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Women and war

By Michèle Mercier

Women 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 victims.

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.


A crucial 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
Michèle Mercier is former Head of the Communications Department at the ICRC and author of Crimes without Punishment.

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