Gender-based impacts on women and girls of violence in international conflicts
Authors: Maria Leis, Dr. Anne Niec, Dr. Kathee Andrews
Gender-based violence is known to disproportionately impact women and girls, with estimates as high as 1 in 3 individuals globally experiencing violence in their lifetime (1). The Federation of Medical Women of Canada (FMWC) is dedicated to helping eliminate gender-based violence through increasing awareness, education and advocacy. The objective of this statement is to examine gender-based violence in the context of international conflict – with emphasis on implications and outcomes for women and girls – and to propose solutions and calls to action for national and global leaders and organizations.
- What is Gender-Based Violence?
The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” Violence against women can take many forms, and come from a variety of perpetrators, such as intimate partners, family members, or people in positions of authority (2,3). Gender-based violence is considered a medical emergency by Doctor’s Without Borders, and is a major public and clinical health problem and violation of women’s human rights. Further, gender-based violence highlights and perpetuates gender inequalities and contributes to ongoing discrimination against women (3).
- Gender-Based Violence in International Conflict
In areas of conflict, gender-based and sexual violence are often used as a weapon or as a reward for soldiers. Rape and other forms of sexual abuse have also been documented as forms of torture. Further, in some cases, rape has been used as a strategy to spread HIV/AIDS within communities. During times of war, sexual violence is often committed publicly and by multiple attackers (4).
According to international law, conflict-associated sexual violence is characterized as a war crime and crimes against humanity. There are even examples, such as during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which sexual violence was used to help destroy a population and amounted to genocide (4,5,6).
- Outcomes of Gender-Based Violence
The implications of conflict-associated gender-based violence are far-reaching, and impacts both the individual as well as society. Individually, physical consequences can occur for women and girls, including stab wounds, fractures, bleeding and vaginal fistulas. People who are sexually assaulted are more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Another important medical consequence includes unintended pregnancy, and according to the World Health Organization, women who have suffered sexual violence are twice as likely to have an abortion. Following, abortions performed under unsafe conditions may lead to further consequences for women’s reproductive health, as well as legal implications (3,4).
Psychologically, survivors often suffer from a range of psychological sequalae, spanning from guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and even suicide. These experiences often impact survivors’ abilities to form close relationships with others, lack of ability to care for dependents, loss of identity, and stigmatization further affecting outcomes (3,4).
We know gender-based violence also contributes to societal-scale problems during times of war. For example, large-scale violence often leads to displacement of women and children, and often even entire communities. Further, it has been demonstrated that there can be an increase in sex trafficking during times of conflict (3,4).
FMWC Statement and Calls to Action
The Federation of Medical Women of Canada (FMWC) is committed to supporting UNSCR 1325 (Women, Peace, and Security) and therefore strongly condemns the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. We advocate for the use of international justice systems, and call on the United Nations General Assembly, the Security Council and Secretary General, to fully re-instate the UN Charter and implement UN Resolution 1325 (5,6).
We write as female physicians concerned about the horrific situation right now for everyone in Ukraine - especially for the women and children that we know will be disproportionately impacted by this tragic event. We are aware that the use of violence and rape is often systematically used as a weapon of war, and the situation in Ukraine is no different.
We therefore call upon our government both to urgently promote an immediate ceasefire, condemn violence against women as a weapon of war, and to utilize vigorous diplomacy and negotiation to help construct a lasting peace agreement.
The world has witnessed families having their lives and their natural environment destroyed by military conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, etc. Canada recognizes R2P - the responsibility to protect. It is therefore Canada's responsibility to help guide all parties involved toward an immediate ceasefire and make serious efforts in building a constructive path to peace. It is important for Canada, and all countries involved, to apply a gender-based analysis to their support efforts.
The FMWC strongly condemns any violence against women and recognizes its use as a war crime. The FMWC is deeply concerned that in all wars and conflict, women and girls are the disproportionate collateral damage. We call on the International Criminal Court to begin investigations into these potential war crimes in Ukraine as soon as possible (5,6).
Further, we acknowledge the heavy role women take in these geo-political conflicts, including taking on the vast majority of unpaid work and childcare to keep society functioning. It is important to uphold the fundamental human rights of gender equality in condemning violence. Resolution must hold the tenants of equality at its core, and include women and women’s advocacy groups at all levels of negotiation.
We recommend a prevention-based approach to condemning violence in the war against Ukraine. Specifically, we encourage all investment to be utilized in negotiating a cease-fire and promote peace-keeping within Ukraine. Further, we call upon international leaders and organizations to set up an inter-institutional task force to address and support women and girls in Ukraine. We must ensure timely humanitarian aid is directed towards women’s organizations.
It is important to recognize the impacts of gender-based and sexual violence on women and girls, who are disproportionately impacted during international conflicts. Providing timely and appropriate medical care to the survivors is of utmost importance (i.e. prevent infections, provide emergency contraceptives, psychological support, treat physical injuries). Most importantly, advocacy is paramount in taking a proactive approach to raise awareness of this important issue and combat the root causes of gender-based violence. Eliminating gender-based and sexual violence is one of the key tenants in achieving gender equality, particularly during times of international conflict. We call on international organizations, including the United Nations, to take timely action in preventing and condemning gender-based violence as a weapon of war.
Acknowledgements: We acknowledge the important advocacy work of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada’s Women, Peace and Security Committee and their contributions to calls to action in international conflict, particularly in the war on Ukraine.
- World Health Organization. 2022. Violence against women. [online] Available at: <https://www.who.int/health-topics/violence-against-women#tab=tab_1> [Accessed 3 April 2022].
- Doctors Without Borders. 2022. Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. [online] Available at: < https://www.doctorswithoutborders.ca/issues/sexual-and-gender-based-violence-0?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=grants&s_src=22-SEM&s_subsrc=Google&gclid=CjwKCAjwi6WSBhA-EiwA6Niok6dAHI-m9WOyNxjcqYf9CoOQ5sTv7ajhqU0GPJFwRqeWAmgHw33q9RoCJIsQAvD_BwE> [Accessed 3 April 2022].
- United Nations Women. 2022. Ending violence against women. [online] Available at: < https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women> [Accessed 3 April 2022].
- Mukwege Foundation. 2022. Sexual violence as a weapon of war. [online] Available at: < https://www.mukwegefoundation.org/the-problem/rape-as-a-weapon-of-war/> [Accessed 3 April 2022].
- Charter of the United Nations and the Statute of the International Court of Justice. [online] Available at: <https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/CTC/uncharter.pdf> [Accessed 10 April 2022].
- UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women and peace and security. [online] Available at: <https://www.unwomen.org/en/docs/2000/10/un-security-council-resolution-1325#:~:text=UN%20Security%20Council%20resolution%201325%20on%20women%20and,stresses%20the%20importance%20of%20their%20equal%20participation%20> [Accessed 10 April 2022].