CEDAW Luncheon July 26th, 2011: Remarks by Pramila Patten


Remarks presented at the NGO/CSW/NY luncheon in honor of CEDAW Committee experts

July 26, New York, NY

By Pramila Patten, Chair, Working Group on the GR[1]

CEDAW General Recommendation on the human rights protection of women in conflict and post conflict situations

The interest which this proposed GR by the Committee, has generated, is understandable in this world of continuing instability and violence in which we are living, with civilian victims especially women and children often outnumbering casualties among combatants.

There is enough  evidence that women experience armed conflict in a different way than men. These effects differ widely across cultures depending upon the role of women in particular societies. What is also clear is that armed conflict exacerbates inequalities   that exist in different forms and to varying degrees in all societies and that make women particularly vulnerable when armed conflict breaks out.


Women’s rights violations occurring during armed conflict and situations of political unrest

During conflict, women are mostly portrayed as victims of conflict; and, of course to a large extent, they indeed are being targeted for rape; they become widows; and they suffer most from decay of social sectors.

Conflict is accompanied by gender-based violence and evidence suggests an increasing scale and brutality of sexual violence. For too long, sexual violence was just seen as “collateral damage” of conflicts, a “random, private, inevitable by-product of war”. Now, it is widely acknowledged that   women/girls are increasingly targeted as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, punish, disperse and/or forcibly relocate members of a community/ethnic group. The trend is continuing.  An average of 40 women is being raped every day in South Kivu, DRC where it is said to be more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier.

In addition to gender-specific violations, women are subjected to various forms of human rights violations, including, killings, summary and arbitrary executions, torture and mutilation, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, forced displacement, abduction, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and trafficking.

During periods of armed conflict, women are often the first to become unemployed, have less access to education opportunities and suffer disproportionately from lack of access to basic necessities such as food, shelter, water and health care. Women are sidelined when resources become scarce, and consequently unable to claim their right to food, health care, shelter, education and documentation. Power relations within their own families may change in the new environment, resulting in tension and violence in their homes.  These rights violations occur throughout all phases of the conflict, in the immediate aftermath of the conflict and women live with the consequences for a long time in the post-conflict setting. The violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law occur whether women remain in their homes, in their communities, whilst attempting to flee the conflict and while they are in camps for the displaced.

Refugees and internally displaced persons-a large percentage of whom are women and girl children-are an almost inevitable result of armed conflict, and the problem is growing. Evidence exists of widespread mistreatment of women in refugee camps and these women also face distinctive problems that are largely unacknowledged as they attempt to rebuild their lives as refugees in a new country.

Another facet of women during conflict time- which is not always portrayed is about women as agents, active participants in war, directly as combatants or supporting rebels. Women also frequently take on new economic roles during war, as men join the fighting, leaving jobs unfilled and losses in family incomes, for which women have to substitute.

Women are also often very active in civil society, peace movements: e.g. in Colombia, women were responsible for complex networks of pro-peace movements; in Northern Ireland, Burundi, Liberia, there were female coalitions across warring partners.

But women are largely neglected once peace occurs: Despite their active role in war, women are too often neglected in the post-conflict situation, in terms of peace negotiations; demobilisation programmes; and post-conflict reconstruction. They rarely participate in formal peace negotiations; they are too often ignored in post-conflict politics and economics. And potentially they could greatly improve the peace process, the sustainability of peace and post-conflict society and make an important contribution to the economy. In 2008, UNIFEM estimated that women account for less than 10% of members in formal peace negotiations and less than 2% of signatories to peace agreements.

One of the direct consequences of conflict is the total breakdown of government infrastructure followed by its incapacity to deliver essential services to populations. In such situations, women are at the frontline of suffering – bearing the brunt of socio-economic dimensions of the conflict. It is in economic reconstruction, that women tend to be most neglected. There is heavy emphasis on macro-stabilisation and pro market reforms – and gender issues are ignored. Economic infrastructure tends to be privileged before social. There are problems for women in formal sector employment – as men return from conflict; and pre-conflict gender attitudes often resume. Women suffer disproportionately from high unemployment rates and lack of access to education opportunities which force many women to work in illegal sectors and in primarily precarious situations – such as engaging in exploitative sexual transactions to access food for themselves and their families.


Other critical women’s concerns in the immediate aftermath of conflict / transitional period include the need to end impunity and ensure accountability for gross violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law;

Amnesties for gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law is not uncommon– Often there are amnesties that prevent the prosecution of individuals who may be legally responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other gross violations of human rights, in particular sexual violence. Granting amnesty for serious violations of women’s human rights impedes their rights of access to justice, to an effective remedy and to reparations for harm suffered.

Application of CEDAW – The principles enunciated in CEDAW constitutes the essential elements of the international protection regime for women in situation of armed conflict as well as refugee and internally displaced and stateless women. Of course, in addition to CEDAW and other major international human rights treaties, there are other important international policy frameworks which make an important contribution to the international regime of protection and advancement of women’s human rights in conflict and post-conflict situations, namely SCR 1325 as well as the other   5 resolutions  (SCR 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960 and the last one SCR 1983 adopted in June 2011) which have considerably strengthened the international legal framework on women, peace and security.

Noting that situations of armed conflict and states of emergency due to political events or natural disasters have a profound impact on women’s ability to enjoy their fundamental human rights and freedoms, in GR 28, the Committee spelt out that States parties obligations do not cease during these situations.

CEDAW also provides the normative foundation to protect three interrelated kinds of rights, which must be guaranteed to women in the post-conflict period, namely:

  • The right to participate meaningfully in policy-making and resource allocation;
  • The right to benefit equally from public and private resources and services; and
  •  The right to build a gender equitable society for lasting peace and prosperity.

Since its establishment, the Committee has worked towards clarifying the relevance of CEDAW   to the situation of women in armed conflict through recommendations in its concluding observations, through its General Recommendations, through exceptional reports or through statements drawing State Parties attention to the need to address   the specific needs of women in general as well as vulnerable groups of women, to have a gender analysis of the consequences of the armed conflict and in post-war transition period, to  promote  women’s human rights and gender equality, in particular in the peace building and reconstruction processes- the latest  statements it issued were  addressed to  the Governments of Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the same time, since I have been on the Committee, I have seen very few State parties who provide comprehensive information on the situation of women in the conflict or the post conflict phase.  Traditionally, reports on the effects of armed conflict tend to incorporate women in the general category of civilians without regard to the different experiences of men and women civilians and this information is usually contained, if at all, in the core document. The particular concerns of women are thus regarded as peripheral in such analyses.

Sometimes we also see State parties who hide behind definitions of “armed conflict” or deny the existence of armed conflict within their territory in order to evade international accountability. It is not uncommon for some States to call such situations by other names (such as disturbed areas, insurgency infested areas) but in fact such situations   are for all intents and purposes equivalent to armed conflict situations.

The scope of application of CEDAW is broad and the GR will certainly spell out that CEDAW is applicable in diverse situations and contexts of conflict such as international and non-international armed conflicts as well as in situations of extreme violence and internal disturbances ………situations which may not necessarily be classified as armed conflict in terms of international humanitarian law.

A specific GR on the application of CEDAW to the situation of women in conflict and post conflict will no doubt be extremely useful. The GR will, of course, build on principles articulated in previously adopted GRs and will clarify the application of the Convention to situations of armed conflict and political crises; to prevention and resolution of conflicts and to the various complex peace building and post-conflict reconstruction processes.  By giving normative content to the relevant provisions of CEDAW, and considering how they relate to each other, the proposed GR will outline the content of the obligations assumed by States parties and also make suggestions to non-State actors.

But, of course, the primary purpose of the GR is to provide authoritative guidance to States parties on the legislative, policy and other appropriate measures they need to take to ensure full compliance with their Convention obligations to protect, respect and fulfill women’s human rights in conflict and post-conflict contexts.

Paper presented by:

Pramila Patten

CEDAW Expert

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   Email: patra@intnet.mu