Armed conflict has always been an inherent characteristic of the world we live in.
The causes of conflict can be multifarious ranging from attempts to gain economic, political or territorial advantage to social factors such as religion and ethnicity. Armed conflicts can also be varied in nature with inter, intra and even non state combatants fighting against each other. The complexity and scale of armed conflicts have increased to a great extent with the emergence of non-state terrorist and mercenary groups that lacks the distinctiveness of traditional state armies fighting against each other. The consequences have been devastating for an increasing number of the population of the world who are affected by such armed conflicts. These include not only the combatants but also civilians who get caught up in the fighting in one way or the other. In fact civilian casualties have been on the rise and climbing “dramatically from 5 per cent at the turn of the century, to 15 per cent during World War I, to 65 per cent by the end of World War II, to more than 75 per cent in the wars of the 1990s.
” (UN Report, 2001)A very stereotypical view regarding armed conflicts is that it is the men who fight the battles while the women support them by taking care of the home front. Men are perceived as the fighters who suffer causalities while women have to play out the traditional roles of wives, mothers and care givers and are therefore comparatively unaffected by war. Byrne (1996) however holds that even though it is largely men who directly fight and die in battles, it is women who constitute an overwhelming majority of the civilian casualties of war. Byrne goes on to add that the concept of women staying safely at home while the men fight the war at the front, and the differentiation between ‘conflict’ and ‘safe’ zones in armed conflict are essentially myths that do not take stock of the practical situation.
Moreover, the fact that a growing number of women are also participating in armed conflicts around the world as active combatants and not merely as passive support providers adds a new dimension to the effects of armed conflicts on women.The Independent Experts’ Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and the role of Women in Peace-Building (2001) commissioned by the United Nations Development Funds for Women chose ‘During Armed Conflict Women’s Bodies Become a Battleground’ as the title of the introductory chapter of its report. This exemplifies the extent of violence against women as a result of armed conflicts. Civilians have become the primary targets in new terror tactics that have evolved in armed conflicts.
But it is women who suffer most. “Men and boys as well as women and girls are the victims of this targeting, but women, much more than men, suffer gender-based violence. Their bodies become a battleground over which opposing forces struggle.
” (Rehn & Sirleaf, 2001)The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private.” (Machel, 2000)It is a matter of grave concern that women are actually subjected to every conceivable act of violence and more, that can fall under the purview of the definition. Not only do women face generic violence such as torture, killing, imprisonment and forced labour under conditions of war, but they also suffer gender-specific violence that strike at the very core of their existence. They are abducted and raped, used as sexual slaves, forced to cook, clean, carry water and loads and do other domestic chores; and even used as human shields or put to risky undertakings such clearing minefields.
There are numerous examples. Rehn & Sirleaf (2001) reports that “94% per cent of displaced households surveyed in Sierra Leone had experienced sexual assaults, including rape, torture and sexual slavery… at least 250,000 – perhaps as many as 500,000 – women were raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.” This however is only the tip of the iceberg.
The sufferings of women in armed conflicts never seem to end. They are forced by the circumstances to sell sex to survive, they are taken advantage of sexually even by people who are supposed to help them, and finally, they have to face censure at the hands of those very near and dear ones for whom they make all the sacrifices. Such is their plight.The Reason WhyThe roots of the violence that women suffer during the course of armed conflicts are however opined to lie elsewhere. Violence is said to be perpetuated on women not solely because of the conditions of war but because of a direct relation with violence in the life of women even during peace time (Rehn & Sirleaf 2001). The relationship between the genders is determined by the extent of access to or distribution of power.
Men are in more control of resources and power than women. Since women do not have control over power and resources they as a gender are usually not the cause behind wars. In spite of that they suffer because of their inherent power and control position vis-à-vis men.
Again, the greater emphasis by nations on increasing their military strength results in a deterioration of the rights of women exacerbating the inequalities in gender relations. In a display of unadulterated hypocrisy however, many armed conflicts are justified on the grounds of restoring or maintaining gender equality. This was clearly the case in the American invasion of Afghanistan ion 2001 when liberation of women from the fanatical regime of the Talibans was cited as a reason even though there was hardly any concern for the plight of the same women during the five years prior to the invasion even when local and international NGOs constantly strived to draw attention to their sufferings (Jack, 2003).It is very true that “although entire communities suffer the consequences of armed conflict and terrorism, women and girls are particularly affected because of their status in society and their sex.
” (Beijing Declaration, 1996). The effect of war on women depends to a great extent on their gendered role that defines their constraints and opportunities in society.Women become more vulnerable war atrocities when they are perceived as symbolic bearers of the pride and honour of a community. In such cases women are specifically targeted as a way of denting the very essence of he rival community. In regions where women are deemed to represent the cultural and ethnic identity of communities as the producer of future generations, any assault on their honour becomes an assault on the morale and honour of the entire community.
Under such circumstances public rape and torture of women is considered to have serious demoralizing effects on enemy communities. The victors or occupation forces resort to sexual exploitation of women because of such underlying war strategies coupled with inherent sexual urges.Yet the same symbolic role of women can be a cause of threat or attack even from their own community for not conforming to the role in some way or the other in adverse conditions, such as not wearing a veil or venturing into forbidden areas as has been the case in the Islamic world. Armed conflict is therefore like a double edged sword for women.Societal norms also force women to bear atrocities.
The comments of a doctor working with Save the Children Fund, in an ICRC/TVE film (2000) illustrate the point:“In certain villages bordering conflict young girls have admitted that armed men come in at night – these girls are used as sex workers – they are not allowed to protest – they are not allowed to lock their doors and the whole community tolerates this because these armed men protect the community – so it is a trade off.…”When sexual violence is used as a means of warfare or when women are pressurized to bear children as a means of supply of future soldiers, women become a very vulnerable gender to the violence of armed conflict. In conflict zones such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, sexual violence was used as a means of ‘ethnic cleansing’. The Serbian police and paramilitary forces used rape to punish women belonging to the Kosovo Liberation Army (Human Rights Watch, 2000).Different Wars, Different Stages, Different RolesThe different kinds of armed warfare, their different stages and the different roles that women play in these conflicts all have different effects on women. Modern armed conflicts are fought between adversaries that are very different from the conventional state armies.
Terrorist groups and non-state players give armed conflicts a new dimension in the modern world. The problem with such combatants is that they do not adhere to international laws governing warfare and have no scruples in indulging in violence and atrocities that would fall in the category of war crimes. The Geneva Conventions and its protocols find no takers in them. They are not regulated by any authority and are guided either by their own perverted consciences or by fanatical ideologies. As a result women become more susceptible all kinds of violence from such elements in armed conflict.Armed conflicts usually pass through different stages viz. the pre-conflict stage or run up to the conflict, the conflict itself, the stage of conflict resolution or the peace process and the post conflict stage of reconstruction and reintegration.
Each of these stages hold different horrors for women depending on the different roles that women play in such conflicts.Women act as agents of change when they participate in the prevention, resolution or management of armed conflicts. Their participation is very important because without them the views, needs and interests of half of the population go unrepresented. Conversely, women also act as agents of change when they indirectly support the men to take up arms for any cause which they may believe in. In the case of Rwanda, women were found to have been accomplices to and participants in gross acts of genocide (Lindsey, 2001). This indirect participation of women takes on added significance in their role as the primary influence on children. Women as mothers can influence children in many ways and mould them to serve as soldiers in armed conflicts.
The simple act of women telling stories centered on sensitive issues of ethnic or clan conflicts could sensitize the children. Encouraging future generations to fight, may be considered as subtle participation of women in the armed conflicts as agents of change. Acting as agents of change is fraught with dangers because women often have to consciously take sides in their efforts to better the situation or to protect themselves and their families. They put themselves at risk in doing so.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) women of the South Kivu region were buried alive by people of their own villages because they were said to be witches. It was however found that they suffered their fate because the villagers suspected them of providing food and medicines to armed groups which the villagers did not support (Rehn & Sirleaf 2001).Women participate as active combatants in armed conflicts. “…the number of women who participate in fighting forces is increasing in nearly all conflicts. Women have constituted significant proportions of combatants and combat support operations in conflicts in Eritrea, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, and Rwanda ” (USAID, 2007).
As active combatants women face the same ravages of war as fighting men do. However, in many cases, women are abducted and forced to participate as combatants. The Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone made it a practice to raid villages and abduct children of both sexes to force them to join in the fighting. The abducted children were often raped, starved and drugged and then forced to kill. It has been the same in Uganda, Mozambique, Liberia and other war torn places.Women also get involved in the fighting as ‘followers’ of fighters.
In such a role the woman does not carry arms but provide full and active support to the fighters. She acts as cook, domestic servant, sexual partner, guard or porter or all of these together. She may even be used as human shield in the fighting. It is not very difficult to imagine the trauma that she goes through in such roles.Women become victims and spoils of war. It is a very common practice of conquering forces to claim women of the defeated party as spoils of war. In an occupied land, women are also forced to curry sexual favors to the victorious forces for the sake of their own survival and the survival of their families.
The fate of women is closely linked to the fate of their men. When men leave their homes to fight or die in the fighting, the women often becomes the primary bread winner of the family and has to take on additional role and responsibilities. This puts the woman in an entirely new social position, one that could even turn out to be advantageous but is more often than not a position that entails untold hardships on her. Left to fend alone for her family and herself, a woman could be driven to any extent and exploited easily under such circumstances. A woman usually finds herself in such a role in the post conflict stage of reconstruction and reintegration.Scars that do not healArmed conflicts affect women physically, psychologically, economically, socially and even spiritually. They are more susceptible to violence than men because they are women. “Women are victims of unbelievably horrific atrocities and injustices in conflict situations; this is indisputable.
As refugees, internally displaced persons, combatants, heads of household and community leaders, as activists and peace-builders, women and men experience conflict differently. Women rarely have the same resources, political rights, authority or control over their environment and needs that men do. In addition, their caretaking responsibilities limit their mobility and ability to protect themselves.” (Rehn & Sirleaf 2001).Gender Based Violence (GBV) can take many forms.
Sexual violence in the form of rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, trafficking, genital mutilation and soliciting of sexual favors, as horrifying as they are, is only one aspect of the affect of war on women. Steep increase in domestic violence due to armed conflicts; the travails of displacement, forced or otherwise; the resultant adverse affects on health and increased exposure to infections and life-threatening diseases such as AIDS/HIV; the burden of additional social and economic responsibilities; and the lingering psychological, physical and social effects even after the end of hostilities are the multidimensional impacts of armed conflicts that are not quite as obvious, but devastating enough to merit closer scrutiny to understand their mechanism of operation.Sexual Violence and Physical TortureThe continent of Africa is rife with armed conflicts. Many factors such as bad governance, illiteracy, deplorable economic conditions, political unrest and breakdown of social structures have contributed in fomenting armed struggles on unprecedented scales. Africa is a classic example of a society where the status of women as a subordinate and deprived class has added to their miseries during time so war. The majority of women in Africa is uneducated and live in abject isolation cut off even from all that is happening around them in politics and power play.
They are therefore caught completely unawares when armed conflicts erupt. The subordination of women in Africa is accentuated in conflict situations. They are not only used as sexual objects who are to be humiliated and demeaned, but are also tortured and mutilated to deter them from carrying out stereotyped roles that are perceived to go against the interests of the perpetrators. During the documentation that has been carried out in Uganda, Liberia and Sierra Leone, women have testified that rebels cut off their lips, ears and nose giving various reasons for such acts (Ochieng, 2004). The same study also documents an instance in which a father was shot dead by enemy combatants when he refuse do have sexual intercourse with his daughter. The intention in this case was to inflict severe psychological torture on both the father and the daughter as incest is considered a blasphemy in Africa as in the rest of the world at large, and would leave permanent scars on the psyche of individuals and the society.Even when women participate as combatants on their own will, they are expected to submit to the sexual exploitations of their superiors. A United Nations document on the situation in Columbia states that “the situation of women and girls making part of illegal armed groups continues concerning the Council.
Women and girl-combatants were objects of sexual abuse by their superiors in the hierarchy.” (Franco et. al. 2006).Abduction of women during armed conflicts is a practice that has its roots in deep in history. A well-known example is the large group of women who were labeled the ‘comfort women’ in the Far East during the Second World War.
Things have not changed much. Only the scale, range and scope have. The sexual violence is not restricted to a particular stage of armed conflict but is widely prevalent in all the stages.
If it is exploitation by the same side during the initial stage, the victorious lay their own claim on the womenfolk of the vanquished during the stage of active combat; this is followed by sexual exploitation of displaced women who go from place to place as refugees and are hounded sexually by a host of anti-social elements as well as those who are meant to protect and shelter them.This extends into the peace process and the reconstruction and reintegration stage when women ravaged and left helpless by the experience of war easily succumb to the lure of currying favors in exchange of sex. “Women are physically and economically forced or left with little choice but to become sex workers or to exchange sex for food, shelter, safe passage or other needs; their bodies become part of a barter system, a form of exchange that buys the necessities of life.” (Rehn & Sirleaf 2001).
There have been reports of the situation being attenuated by the arrival of peacekeeping forces when personnel from these forces also indulge in sexually exploiting women in return for food, security, shelter, employment and other favors. The independent study commissioned by the United Nations Development Fund for Women were told by members of the local community in the Kisangani and Goma regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo that peace keepers having sex with local girls and that condoms were lying visibly scattered just outside the UN compounds. It was however the desperate women who took the initiative for such sexual liaisons.Trafficking is another adverse affect that is closely associated with armed conflict. Countries with armed conflict are ideal breeding grounds for trafficking because breakdown in law and order and reduced border controls and policing.
Criminal networks of arms and drug dealers that operate in war torn countries easily double up as traffickers in women. The women are taken out to work in illegal factories, as slaves or as prostitutes in brothels in red light areas. Rise in armed conflicts have triggered a simultaneous rise in trafficking throughout the world. Trafficking worldwide grew almost 50 per cent from 1995 to 2000 (Financial Times, March 19, 2001), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that as many as 2 million women are trafficked across borders annually. A survey conducted in Cambodia in 1995 revealed that about 31 per cent of the prostitutes in Phnom Penh and 11 other provinces were between the ages of 12 and 17, and had been trafficked out of the conflict-stricken countryside (Human Rights Task Force on Cambodia, 1996).Trafficking in women has assumed alarming proportions in Columbia due to the civil war which has dragged on for decades in the country. It is estimated that around 50,000 women are trafficked out of Columbia every year. Bosnia and Herzegovina in south-east Europe also experience very high trafficking in women due to the same basic reason.
Traffickers lure women out of these areas on the pretext of giving them jobs. They are then forced into sexual slavery. The traffickers take away the travel documents of the women so that they are not able to escape. Once they are in the trap it is very difficult for these women to return home to their societies even if they are rescued. Though many family in the war torn countries are desperate enough not to question where the money their daughters send home comes from, they will also not accept the women back if they come to know that they had been working as prostitutes or sex slaves. As a result, the girls go through multiple traumas: first they are separated from home, thereafter they are sexually exploited and brutalized and finally they face rejection from their own families.Trafficking is a vicious trap that leads the women who fall prey to it to ultimate destruction unless there is institutional intervention. Since armed conflict and trafficking go hand in hand, women in trouble-torn regions are always vulnerable to trafficking.
Forced DisplacementForced Displacement is actually not an inevitable outcome of all armed conflicts, but it is frequently adopted as a strategy of war to destabilize enemy families and communities, to uproot the enemy so that it is scattered and weakened. Forced displacement is however a “the clearest violation of human, economic, political and social rights and of the failure to comply with international humanitarian laws” (Moser & Clark, 2001). Though displacement during armed conflict is viewed as a temporary process, examples in countries such as Sudan, Sri Lanka and Somalia show that it could extend into a prolonged affair, with succeeding generations having to stay away from the place of origin.Displacements can have multiple effects on women. For women displacement implies increased difficulties in managing household responsibilities as access to resources is cut off or becomes unavailable. Displacement has also been found to lead to a reversal in roles with women assuming the position of the head of the household.
This is very evident in Sudan. Ethnic groups such as the Dinka, Nuer and Nuba have been displaced from their place of origin and face severe marginalization. The women of these communities take on added responsibilities of the missing men. Much of this added responsibility is transferred to younger members of the family, especially young girls. Young girls have to not only do domestic chores, but also look after the children, sick and the elderly. They lose out on valuable study and play time which affects their futures negatively. All displaced people face social exclusion, so do women.
Staying in an alien environment without the usual support and protection from the male members of the family can be a very terrifying and psychologically scarring experience.In strife-torn Columbia, displacement has become a perennial problem. An estimated 40 million people have been forced to flee from their homes and seek sanctuary elsewhere. A whooping 80% of these displaced people are women and children (Security Council Report, 1999). This brings into sharp focus the high impact of displacement particularly on women.“The circumstances are unique in each country, but the stories are similar.
In places such as Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Chechnya, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), East Timor, Guinea, Haiti, Indonesia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and in the occupied Palestinian territories – whose people constitute the longest-standing and largest refugee population – women have been forced from their homes and exposed to indiscriminate violence while searching for a safe haven.” (Rehn & Sirleaf 2001). Displaced people face violence and hardship as they search for a safe haven. Women are especially vulnerable in such a situation. While on the run, and even after they have found refuge, women have to suffer the humiliation of rape and other forms of physical violence. In their constant struggle to provide for their families and themselves, they are forced to sell their bodies in exchange of provisions and favours.
Again, displacement can be of two types: the refugee who has left the country of origin and crossed international borders, and the Internally Displaced Person or the IDP who has been forced to leave the place of original residence and has moved to a different part or region within the country. While international laws do provide some amount of protection and security to the refugee, such laws are not applicable in case of the IDP. The IDP therefore faces a plight worse than the refugee and is practically left all alone in the fight for survival. Even in the case of the refugee, a lot depends on the willingness of those in power in the host country to allow international agencies to aid or help the refugees. In many cases, armed opposition groups may refuse to provide access to international agencies fearing that their own human rights violations will be exposed.Forced displacement however has some positive effects too for women.
When the displaced women takes over the reins of the household, many of the traditional shackles lose their hold on them and they find new avenues for self development and progress. They gain a sense of liberty that they did not have in their conventional male-dominated societies. Displacement also becomes a boon for women when they find refuse in well-established and properly run care centers which provide them adequate training and education to enable them to stand on their own feet. When this happens, the suppressed woman can break free and find her own moorings.Domestic Violence during ConflictThat domestic violence increases proportionately with increase in armed conflict is a fact that had not been known until very recently. Conflict attenuates domestic violence in two ways: by breaking down communities and the natural regulatory functions of communities, and by escalating violence in the context of masculine and militarized conflict situations. Conflict leads to imbalances in power relations which in turn escalates domestic violence.
Many things contribute to the increase in domestic violence – the availability of weapons, the violence male family members have experienced or meted out, the lack of jobs, shelter, and basic services (Lindsey, 2002). In a conflict situation, men get used to violence either by suffering violence or meting violence to others. This sort of acclimatizes them and makes them more prone to the use of violence. The experience of war changes some man from within so that they do not hesitate to apply violence in the domestic context. Combatants who return home after spending long years in fighting have been found to find it difficult to adjust to peace time.There have been instances when men returning form war have killed their own wives.
Studies in Cambodia in the mid-1990s indicated that many women – as many as 75 per cent in one study – were victims of domestic violence, often at the hands of men who have kept the small arms and light weapons they used during the war (Lutz & Elliston, 2002). In the Middle East too, there have been reports of men returning from fighting and using the same tactics of torture used in war on their wives in glaring cases of domestic violence. Israel responded to the second Intifada by imposing restrictions on the movement of Palestinians. This led to unemployment, frustration and overcrowded living conditions. The release has been noticed in the form of increased domestic violence within families, crimes against women within the family. Women were being raped and tortured by the frustrated men.The problem in the case of domestic violence is that there are very few laws to protect women from domestic.
Even where such laws have been framed, they are not imposed, especially during periods of conflict. The United Nations itself has only recently woken up to the situation.War and Women’s healthWar has a profound negative effect on health. The direct impact is the casualties of war.
Men and women die in large number in any armed conflict. In the event of continued armed struggles medical systems and facilities tend to break down. The expert’s independent report by Rehn & Sirleaf (2001) had this to report of the casualties of war:“In 2000 alone, conflict is estimated to have directly resulted in 310,000 deaths, with more than half taking place in sub-Saharan Africa. If the commonly held ratio is accurate – nine indirect deaths for every direct death caused by conflict – then approximately 2.8 million people died in 2000 of some conflict-related cause. Arguably the figure is much higher. When the direct fatalities are estimated by age and sex, children and adolescents account for a significant proportion of the deaths. The highest mortality rates are among men aged 15 to 44, but a quarter of direct mortality is among women.
The greatest number of deaths of women is among those aged 15 to 29; some 25,000 women in this age group died directly of conflict in 2000.The International Rescue Committee has estimated that between August 1998 and April 2001, there were 2.5 million excess deaths (i.e., above the number normally expected) in the five eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where armed groups have been fighting each other as well as attacking civilians. Only 350,000 of these deaths were directly caused by violence; the majority stemmed from disease and malnutrition. One in eight households had experienced at least one violent death; 40 per cent of these deaths were of women and children.
There were more deaths than births in many of the areas studied and, in one area, 75 per cent of the children died before they reached the age of two.”The report speaks volume about the direct casualties that women suffer in armed conflicts. The indirect effects of armed conflicts on the health of women are perhaps more horrendous. The large scale rape and other sexual atrocities on women leaves them exposed to all forms of sexual diseases and infections including AIDS and HIV. Many women who manage to overcome the other travails of war have to finally accept defeat when they learn that they have contacted AIDS at the end of it. There have been instances, especially in the Rwandan armed conflicts when one ethnic community has deliberately tried to infect another ethnic community with AIDS.
Epidemics break out in refugee camps claiming thousands of lives. Since the refugee camps house a larger number of women, they are affected the most. Women who have been raped or tortured suffer from mental problems. Unwanted pregnancies and adolescence pregnancies pose considerable threats to the health of women. In places such as Bosnia, Kosovar and Sierra Leone, women faced terrible dilemmas. Would they abort their unwanted babies or would they keep them? A majority of these women chose abortion because they feared rejection if they dared to keep the babies.
In Sierra Lone, the matter becomes more complicated because abortions are declared illegal and it costs a lot of hard-earned money to have an abortion. All these have to be seen in the context of the conflict scenario when medical and health systems break down and there are acute shortages of medicines and trained medical personnel. Many women die at child birth due to lack of adequate care. Many babies die at birth leaving their mothers heartbroken.Provisions for ProtectionThe Geneva Conventions of 1949 and its protocols remain the best applicable laws for the protection of women. The customary of international humanitarian laws can also be applied for the protection of women in conditions of armed conflicts. In 1993 and 1994 the Security Council established two ad hoc international criminal tribunals; the first to prosecute serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the former Yugoslavia, and the second to prosecute similar violations as well as genocide in Rwanda.
The statute of the International Criminal Code was adopted in July 1998. All laws include many common clauses that can be effectively used for the protection of women in armed conflicts. These include the clause of non discrimination by which the same protection is to be given both to men and women. The law lays down that both men and women are to be “treated humanely (…) without adverse distinction founded on sex …” Moreover specific protection for women are accorded by Article 14 of the Third Geneva Convention which makes it mandatory that “women … be treated with all the regard due to their sex.” Considerations for the privacy of women are also taken into account by the laws, so are provisions for expectant mothers. The Human Rights and the Refugee Laws too cover other aspects of protection for women in situations of armed conflict.
The crux of the matter however is that the laws are as good as the intentions of those who are responsible for implementing them. The international community has to join hands in taking up the cudgel for women caught up in horrifying situations such as armed conflicts, and they have to take enough women with them to provide the healing touch as representatives of those who have suffered the insufferable. Throughout the ages, women have shown remarkable resilience to the vagaries of armed conflict.
It is one war they have to win at any cost.