of distressed Palestinian women, helpless women in Kosovo, distraught women in Darfur in Sudan and Congo during armed conflict are too familiar with us.
The use of women as suicide bombers underscores the devastating extent to which they have been exploited.
Existing international laws
All provisions of humanitarian law apply to both men and women. The provisions relating to women relate to violence against women in times of war, the needs of pregnant women and mothers, privacy, dignity and family unity, to name but a few.
International humanitarian law which many people mistakenly believe relates to only the delivery of humanitarian assistance. International humanitarian law is the body of law that protects those who are not or are no longer taking an active in armed conflict, and it also regulates the means and methods of warfare.
The most important law on armed conflicts are the four 1949 Geneva Conventions on Armed Conflicts. They seek to set the standards for states in respect of protection of sick, wounded, treatment of prisoners, and civilian persons during the war or armed conflicts. An additional Protocol was added in 1977 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions so that it may be applicable in civil war situations. The International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC) oversees and monitors the states' activities with regard to the implementation of the Conventions. The monitoring Committee consists of all Swiss citizens.
ICRC has submitted some critical secret reports on the treatment of prisoners of Guantanamo Bay by the US. The US initially took the position that since the prisoners are “enemy combatants”, they are not within the reach of the Geneva Conventions. Later the US conceded that the Conventions apply.
Are current international laws for women adequate?
It was against the backdrop of violence against women during war or armed conflicts that the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) launched a four year study of the needs of women affected by war, that could be used as a yardstick to measure the adequacy of international law in protecting the dignity of women.
Published in 2001 , the Women Facing War study came to a number of conclusions which were incorporated into a Guidance Document listing best practices for the treatment and protection of women during times of conflict.
The study found existing refugee law, humanitarian law and the law of human rights do not adequately afford protection to women in situations of armed conflict. States need to treat the legal protection of women in wartime as an obligation.
It sounds trite to say that babies don't wait for a ceasefire to be born, but the reality is that conflict at once increases the need for health care, including reproductive health care and reduces access to it. It is now acknowledged that the worst case scenario has been pregnant women or babies die from scarcity of food, water and insecurity occasioned by armed conflict.
It is acknowledged that “women” is not a women's issue only but violence against women is pre-dominantly a men's issue. Is it being acknowledged as such?
For centuries international law has been shaped and enforced by men. According to some women this has perpetuated the underlying gender bias of the law against women. It is the absence of contribution of women legal experts in the development of international law has produced an inadequate law for women.
Given the position, it is imperative that women's contribution to the development of international law is taken into account and the UN International Law Commission must realize that the body should have more women members in the Commission to have women's perspective in future body of international laws.
The author is former Bangladesh ambassador to the UN, Geneva.