The Humanitarian Impact of Explosive Weapons on Women

Lebanese girl forced to flee because of armed conflicts Lebanese girl forced to flee because of armed conflicts © Thomas Leuthard/Flickr

The aims of the following report by Reaching Critical Will (RCW) is to explore the consequences for women of explosive weapons in populated areas. Infact, the damage caused by explosive weapons has different effects and consequences between men and women.

RCW is the disarmament program of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which aims to involve and promote the participation of civil society and non-governmental actors in the UN disarmament process.

 According to International Law, the use of explosive weapons in high-populated areas is not strictly prohibited and the related regulations are fragmented and incoherent. So, their use in war is regulated under the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) that recalls to the principles of "distinction", "proportionality" and "precaution"; the first one foresees that at every moment of the conflict the combatants must be clearly distinguished from the civilians as well as the military objectives from the civil ones, the second that the attacks which foresee civil losses or damages to the infrastructures or both, must be proportionate to the concrete military advantage. Finally, the third principle requires precaution in choosing the means and methods for military attacks. Because of frequent violations of it even by the States, IHL is not sufficient to properly address the use of explosive weapons. 

The International Human Rights Law (IHRL) does include a series of provisions for the protection of individuals and groups in armed conflicts, establishing several obligations for States. Human Rights applicable to this body of law – that should be respected and guaranteed to civilians in the event of armed conflicts – are the right to life, to freedom of movement, to have adequate shelter, to education, health and the right to be free of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment. All rights are violated by the use of explosive weapons.

In addition to this, the Human Rights law requires States “to refrain from discriminatory actions that directly or indirectly result in the denial of the equal right of men and women to their enjoyment of [human] rights". Furthermore, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) states that "States Parties shall take in all fields, particular in the political, social, economic and cultural fields, all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men”. Moreover, the jurisprudence in this field obliges the States not to discriminate and to fight any kind of gender inequality, even in times of war. Infact, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has not only devastating direct impacts on civilians in general but has particular and distinct consequences on women's lives and livelihoods.

The experience of women following and during armed conflicts is different from men’s experience because of the different social status and position they are afforded at family and community level, and also due to different public places they are used to attend. Moreover, the pre-existing gender inequality in many societies and cultures increases due to the interruption of daily life and infrastructure damage and destruction, which affects men and women differently for their different social roles.

 The effects on health caused by the use of explosive weapons bring both physical and psychological trauma, in particular, the explosive wave has specific implications on pregnant women which can cause serious damages to the placenta and lead to miscarriage. Furthermore, research carried out on women who survived explosive mines shows that they are often marginalized and stigmatized by their husbands and family because of their amputations and scarring. The UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) reported that women suffer from more limited access to emergency care and long-term rehabilitation assistance than men, which reflects on additional difficulties faced by women as a consequence of the use of explosive weapons.

 The devastating effects of explosive weapons on the healthcare system, due to the destruction of infrastructures and hospitals, have an impact on women's health and births. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that complications in pregnancy and childbirth kill around 287,000 women every year. This, in countries where maternal mortality is already high, in case of war and explosive weapons, the denial of full access to healthcare infrastructures is like a death sentence for women.

 Like explosive weapons do damage and / or destroy health facilities, private property and public spaces are also seriously damaged. Explosive attacks targeting markets and housing areas have a disproportionate effect on women compared to men, as they have often the responsibility for buying foods and goods to maintain the family. Moreover, when men are killed women have to take new roles, becoming the primary income providers of the family. This leads to an increment of private and public violence against women since man can no longer play his traditional role within the family and the community. The pressure on females to be the only ones who must guarantee the income of the family is a reason for numerous discrimination acts against them, specially on the labour market and in all patriarchal customs. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), the most vulnerable families are the ones in which females are the single-headed households; as well as the ones subjected to higher degree of poverty, food insecurity, lack of access to safe drinking water sources, education, work, shelters as well as several health problems and social marginalization.

Furthermore, the lack of job opportunities exposes women to greater risks during conflicts, exposing them to physical violence, sexual and labour exploitation to take care and provide for their family.

Use of explosive weapons in populated areas forces population displacement due to fear and, displaced women are exposed to risks of violence and sexual exploitation; it was reported that Syrian women in refugee camps are often forced into prostitution and the younger are victims of trafficking and smuggling. In addition to the long-term consequences of such violence, because women very often do not have access to proper health and psychological support, they are discriminated from their family and community as in many societies and cultures sexual violence is the reason for rejection and marginalization.

Finally, as females very often have limited access to politics and decision-making roles, the focus of the post-conflict assistance policies doesn’t take into consideration the women’s perspective in the reconstruction plans and programs.

 Until now the absence of gender analysis on the consequences of explosive weapons has led to consider the experience of men as the one and only, and therefore the most relevant. The gender humanitarian impact of explosive weapons needs to be directed towards a global approach for a decision-making process able to guarantee an adequate implementation of prevention and reconstruction tools, that consider the women’s short and long-term psychological, physical and social effects.


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Author: Francesca Geuna, Editor: Shrabya Ghimire

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