Reflections on Women, Girls and Armed Conflict

I've traveled the world to listen to victims and argue with governments. I have forgotten the faces of the many officials I met, but never the faces of the victims.
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I spend a lot of time with children these days, but it was the cause of women that pushed me to initially try and lobby the world to stand firm in the fight for the dispossessed and the vulnerable. As UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women for nine years, I traveled the world over to listen to victims and to argue with governments. I have forgotten the faces of the many officials I met, both national and international, but never the faces of the victims. They taught me so much about how to cope with life despite all the suffering. Recently at a UNESCO event, the former Governor General of Canada and a Special Envoy for Haiti said she hates the word "resilience" used in the Haitian context. She said resilience for women and children comes just before death. Talk of resilience makes us complacent in the belief that after a time the victims will recover no matter what we do. I agree with her we cannot afford to be complacent. But I do remember the resilience in the eyes of women survivors. It did not stop me from acting -- it just made me proud to be human.

Armed conflict is a terrible place for women and children. Often they are victims of direct physical violence. Some are killed, but more often they are raped. In the mid 1990s, while visiting an unnamed country, the lawyers in the foreign ministry, armed with law books, asked me to show them where it was written that rape in wartime is a war crime or crime against humanity. The lawyers were right -- the law with regard to rape as a "grave breach" of the Geneva Convention was unclear and ambiguous.

Things have changed dramatically since then. In a globalized media community, the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina brought the reality of sexual violence to living rooms around the world and the genocide in Rwanda filled the world with guilt and misgiving. The two tribunals set up for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda along with the International Criminal Court have made it clear that sexual violence during war is a war crime and a crime against humanity. People have been convicted, and cases are ongoing in The Hague.

Child victims of sexual violence are also to be protected. My office has been called on by the Security Council to provide a shame list of parties that commit sexual violence against children in conflict with the possibility of imposing targeted measures. Still, sexual violence has not stopped. Recent events in Congo show us how intractable the problem can become when a region becomes accustomed to such violence -- especially in a post-genocide setting. Perpetrators have to beware and, recently, the Congolese courts have become active and Congolese women are coming forward. Under the Secretary-General, the United Nations has begun to organize a concerted response to this issue that will now be led by a Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict who reports directly to the Security Council. We have come a long way, with a long way to go.


Armed conflict also displaces women and children from their homes and communities, placing them in danger and making them into refugees or IDPs. Girl children suffer the most when this happens. Some of them are separated from their parents in flight, arriving at refugee camps frightened and unaccompanied. In the Central African Republic, I met a young girl whose parents had three children -- two boys and her. When the family fled an attack, the parents could only save two so they chose their sons. The girl was picked up the bandits, kept in captivity and when the army moved against them brought to a IDP camp. Even though she had been reunited with her grandmother for more than three months, she still refused to speak. Again, it was her eyes that communicated -- so full of sadness and vulnerability.

Once they make it to the camps, just by living there girls are vulnerable to sexual assault. Many are attacked on their way to collect firewood for the family and, sometimes, girls are the last to eat, only getting the remaining morsels of food left in the household. In many camps they are not given education and health care is particularly weak. In the past decade, there have been many efforts around the world to improve the situation in camps. With new guidelines UN agencies such as the World Food program, UNHCR and UNICEF are trying to put in place procedures that will protect girls in camps. For example, a more efficient type of stove has been introduced in Darfur so that young girls won't have to collect firewood. Education is becoming an integral part of emergency assistance and care is being taken to make sure that food is distributed in a manner so that all members of the community receive their fair share.

Increasingly, women and girls are also becoming combatants in these new wars. In some cases like Sierra Leone, women and girls were abducted, made into sex slaves and used as soldiers. In other wars, women and girls appear to join voluntarily, supporting a cause or escaping poverty. Sadly, it is these women and especially girls who are put on the front lines. They are rarely in the command structure and are often the first to be placed in battle and, as a consequence, the first to die. On the positive side, researchers have found that military life gives women an ambivalent agency where they become self confident and sometimes even attain leadership skills. Reintegrating women and girl combatants after war into society is often difficult. I spent some time in Colombia with former women combatants. They told me of their very difficult circumstances. Men were frightened to go out with them because they had been combatants so none of them had formed lasting relationships. The skills they had learned as combatants were not valued by women in peaceful society so they were having trouble finding a livelihood. Some of the women I met had become sex workers just to survive. A few of them had had children while they were combatants and they were finding peace very difficult to negotiate.

Finally, women who do not become combatants but whose husbands go to war emerge from conflict in a very vulnerable situation. In many societies, women heads of household multiply after conflict. In some contexts there are also child-headed households with the oldest female child taking on the responsibility. Research has shown that these women and children are often discriminated against, sexually harassed and denied essential services. They make enormous sacrifices for the younger members of the household and are often the poorest members of the community. It is essential that we do not forget them in our post conflict planning for reconstruction.

While March 8 should be a day of celebration for all the gains we have achieved -- particularly at the UN with the creation of UN Women under the dynamic leadership of Michelle Bachelet -- we must never forget women and girls in conflict areas who spend every day trying to survive and who are subject to the worst for of abuses. I remember asking one woman whether she would mind me including her story in my reports -- I did not want to exploit her. She replied, "Tell the world -- tell them at the United Nations, at the Security Council, at the Human Rights Commission. Tell my story and maybe other women will not have to suffer what I have gone through."

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