War And Armed Conflict: Implications For Women

War and armed conflict around the globe causes disruption and damages social systems, essential services and economies and, as a result, has proven to have enormous humanitarian implications. War and armed conflict can affect victims in different ways, but women and girls often find themselves facing unimaginable risks, threats and challenges under such conditions. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), these risks and challenges include impoverishment, physical and/or sexual violence, loss of loved ones, deprivation of livelihood, increased responsibility for family members, displacement and sometimes death.

Consequently, women are often forced into new and unfamiliar roles, which require them to strengthen existing skills and develop new ones. While acknowledging the role that women play in war – as victims, combatants or promoters of peace, this piece focuses on the psychological, economic and health implications for women, as victims of war and armed conflict.

The psychological impact can be extremely traumatic for women who have lost their husbands, children or other family members to war and armed conflict. In addition, women also face the risk of physical injury and/or sexual violence when fleeing to safety, further increasing the magnitude of the psychological impact on their wellbeing. In these situations, rape is often weaponized by perpetrators of conflict in an attempt to terrorize, dismantle and destabilize a population. For example, in the Rwandan genocide (1994),  rape was used for ethnic genocide purposes on Tutsi women by Hutu men.

Given the significant psychological impact of war and conflict, it is important that gender and cultural dimensions are included in the assistance programmes that are provided on the ground. Inclusion of these dimensions are essential in ensuring that women are adequately supported, particularly those who come from societies where gender stereotypes and inequality are prevalent. Women play a vital role in the home and community and it is important that safe spaces are created so that their voices do not go unheard. Despite the horrifying and traumatic experiences women go through in these circumstances, they are still able to display a remarkable level of strength and resilience when transitioning into new roles and environments, post-conflict. 

Displacement increases the economic burden for women as they take on the responsibility for the day-to-day survival of their families. This includes female heads of household, widows, elderly women and mothers with small children. The journey toward finding refuge is often difficult and chances of survival are not always guaranteed particularly when the journey is long, routes travelled are not safe and food and water supply is scarce. When refuge is sought, whether in refugee camps in neighbouring communities or a completely new country, women still find themselves living in difficult conditions including inadequate access to food, water, shelter and healthcare.

Consequently, women are then required to travel long distances to find food, water, medicines and basic necessities to support their families. Under these conditions, women also rely more on support from the local population or assistance from international and non-governmental organizations. War and armed conflict is also a contributing factor to the deteriorating global refugee crisis, for which several states have refused to take responsibility. We see this in Australia’s offshore processing policy in August 2012, which sends arriving asylum seekers (by boat) to detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. 

According to The Guardian, the conditions within the detention camps in Nauru were “appalling”, including overcrowded tents and water shortages. Although there is a moral duty to care for refugees, the declining state of the global refugee crisis also confirms that the costs of war and armed conflict are too great for the international community to incur and should be avoided at all costs.

The conditions exacerbated by war and armed conflict creates a greater need for healthcare, while also increasing the risk of epidemics and nutritional problems. Given that access to healthcare is limited under such conditions, medical attention also becomes unaffordable to those who require the service and are financially restricted. According to the ICRC, pregnancy and childbirth are major causes of death, illness and disability among young women.

For example, a young Iraqi mother, who gave birth in her war-torn country shared her story in a report released by the International Red Cross. She stated “when I had my daughter, I had only a midwife to rely on since no maternity hospitals were functioning in Baquba. After the delivery, I had severe complications… Eventually, I was taken to Baghdad despite all the risks and hazards of that journey. I don’t know how I managed to survive.” In addition to this, cultural barriers can also create difficulty for women in accessing or receiving appropriate healthcare. For instance, in some cases women may be prevented treatment without company of a male relative or if treatment is not offered by a medical personnel of the same sex.

Regardless of such barriers, women should be recognized for their role in maintaining the welfare of their family and therefore should be reflected in the healthcare they receive. These services include treatment for antenatal, obstetric and postnatal care, family planning, and the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections (including HIV/AIDS). If these problems are untreated, the consequences can become severe and to an extent, lead to death.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) recognizes the protection of women in wartime and is legally binding on state and non-state actors. The key pieces of legislation underpinning IHL are the four Geneva Conventions (1949) and the two additional Protocols (1977). Each legislation recognizes protection for women as civilians and as captured or wounded combatants. Human rights and refugee law also provide further protection for women affected by war and conflict. Further, IHL also protects civilians from the effects of hostilities from abuse or violence, and guarantees adequate food, shelter and clothing, all of which are important in ensuring the civilian population remain in good health.

Despite having an international legal framework in place, the ICRC identifies a number of gaps and areas for improvement, specifically relating to implementation of IHL on the ground. These include the need to incorporate IHL into domestic law, supporting alliances in conflict to use their influence to protect victims, ensuring that measures to comply with IHL are consistent with protecting impartial humanitarian action and, consideration for the rise of new weapons and modes of warfare which create new humanitarian concerns. It is the duty of the international community (at state and individual level) to take the necessary steps to address these gaps in implementation to ensure IHL is respected and carries its full effect, to minimize and prevent the suffering of civilians.

To conclude, the implications of war and conflict can be severe, or to an extent life threatening for women. It is key that gender and cultural dimensions are included in the support provided on the ground to ensure that women are able to heal from such experiences and can rebuild their lives post conflict. The cost of war and armed conflict is fairly significant on the international community as seen in the global refugee crisis and are costs that can be avoided when IHL is respected and thoroughly implemented on the ground.

Pasepa Katia

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