Women and war
By Michèle Mercier
feature more often in war as its victims than as active participants.
Either way, they are entitled to the same protection as men
under international humanitarian law. There are even special
provisions for pregnant women and mothers of young children.
But are these laws sufficient?
In the Algeria of the 1950s, women learned to wield a rifle
and its ammunition just as they did a scalpel and compress.
Ten years later, during the hostilities in Viet Nam, women
helped to manufacture weapons, worked as public administrators
and taught in schools. More recently, in Tajikistan, women
have taken part in the opposition movement and helped build
organisations for aid to refugees.
If you look at history as a whole, however, you see that
women have rarely figured in war other than as its victims,
overrun by events and left only to hope for an end, or some
new beginning, that will make them something other than
But that does not mean that they sit passively by as the
world crumbles around them, for they frequently have no
choice but to take on an extra burden of responsibilities
and face a situation imposed literally by force. They wage
their own, peaceful struggle to ensure their children’s
survival; they search for missing members of their family
and try to restore and maintain contact with relatives who
have been imprisoned; they do everything they can, materially
and psychologically, to maintain some semblance of normality
amid the havoc of war.
The point is not to give preference to one or the other
of the two images sketched above. The point is rather to
show that, when conflict breaks out, women’s lot should
be portrayed neither in the bold brushstrokes of epic valour
nor in the doleful hues of a mother of sorrows. Instead
of nurturing a stereotype, we should understand that the
roles played by women in wartime are many and varied. They
are determined by the individual woman’s circumstances,
geographical environment, the military situation, the social
context and the needs of the moment.
Women are sometimes victims of war; sometimes they are
actual combatants. In both cases there are rules to protect
them from its effects. These rules represent progress but
are far from perfect. The general approach of international
humanitarian law is to take into account the specific needs
of women in particular when they are made prisoners of war
or are interned, without reaching the point of gender discrimination.
The battle of all mothers
In international humanitarian law as in life itself, women
and children inevitably go together. So it follows that
one of the priorities of humanitarian action in wartime
should be to protect and maintain the family unit or, where
this is impossible, to do its utmost to put the pieces back
together, or at least, as a temporary measure, to create
a family-like environment to provide a reassuring presence
for children far from their loved ones.
Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international
humanitarian law implicitly provides for priority assistance
and protection to those commonly designated as “vulnerable”,
a category made up largely of women, children, the sick
and the elderly.
Yet placing women in this category should not make us forget
all that women do to diminish that vulnerab-ility. Television
reporting from the battlefield has become the chanson de
geste of our age, with the deeds of the soldiers themselves,
and frequently their tragic fate, receiving the lion’s
share of attention. Precious little coverage is given to
the courageous, dogged, day-in day-out work performed by
women with no ambitions to take their place in the annals
of history. Their feats do not result in the conquest of
territory, or people, or power. But they contribute, tenaciously
yet without fanfare, to human survival. What, after all,
is symbolised by a child whose life has been protected by
its mother in every way she can, if not hope for humanity,
a hope that must be fulfilled despite the ravages of war?
The life-sustaining activities of women in conflicts down
through the ages amounts to a parallel history of war –
a history of humanity that restores our confidence in the
human ability to rise above the worst of circumstances.
They search for and find water in places where shelling
has made resupply impossible. They risk life and limb collecting
wood in areas infested with mines. They beat at the door
of relief organisations for the extra food without which
their sons and daughters cannot grow properly. They crouch
with their children in cellars for days on end, imbuing
them with the strength and endurance they need to survive.
If some chroniclers have described certain conflicts as
“the mother of all battles”, others have referred
to war in general as “the battle of all mothers”,
the silent, daily struggle, behind the lines, for the welfare
of their loved ones.
Violence against women
Maintaining a measure of humanity in the midst of violence
is the goal of modern international humanitarian law, which
has endeavoured to include in its provisions rules guaranteeing
the individual’s right to life and dignity. But it
must be acknowledged that it does less to prevent excesses
committed in war than to act as an antidote (with varying
effects) that is administered after they have occurred.
Thus, for example, it is less difficult to take action
to put an end to ill-treatment of women detained by the
enemy, i.e., someone delegates can visit in a place of detention,
than it is to deal with the widespread rape that occurs
to varying degrees in all conflicts.
Rape is a war crime. Apart from actual killing, it is certainly
the most serious violation of an individual’s physical
and moral integrity, the individual most often being a woman.
Armed conflict unleashes a frenzy of passions in which rape
is systematised to make it a weapon of terror particularly
valued by militias under the command of warlords obsessed
by the illusion of power.
Once rape is seized upon as an issue by the media, governments
and women’s rights groups, it becomes such a cause
that activists tend to forget the sensitive handling it
requires, above all the fact that the victim should be able
to choose her own therapy well away from the glare of publicity.
A good example of the perverse effects of media campaigns
– well intentioned though they usually are –
is that of Bosnia-Herzegovina. An attempt was made to impress
upon us the sheer scale of the tragedy by means of a barrage
of sometimes conflicting statistics. Let us hope that the
women of Bosnia-Herzegovina can forgive the international
community for reacting so late, despite the warnings of
the ICRC, which had strongly condemned from the outset the
use of rape as a method of warfare.
issue for the future
Should we be reassured by the fact that international humanitarian
law, in the form of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional
Protocols, provides for wide-ranging protection of women and
children? Should we also be content that if need be we can
brandish the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the
Child, one of the most recent additions to the catalogue of
rules intended to promote human rights? Parading this panoply
of laws is unfortunately no guarantee for the behavior of
individuals who one day decide to act responsibly and obey
the rules of the game as laid down by the international community
only to ignore them the next day and wage war according to
their own ideas.
Add to that the fact that, apart from the realm of armed
conflict, there is no international legal framework, no treaty,
to limit violence against women and one can easily see the
work that remains to be done to persuade the States to adopt
and implement rules to forestall such violence.
That is one of the main tasks awaiting Radhika Coomaraswamy
of Sri Lanka who was appointed
Special Rapporteur on violence against women, following the
World Conference on Human Rights held in 1993 in Vienna. She
has a three-year mandate. Let us hope that she will be able
to formulate practical proposals before financing for her
work dries up, as has happened in the past.
According to various United Nations sources, women and children
under 18 years of age account for 75 per cent of the world’s
population. But those who have the power to build a society
that values and protects human life in peace as in war are
to be found among the remaining 25 per cent. The ongoing endeavour
by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to
convince decision-makers of the sound basis and good sense
of the humanitarian vision therefore must not falter, but
on the contrary must be maintained and intensified. l
Michèle Mercier is former Head of the Communications
Department at the ICRC and author of Crimes without Punishment.
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