It is estimated that one hundred million people have died in armed conflicts over the last century. During such conflicts, civilians make up the largest number of casualties and experience serious forms of abuse. While women and girls suffer the same consequences during war like the rest of the civilians, they also suffer specific forms of violence and abuse like sexual abuse. They become victims of war. In many instances the violence is predominantly ruthless. Although men and boys may also be victims of gender based violence, women and girls remain the primary target. Sexual and gender-based violence have progressively become weapons of warfare. According to Koffi Annan, ‘All too often, conflict happens in societies that can least afford it, takes its toll on those who least deserve it and hits hardest those least equipped to defend themselves. Civilians have become the main targets of warfare. From rape and displacement to the denial of the right to food and medicines, women bear more than their fair share of the burden.’ Sexual abuse and violence has serious implications on women and girls including unwanted pregnancies, transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and psychological trauma. In the words of Major General Patrick Cammaert, former Deputy Force Commander, MONUC “It is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern wars.”
The protection of women during armed conflict is enshrined in both international humanitarian law applicable in times of armed conflict and international human rights law. Generally, International humanitarian law aims to humanize war by restricting means of warfare and offering protection to civilians or persons not taking part in hostilities. Civilians are therefore illegitimate targets. Recognizing that civilians in many armed conflicts account for the majority of casualties of armed conflict, international law seeks to ameliorate their conditions by granting them protection. Such protection should be accorded without discrimination on various grounds including sex. It covers areas such as inter alia;
● Protection against the effects of hostilities
● Protection against arbitrary treatment
Apart from the general protection of all civilians, the four Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols contains specific provisions on the protection of women during armed conflict;
1. Protection of women as civilians
Article 27 of the fourth Geneva Convention relating to the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict specifically provides that “Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.” The same protection is reiterated in Additional protocol I of 1977 which subjects women to special respect. Similarly, Article 4(2) (e) of Additional Protocol II of 1977 prohibits: “Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault”. Women are also protected under the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. Under the Statute rape and other acts of sexual violence constitute crimes against humanity. In addition to rape and other acts of sexual violence any act that ‘outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, are war crimes in both international and non-international armed conflicts’.
2. Protection of women as combatants and prisoners of war
Not all women are victims of war, some are actors and play a major role armed conflicts as combatants. Women who take part in hostilities are protected under international humanitarian law when they fall into the hands of the enemy. When captured by the enemy, the third Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Prisoners of War calls for favourable treatment to be given to women as that granted to men. All prisoners of war are entitled to humane treatment and protection from violence. It adds in Article 3 that "Women shall be treated with all consideration due to their sex” and that "Differences of treatment between prisoners are permissible only if such differences are based on the military rank, the state of physical or mental health, the professional abilities, or the sex of those who benefit from them". Combatants who are captured in non-international armed conflict are not granted the status of prisoner of war but are offered protection under Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions. While in detention, special protection extends to their treatment in detention. Men and women are to be detained in separate institutions. Where the institution receives men and women, such institution should ensure that different premises are allocated to men and women. This protection is however specific to international armed conflicts.
3. Special Protection
Special protection is also granted to specific types of women. Pregnant women and mothers having dependent infants in the event of an international armed conflict for example are granted special protection. Protocol I requires that "maternity cases and pregnant women, who refrain from any act of hostility, shall enjoy the same general protection as that accorded to the sick and wounded". They should be given special care including adequate medical care and treatment. In cases of arrest, detention or internment for example they should have their cases considered with utmost priority.
Protection of women in times of armed conflict is very important. Article 38 of The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, 1993 emphasizes this importance. It states that “Violations of the human rights of women in situations of armed conflict are violations of the fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law. All violations of this kind, including in particular murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery, and forced pregnancy, require a particularly effective response."
 Rehn, and Johnson Sirleaf, E. (2002) “Introduction” in Women, War and Peace: the Independent Experts‟ Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women’s role in Peace building, UNIFEM, pp.1
 Former Secretary General, Kofi Annan, United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace, 6 March, 2000, Press Release, SG/SM/7325, WOM/1190. Extract from Special Report of Amnesty International on the International Criminal Court. Fact sheet 7.
 Article 4
 Article 8