Global Human Rights Defence

Women and Armed Conflict
Intern in the Women’s Rights Team, GHRD

Author: Ruhama Yilma Abebe, 

Department: Women’s Rights Team


    AP – Additional Protocol

    EHRC – Ethiopian Human Rights Commission

    GC – Geneva Convention

    IAC – International Armed Conflict

    ICRC – International Committee of the Red Cross

    IHL – International Humanitarian Law

    IRIN – Integrated Regional Information Networks

    NIAC – Non – International Armed Conflict

    UN OCHA – United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

    UN OHCHR – United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

    UNDP – United Nations Development Programme

    Women and Armed Conflict


    War or armed conflict has been and continues to be a horrendous part of human history, stretching as long as recorded in history and, armed conflicts have become more and more complicated instead of ceasing to exist with civilization. Armed conflicts occur either amongst states referred to in International Humanitarian Law (IHL) as International Armed Conflict (IAC) or amongst organs (an armed group with another or with the state) existing within states referred to as Non – International Armed Conflict (NIAC) (Melzer, 2016). Although NIACs are the dominant armed conflicts in existence at the current time, IACs also continue to plague the world (Australian Development Cooperation, 2009). This is despite the rule prohibiting the use of force amongst states or jus ad bellum (jus contra bellum) as per Article 2 (4) of the United Nations Charter and Customary International Law (Melzer, 2016).

    Source: Pexels, A Solider

    Armed conflicts, whether they are IACs or NIACs, result in insurmountable suffering, death and destruction of property. The effect of these armed conflicts does not just stop at combatants or soldiers. Rather, innocent civilians get caught up in the conflict and get hurt as a result of either the cross-fire or targeted attacks.

    Both women and men become a part of armed conflict either as civilian victims, combatants, or peace advocates. However, there is a need to address the situation of women in armed conflict separately as a result of their susceptibility to marginalization and perpetration of sexual violence as a weapon of war, mainly against women (ICRC, 2003). 

    In this article, the focus will be on women in armed conflict as civilian victims or combatants. It will discuss the positions women play and have played in armed conflicts along with the international legal frameworks regulating these involvements.


    Women and Armed Conflict

    Women become a part of armed conflicts either voluntarily or involuntarily in different positions. The major ways in which women become part of armed conflict are women as victims (especially sexual violence) in armed conflict, women as combatants and women as peace advocates. For the sake of brevity, this article will address women in the first two positions.

    • Women as Victims in Armed Conflict

    Women face sexual violence in armed conflicts both as civilians and combatants (by fellow combatants or as prisoners of war). This might be a result of the absence of law or war tactics. In the first case, the collapse or fracture of the existing law and order allows combatants and even civilians to get away with sexual violence with little to no consequences (OCHA/ IRIN, 2006). In the second case, sexual violence such as systematic rape is utilized by combatants as a way of demoralizing the enemy, destabilizing the population or as a method of torture (Bouta and Frerks, 2003). In certain wars, sexual violence has also been used as a tool of ethnic cleansing (OCHA/IRIN, 2006). Sexual violence and exploitation have been seen to occur in various armed conflicts, such as in the Japanese occupation of Asian countries (from 1932 to 1945),  Bosnian war, the Rwanda civil war and the Ethiopian civil war.

    Under Japanese occupation, the Japanese government is recorded to have forced over 200, 000 women into sexual slavery in what were referred to as ‘comfort camps’ throughout occupied territories in Asia (Radovic, 2020).

    During the Bosnian war, women and girls, approximately ranging from 20,000 to 50,000, were subjected to sexual violence. The sexual violence experienced by these women and girls included ‘rape camps’, forced pregnancies, and other forms of sexual slavery (Radovic, 2020).

    In Rwanda, 100,000 to 250,000 women were raped in 1994 within three months (Outreach Programme on the Rwanda Genocide and the United Nations, 2014). The women were not only raped but also threatened with HIV infection as a form of ethnic cleansing (OCHA/ IRIN, 2006).

    In the recent civil war in Ethiopia (that began in November of 2020), there were various reported cases of sexual violence against women. A joint investigation conducted by the country’s Human Rights body (Ethiopian Human Rights Commission) and the UN OHCHR has revealed that all parties to the conflict had committed sexual violence. The sexual violence perpetrated against the victims included rape, gang rape and intentional transmission of HIV (Report of the EHRC and OHCHR, 2021).

    • Women as Combatants

    Despite the focus of the literature on women as victims, women also become part of armed conflicts as combatants. This could be voluntarily or due to forced conscription. Women have actively participated in armed conflicts such as India’s independence struggle, Nepal’s Maoist movement, volunteers in the Iraqi army, the independence struggle of Timor-Leste and various others (Rajivan and Senarathne, 2011). This is also the case in the recent and ongoing armed conflict in Ukraine as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

    Multiple reasons are cited for joining the armed forces, including forcible recruitments, fleeing oppression at home, trying to gain control over life, looking for protection, belief in the values, wanting to fight for independence and others (Rajivan and Senarathne, 2011).



    Source: Allagreeg for Dreamstime, 2022.  Ukraine women military officers marching

    Recently, following the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, many Ukrainian women have volunteered to be combatants in an effort to thwart the invasion. The Ukrainian army had granted women the right to be combatants in 2016 (Kuz, 2022).


    Applicable International Legal Instruments

    During armed conflicts, it is to be noted that human rights law and refugee law will still be applicable along with International Humanitarian Law (IHL). This means women (civilian women in particular) are still under the protection of the various human rights instruments,  including those focused on the human rights of women, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women  (CEDAW). The discussion in this article will however be focused on international legal instruments that are focused on armed conflicts, such as International Humanitarian Law instruments and others.

    The Beijing Platform for Action, which was adopted at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, was the first international instrument that officially recognized that women’s involvement in the prevention and resolution of armed conflicts was necessary for maintaining peace and security (Australian Development Cooperation, 2009).

    Under IHL, the primary legislation applicable to armed conflict are the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols. Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions provides minimum protections such as protection from violence to life and person, outrages upon personal dignity (which includes humiliating and degrading treatment) for those not taking an active part in hostilities, including women. This provision is valuable as it is applicable to armed conflicts, whether international or non-international. The remaining discussion regarding these conventions will be on the provisions exclusively applicable to women.

    The Geneva Conventions, in general, protect persons not actively participating in armed conflicts, such as the wounded and sick, prisoners of war and civilians (both men and women) exclusively in International Armed Conflicts. However, these conventions have very few provisions that deal with and acknowledge the situation of women during armed conflicts. The first Geneva Convention or GC I (Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field) provides provisions to protect the wounded and sick in general as well as provisions targeted toward women. Regarding women in particular, paragraph 4 of Article 12 of the Convention provides for the treatment of wounded and sick women with consideration of their sex.

    The third Geneva Convention or GC III (Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War) similarly provides for the protection of prisoners of war, including women. Article 14 of the Convention includes the same indication regarding women, i.e. that of taking their sex into consideration. Additionally, it indicates that they should be granted the same or similar treatment as men. Article 25, along with Article 29 of this convention indicates that separate dormitories and conveniences need to be provided for women prisoners of war.

    The fourth Geneva Convention or GC IV (Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in the Time of War), as the name implies, protects civilians during armed conflicts. Article 27 of this convention provides the special protection of women from attacks on their honour, including rape, enforced prostitution or any form of indecent assault. Women detainees, similarly to women prisoners of war, are also required to be kept separately and under the supervision of women as per Article 76.

    Additional Protocol I or AP I (Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts) provides for additional protection or supplements the protection provided for victims of armed conflicts such as the wounded, sick and civilians in the Geneva Conventions. Article 76 of this convention specifically addresses the situation of women during armed conflict. The first paragraph of this provision indicates that women are to be under special protection and reiterates the protection of women provided under Article 27 of GC IV. The other paragraphs of this provision relate to pregnant women and mothers with dependent infants and endeavour to provide priority and shield such women from the death penalty.

    The above conventions, including AP I, are exclusively applicable to International Armed Conflicts and cannot be called to apply to Non – International Armed Conflicts. This is regrettable as NIACs are the most common armed conflicts in the contemporary world. In order to provide for certain rules for NIACs, Additional Protocol II or AP II (Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts) was enacted in 1979. This convention provides for the protection of persons in the context of NIACs. In a similar manner as those women in IACs, women in NIACs are required to be kept separately under the supervision of women when arrested, and pregnant women (and mothers with young children) are to be shielded from the death penalty according to Article 5 and 6 of AP II respectively.

    The United Nations Security Council has also produced various Resolutions regarding women and armed conflict. The resolutions are mainly aimed at eliminating sexual violence during armed conflict. These resolutions include Resolution 1820 on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations, Resolution 1888 on the Protection of Women and Girls from Sexual Violence in Armed Conflicts, Resolution 1889 on the Protection of Women and Girls in Post-Conflict Situations, Resolution 1960 to Address Widespread or Systematic Sexual Violence in Situation of Armed Conflict, Resolution 2107 aimed at strengthening efforts to end impunity for sexual violence in conflict, Resolution 2272 which aimed to prevent exploitation and abuse by those under UN mandate, Resolution 2331 to condemn acts of sexual and gender-based violence associated to trafficking in persons, and Resolution 2467 which called upon belligerents worldwide to adopt concrete commitments to end sexual violence in conflict. The United Nations General Assembly has also issued a resolution in this regard (Resolution A/RES/69/293) which proclaimed the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict (June 19).

    The other resolution adopted by the UN Security Council regarding women and armed conflict was Resolution 1325. This resolution was adopted in 2000 to deal with women and peace and security in general and focuses on women in post-conflict efforts. It highlights the special needs of women and girls during this time regarding repatriation, resettlement, rehabilitation, reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction, as well as the importance of their participation in the peace process. Resolution 2242 and Resolution 2493 were later adopted in 2015 and 2019, respectively, in order to improve the implementation of this resolution and reaffirm the commitment.



    Women are involved in armed conflicts around the world, both as civilian victims and combatants, amongst others. There is a need to discuss women’s involvement in armed conflicts as women are more likely to be subject to sexual violence both as civilians and combatants. Women have been victims of sexual violence in various armed conflicts around the world. This is not just an issue of the past. Rather, it continues to be part of armed conflicts to this day. However, it should be noted that sexual violence is not an inevitable part of armed conflicts and should be prevented at all costs. This is where the international legal instruments within the sphere of International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, Refugee Law and other laws come into the picture. These instruments are, among others, aimed at protecting women from sexual violence as well as ensuring their participation in the peace process. These instruments if implemented properly can help to eliminate sexual violence against women and increase the involvement of women in the peace process. The reason for the problem then lies in the poor implementation and respect of these instruments.

    On the other hand, women in armed conflicts are not just victims, but also combatants as can be seen from the situation in various countries including the current war in Ukraine. Female combatant  shall also be protected from sexual violence from fellow combatants or from enemies as prisoners of war in accordance with the aforementioned international legal instruments.


    Articles and Books

    Australian Development Cooperation (2009, October), Focus: Women, Gender and Armed Conflict, Retrieved on March 16 from

    Bouta, T. and Frerks, G., (2002, November), Women’s Roles in Conflict Prevention, Conflict Resolution and Post-Conflict Reconstruction: Literature Review and Institutional Analysis. Netherland Institute of International Relations.

    EHRC and OHCHR (2021), Report of the EHRC/ OHCHR Joint Investigation into Alleged Violations of International Human Rights, Humanitarian and Refugee Law Committed by all Parties to the Conflict in the Tigray Region of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia

    ICRC (2003, March), Women and War: Special Report, Retrieved on March 16 from

    Kuz, M. (2022, February 23), ‘We want to keep Ukraine free.’ Why women rise in Ukraine army, The Christian Science Monitor, Retrieved on March 15, 2022 from

    Melzer, N., (2016, August), International Humanitarian Law: A Comprehensive Introduction. ICRC.

    OCHA/ IRIN (2005), Broken Bodies, Broken Dreams: Violence Against Women Exposed, Retrieved on March 14 from

    Radovic, I. (2020, December), Sexual Enslavement in the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Its Links to the Contemporary Concept of Trafficking in Persons

    Rajivan, A. K. and Senerathne, R (2011), Asia-Pacific Human Development Report Background Papers Series 2011/11. UNDP


    Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field of 12 August 1949

    Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949

    Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War 12 August 1949

    Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, And Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), of 8 June 1977

    Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, And Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II), of 8 June 1977

    UN General Assembly (2015, July 13), International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, A/RES/69/293

    UN Security Council (2000, October 31), Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women and Peace and Security, S/RES/1325

    UN Security Council (2008, June 19), Security Council Resolution 1820 on Acts of Sexual Violence Against Civilians in Armed Conflicts, S/RES/1820

    UN Security Council (2009, October 5), Security Council Resolution 1889 on Women and Peace Security, S/RES/1889

    UN Security Council (2009, September 30), Security Council Resolution 1888 on Acts of Sexual Violence Against Civilians in Armed Conflicts, S/RES/1888

    UN Security Council (2010, December 16), Security Council Resolution 1960 on Women and Peace and Security, S/RES/1960

    UN Security Council (2013, June 24), Security Council Resolution 2106 on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, S/RES/2106

    UN Security Council (2015, October 13), Security Council Resolution 2242 on Women and Peace and Security, S/RES/2242

    UN Security Council (2016, March 11), Security Council Resolution 2272 on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by United Nations Peacekeepers, S/RES/2272

    UN Security Council (2019, April 23), Security Council Resolution 2467 on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, S/RES/2467

    UN Security Council (2019, October 29), Security Council Resolution 2242 on Women and Peace and Security, S/RES/2493

    United Nations (1996), The Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action: Fourth World Conference on Women



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Coordinator - Tibet Team

Mandakini graduated with honours from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. Her team analyses the human rights violations faced by Tibetans through a legal lens.

Kenza Mena
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Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

Kenza believes that the primary key step to tackle atrocities perpetrated around the world is advocacy and promotion of human rights.

Aimilina Sarafi
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