Women’s human rights and gender-related concerns in situations of conflict and instability

Conflicts and situations of instability exacerbate pre-existing patterns of discrimination against women and girls, exposing them to heightened risks of violations of their human rights.

Conflict can result in higher levels of violence against women and girls, including arbitrary killings, torture, sexual violence and forced marriage. Women and girls are primarily and increasingly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war. While women and girls are in general more predominantly subject of sexual violence, men and boys have also been victims of sexual violence, especially in contexts of detention.

Sexual and gender-based violence also spikes in post-conflict societies, due to the general break down of the rule of law, the availability of small arms, the breakdown of social and family structures and the “normalization” of gender-based violence as an additional element of pre-existing discrimination. Trafficking is also exacerbated during and after conflict owing to the breakdown of political, economic and social structures, high levels of violence and increased militarism.

The lack of delivery of essential services to the population experienced during conflict and situations of strife and instability can have a disproportionate impact on specific groups of the population, including women and girls – again often building on pre-existing situations of discrimination. Girls can face additional obstacle in accessing education including due to fear of targeted attacks and threats against them and the additional caregiving and household responsibilities that often they are obliged to assume. Women are also forced to look for alternative sources of livelihood as family survival comes to depend heavily on them. 

Access to essential services such as health care, including sexual and reproductive health services, can be disrupted, with women and girls being at a greater risk of unplanned pregnancy, maternal mortality and morbidity, severe sexual and reproductive injuries and contracting sexually transmitted infections, including as a result of conflict-related sexual violence.
Internal displacement has specific gender dimensions.

Internally displaced women can be disproportionately affected by the loss of livelihoods during displacement. They may for example not be able to practise their livelihoods due to loss of land and livestock. Loss of housing and land can also affect women disproportionally, due for example to the absence of property titles.  Other major human rights concerns include inequitable access to assistance, education and training.  Internally displaced women often have no access to adequate reproductive health care services and responses and can experience violence and abuse, sexual and labour exploitation, trafficking in persons, forced recruitment and abduction. Internally displaced women and girls are also often excluded from decision-making processes.

Women and girls should not only be seen as victims of conflict and instability. They have historically had and continue to have a role as combatants, as part of organized civil society, as human rights defenders, as members of resistance movements and as active agents in both formal and informal peacebuilding and recovery processes.  Post-conflict situations and reforms can be viewed as an opportunity for transformation of the societal structures and norms in place before the conflict in order to ensure greater enjoyment of women’s human rights. Yet, women’s exclusion from conflict prevention efforts, post-conflict transition and reconstruction processes have been matters of concern for the international community.

In 2000, the Security Council adopted resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which calls for the increased participation of women and the incorporation of gender perspectives in all UN peace and security efforts (including participation of women in decision-making and peace processes, gender perspectives in training and peacekeeping and gender mainstreaming in UN reporting systems). Since then, the UN Security Council has adopted a number of resolutions on women, peace and security. In 2008, it adopted landmark Resolution 1820 (2008), the first devoted to addressing sexual violence in conflict situations.  The subsequent follow-up resolutions, 1888 (2009), 1889 (2009), 1960 (2010), have focused on preventing and responding to conflict-related sexual violence, and have established the United Nations architecture to this end (appointment of the special representative on sexual violence in conflict to provide leadership, strengthen existing UN coordination mechanisms and advocate on ending sexual violence against women with governments; the establishment of a Team of Experts on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict, who works with the UN on the ground and assist national authorities to strengthen the rule of law; the identification and deployment of women’s protection advisers (WPAs); and the establishment of the monitoring, analysis and reporting mechanisms.

In its recent resolutions, the Security Council has indicated that acts of sexual and gender-based violence can be used as a tactic of terrorism (res. 2242 adopted in 2015) and has also established the nexus between trafficking, sexual violence, terrorism and transnational organised crime (res. 2331 adopted in 2016).

In 2013, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has adopted general recommendation 30, which provides authoritative guidance to States Parties to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, on legislative, policy and other appropriate measures to protect, respect and fulfil women’s human rights in situations of conflict and instability. In General recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence against women, (updating general recommendation No. 19), CEADW recalls that gender-based violence against women and girls constitutes discrimination under the Convention and therefore engages all obligations of which results from both the acts or omissions of both the State or State actors, on the one hand, and non-State actors, on the other. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and other human rights treaties represent the bedrock of the implementation of the Security Council resolutions on Women, Peace and Security, as the concerns expressed therein all find correspondence in substantive articles of the Convention.

On 20 July 2018, the UN SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict and the CEDAW Committee signed a Framework of Cooperation – the first of its kind – to reaffirm common commitments to promote and protect the rights of women and girls affected by conflict-related sexual violence. This framework of cooperation aims at reinforcing synergies between the pillars of peace and security, human rights and development. This will be done, in particular, through establishing a joint programme of work; advancing national-level implementation of human rights standards on the protection of women and girls affected by sexual violence; and cooperating in the conduct of research and collection of data to ensure accountability and compliance of Member States with the obligations under international law.

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