Beijing+5: 23rd special session of the General Assembly

Fact Sheet No. 5

Women and Armed Conflict

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.

Although entire communities suffer the consequences of armed conflict, women and girls are particularly affected because of their status in society and their sex. Parties in conflict situations often rape women, sometimes using systematic rape as a tactic of war. Other forms of violence against women committed in armed conflict include murder, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy and forced sterilization.
Despite this, women should not be viewed solely as victims of war. They assume the key role of ensuring family livelihood in the midst of chaos and destruction, and are particularly active in the peace movement at the grassroots level, cultivating peace within their communities.  However, the absence of women at the peace negotiating table is undeniable.

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

During its forty-second session in 1998, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women discussed the issue of women and armed conflict and proposed further action to be taken by member states and the international community to accelerate the implementation of the Platform's strategic objectives in this area, including the mainstreaming of a gender perspective into all relevant policies and programmes. Among the agreed conclusions of the session were measures to ensure gender sensitive justice, address the specific needs and concerns of women refugees and displaced persons, and increase the participation of women in peacekeeping, peace-building, pre- and post-conflict decision-making and conflict prevention.

International Action

Since the Beijing Conference there have been important developments at the international level in the treatment of crimes committed against women in situations of armed conflict.

  • Rape is explicitly incorporated as a crime against humanity in the statutes of the Ad Hoc Tribunals created by the UN Security Council to address crimes committed in the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Both Tribunals have issued several indictments relating to sexual violence, and the Rwanda Tribunal has convicted one defendant of genocide, including as a result of sexual violence.
  • At the regional level, inter-American and European human rights bodies have found sexual violence and rape in conflict situations to constitute violations of human rights treaties. Several have initiated criminal and civil proceedings against individuals alleged to have perpetuated gender-based violence against women in conflict situations.
  • The International Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, with jurisdiction over individuals responsible for the most serious international crimes, was adopted in June 1998.  The definitions of the crimes under the Court's jurisdiction take gender concerns into account:
    Genocide is defined to include measures intended to prevent births within a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.
  • Crimes against humanity include rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy and enforced sterilization.
  • War crimes include rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, and any other form of sexual violence constituting a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions.

Displaced and Refugee Women

The growing number of armed conflicts and the violations associated with them have resulted in an increase in forced internal displacement and refugee flows. As a rule of thumb, more than 75 per cent of displaced people are women and children, and in some refugee populations they constitute 90 per cent.

The abuses that women and girls suffer in armed conflicts may take various forms, such as rape, sexual slavery and forced prostitution. Women refugees remain vulnerable to violence and exploitation while in flight, as well as in countries of asylum and during repatriation.
Responses of the international community and Member States have included:

  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has issued guidelines on the protection of refugee women, including the prevention of and response to sexual violence against them.
  • UNHCR has sought to ensure that refugee women obtain adequate protection in international law, particularly in circumstances where they experience gender-based persecution.
  • Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States are among the growing number of countries that have granted refugee status on the basis of persecution on gender grounds, including female genital mutilation, forced marriage, forced abortion, honour killings and domestic violence.
  • Several member states have recognized the importance of providing physical and psychological support to refugee women, particularly those that have suffered gender-specific abuses.

Conflict Resolution, Peacemaking and Peace-building

Though women have performed a variety of roles during war and in peacekeeping, especially as medical and administrative personnel and increasingly as election monitors, they have been mostly absent from formal peace negotiations and policy-making processes on war and peace issues.

There is, however, a growing understanding of the role of women in conflict resolution and the specific skills and abilities they bring to the decision-making process.

  • The Netherlands has introduced a programme entitled "Engendering the Peace Process", which encourages Israel and Palestine to appoint more women to negotiating teams and political decision-making posts in the on-going Middle East peace process.
  • The African region developed a "First Ladies for Peace Initiative" in early 1997, which has included conferences on peace and humanitarian issues, the resolutions of which have been presented to African heads of states and government. In addition, the Organization of African Unity and the Economic Commission for Africa launched the Women's Committee on Peace and Development in 1999.
  • Belgium has initiated a joint project with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) through which a women's non-governmental organization identifies detained children and negotiates their release from rebel soldiers. Belgium has also supported the use of women mediators in conflict situations and has developed an initiative for peace-building between the women of two parties in conflict.
  • Georgia has adopted a Plan of Action for Improving Women's Conditions, which includes the development of a mechanism to ensure the active involvement of women in decision-making in armed conflicts and peace-building.
  • The United Kingdom has taken steps to ensure that women are included in the peace process in Northern Ireland.
  • In several states, including the United Kingdom and the United States, women occupy high-level decision- making posts, including as secretary of state and departmental heads, posts which have important implications for conflict prevention and peace processes.

The Changing Nature of the Military

Traditionally women have not been active in armed forces and are in some countries often denied the right to enlist.  A number of countries have taken steps to increase the number of women in their armed forces in recognition of the right of women to participate in their nation's military. The changing role of the military in some countries, and at the international level in particular, is moving towards the prevention of conflict, securing of peace, and the reconstruction of countries after wars and natural disasters.  These new roles of the military and police provide more room for women's participation. Some examples of action include:

  • Women from several member states and from the United Nations system participate in UN peacekeeping missions and election monitoring.
  • In Denmark, women have reached high levels in the military. Legislation has been enacted to allow women to be recruited under the same conditions as men, and efforts are being made to ensure that more women are promoted through the ranks.
  • Israel, where conscription for women is compulsory but service in the military is differentiated by gender, has reviewed its admission procedures for the air force to allow women to take the entrance examination for pilot training.
  • Norway has introduced specific targets for the recruitment of women into the armed forces. For instance, by the year 2005, seven per cent of officers and enlisted personnel should be female.
  • Since 1995, Australia has twice undertaken reviews of the cultural and social barriers to women's career progression and retention in the defence forces.

This fact sheet is based on "Review and Appraisal of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action: Report of the Secretary-General" (E/CN.6/2000/PC/2).

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information
DPI/2035/E—May 2000