War and armed conflict around the world disrupt and damage social systems, essential services and economies and as a result have proven to have enormous humanitarian implications. War and armed conflict can affect victims in different ways, but women and girls often find themselves facing risks, threats and challenges unimaginable in 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 livelihoods, increased responsibility of members of family, displacement and sometimes death.
As a result, women are often forced into new and unfamiliar roles, which require them to strengthen their existing skills and develop new ones. While acknowledging the role women play in war – as victims, combatants or promoters of peace, this play focuses on the psychological, economic and health implications for women, as victims of war and armed conflicts.
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, which further increases the magnitude of the psychological impact on their well-being. In these situations, rape is often used as a weapon by the perpetrators of the conflict with the aim of terrorizing, dismantling and destabilizing a population. For example, during the Rwandan genocide (1994), rape was used for ethnic genocide 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 programs that are delivered on the ground. The inclusion of these dimensions is essential to ensure that women are adequately supported, especially those who come from societies where gender stereotypes and inequality are prevalent. Women play a vital role at home and in the community and it is important that safe spaces are created so that their voices do not go unheeded. Despite the horrific and traumatic experiences that women go through in these circumstances, they are still able to demonstrate a remarkable level of strength and resilience when transitioning into new roles and environments after conflict.
Displacement increases women’s economic burden as they bear responsibility for the daily survival of their families. This includes female heads of households, widows, elderly women and mothers with young children. The journey to a refuge is often difficult and the chances of survival are not always guaranteed, especially when the journey is long, the routes taken are unsafe, and food and water supplies are scarce. When seeking refuge, whether in refugee camps in neighboring communities or in a completely new country, women always find themselves in difficult conditions, including insufficient access to food, water, shelter and health care.
As a result, women then have to travel long distances to find food, water, medicine and basic necessities to support their families. Under these conditions, women also rely more on the support of the local population or on the help of international and non-governmental organizations. War and armed conflict also contribute to the aggravation of the 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, conditions in Nauru’s detention camps were “appalling”, including overcrowded tents and water shortages. While there is a moral duty to care for refugees, the decline of the global refugee crisis also confirms that the costs of war and armed conflict are too high for the international community and must be avoided at all costs.
Conditions exacerbated by war and armed conflict create an increased need for health care, while increasing the risk of epidemics and nutritional problems. Since access to health care is limited in such conditions, medical care also becomes unaffordable for those who need it and who are financially constrained. According to the ICRC, pregnancy and childbirth are the leading 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 published by the International Red Cross. She said: “When I had my daughter, I only had one midwife to rely on because there were no maternity wards working in Baquba. After giving birth, I had serious complications… Finally, I was taken to Baghdad despite all the risks and vagaries of this trip. I don’t know how I managed to survive. In addition to this, cultural barriers can also create difficulties for women to access or receive appropriate health care. For example, in some cases, women may be denied treatment without the company of a male relative or if treatment is not offered by medical personnel of the same sex.
Regardless of these barriers, women must be recognized for their role in maintaining the well-being of their families and therefore must be reflected in the health care they receive. These services include treatment for prenatal, obstetric and postnatal care, family planning, and the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections (including HIV/AIDS). If these problems are not treated, the consequences can become serious and, to some extent, lead to death.
International Humanitarian Law (IHL) recognizes the protection of women in times of war and is legally binding on state and non-state actors. The main pieces of legislation that underpin IHL are the four Geneva Conventions (1949) and the two Additional Protocols (1977). Every piece of legislation recognizes the protection of women as civilians and as captured or wounded combatants. Human rights and refugee law also provide additional protection for women affected by war and conflict. In addition, 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 that the civilian population remains healthy.
Despite the establishment of an international legal framework, the ICRC identifies a number of shortcomings and areas for improvement, particularly with regard to the implementation of IHL in the field. These include the need to incorporate IHL into national law, to help conflicting alliances use their influence to protect victims, to ensure that IHL compliance measures are compatible with protection of impartial humanitarian action and to take account of the rise of new weapons and modes of warfare. that create new humanitarian concerns. It is the duty of the international community (at the level of States and individuals) to take the necessary steps to close these gaps in implementation in order to ensure that IHL is respected and fully exerts its effects, in order to minimize and prevent civilian suffering.
In conclusion, the implications of war and conflict can be serious and even life-threatening for women. It is essential that gender and cultural dimensions are included in the support provided on the ground to ensure that women are able to heal from these experiences and rebuild their lives after conflict. The cost of war and armed conflict is quite significant for the international community, as the global refugee crisis shows, and these are costs that can be avoided when IHL is respected and fully implemented on the ground.