WILPF Statement to the Vienna Conference on Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare

This statement was prepared for the Vienna Conference on Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare hosted by the government of Austria from 1 to 2 October 2019.

We meet here as civilians are dying around the world from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This horrific and unacceptable practice has increased steadily. Yet while this issue is regularly highlighted as a top humanitarian concern by a growing chorus of voices, a strong and effective response to stop this humanitarian tragedy from repeatedly occurring has so far eluded us.

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a steering committee member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), thanks the government of Austria for convening this conference and giving this issue the focused and dedicated attention that it deserves.

In the context of this panel discussion on direct civilian harm we want to illustrate that while the indiscriminate bombing of towns and cities may seem gender-blind, there are serious gendered impacts that are largely unaccounted for when those using weapons are assessing attacks and damage, or when others develop policies to rebuild post-violence.  

In many societies and cultures, women have different experiences in conflicts and crisis

compared to men because they are afforded a different status and place in family and public structures. This means that the damage and destruction caused by explosive weapons can affect women and men differently. Explosive weapon attacks aimed at residential areas and markets disproportionately affect women, as they often have primary responsibility for buying food and household goods at markets. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has devastating effects on health care systems due to destroyed infrastructure, destruction of hospitals, and a general fear of moving around in an armed conflict setting, which has grave implications for maternal health.

Women and girls who survive explosive weapon attacks tend to face higher risks of stigmatisation and marginalisation by their families or spouses because of their injuries or disfigurement. Bombing in populated areas also leads to forced displacement, and displaced women and girls have a higher risk of sexual violence, harassment, trafficking, forced prostitution, and other crimes that are disproportionately targeted towards women.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern with sexual violence and abuse of refugee women fleeing to Europe from conflicts in the Middle East. In Mosul, Iraq, where Iraqi and US forces led a coalition to “liberate” the city from Daesh in 2016–2017, airstrikes decimated most of Western Mosul. By July 2017, there were roughly 800 airstrikes per month, using explosive weapons with wide area effects such as Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions. Yet, after the bombing stopped and the city was declared “liberated,” Mosulite civilians suffered greatly, including due to gender-based violence. “Women were pushed to provide sexual services in exchange for food or even a piece of bread to feed their children, a safe place to shelter them, or even for the chance to reach a UNHCR shelter,” reported a study published by WILPF earlier this year. “Such exploitation was not limited to fighters and bandits; it was reported that women who were able to flee the armed conflicts were also sexually exploited by the shelters’ guards and humanitarian agents providing them with water, sanitation, and food.”

We regret that this dimension of the issue has been largely under-researched but welcome a growing evidence base and statements from key stakeholders. WILPF has been publishing reports on the subject of gender and EWIPA since 2014, and recently launched the mentioned comprehensive report about the gendered impacts of military operations in Mosul. These are all available on our website.

Looking ahead, we, along with our partners in INEW, believe that establishment of an international political declaration is a necessary step to protect civilians in urban warfare. But such an instrument cannot be gender blind. It must recognise the gendered impact of explosive weapons use in populated areas, including on the families of those killed or injured, and affected communities, and ensure a response to their short- and long-term needs that is rights-based and protects everyone equally. The declaration must provide a platform for gender-sensitive action and activity, such as stronger data collection on the use and impact of explosive weapons, that is age-, sex-, and disability-disaggregated.

Above all, states must commit to end the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and to stop arms transfers that facilitate this violence. We are past the time for expressions of concern. We need real action to save lives.