Women’s Rights in Times of Conflict: Reflections on International Women’s Day Commentary
Syrian refugees in Turkey during a HasNa organized legal assistance session. Photo credit: HasNa
Women’s Rights in Times of Conflict: Reflections on International Women’s Day

This year, we are marking women’s day globally in the midst of new and intensifying conflicts from Ukraine to Syria; conflicts that exacerbate pre-existing patterns of discrimination against women and girls, exposing them to heightened risks of violations of their human rights.

While contemporary wars affect civilians of all genders—as stated in UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and its various amendments—women and girls experience disproportionate risks–including violence, exploitation and abuse–during conflict and displacement. Several points in UNSCR 1325 are coming to the forefront of the Ukrainian conflict, namely the need for protection of women in conflict and the obligation to ensure the participation of women in negotiation and decision-making processes, with an emphasis on the role of civil society in amplifying the voices of women and girls.

As this year’s International Women’s Day is under the theme of breaking the bias, I could not help but reflect on the bias in perceiving women’s role in conflicts as victims but not so much as leaders in crisis response, as frontline healthcare workers, unpaid caregivers, and community mobilizers. There is a need to change the current narrative of reducing women’s experience of conflict to victimization, with limited reference to issues such as participation and leadership.

The world is facing the largest crisis in forced displacement since the end of the Second World War. To date, the majority of the more than 1.5 million refugees that have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion are women and children at grave risk of violence, exploitation, and abuse. Despite the pandemic, the number of people fleeing wars, violence, persecution, and human rights violations in 2020 rose to nearly 82.4 million people, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Global Trends report. This is a further 4 percent increase on top of the already record-high 79.5 million at the end of 2019. Globally, women and girls now account for more than half of all forcibly displaced people, comprising refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people.

International Legal Framework for the Protection of Women’s Rights in Armed Conflict

Protections for women’s rights in armed conflict have proliferated under international law over more than three decades. Although there is a wide range of international institutions engaged in defining, monitoring, and enforcing women’s rights in different conflicts under international law, the historically widespread physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of women and girls still occurs in armed conflicts. The ongoing Ukrainian and Russian conflict is an example. Both the Russian Federation and Ukraine are signatories of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), as well as other key international human rights instruments that apply, and which are applicable in times of war as well as in times of peace. All parties to any conflict, whether State or non-State, are also bound by the laws of war, which require the protection of civilians and civilian installations.

Violence against women during armed conflict is a violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols have provisions that address non-discrimination. Nevertheless, there is significant scope to strengthen the legal status of specific protections to women’s rights; to improve how key institutions comply with and implement their own guarantees of women’s rights; and to maximize the strengths of different monitoring and enforcement procedures to protect and promote different women’s rights in different conflict settings. The timing is also opportune when the UN human rights system is marking the 20th anniversary of UNSCR 1325 on women and peace and security, which reaffirms the need to fully implement the international and humanitarian law that protects the rights of women and girls during and after conflict.

Despite the significant increase in legal protections to women’s rights in armed conflict under international law, specific protections to women tend to have weak legal status given that specific protections to female victims of these violations were incorporated in “soft” rather than “hard” law. During a recent convening at my Law School (GW Law School) on Violence against Women, I expressed support for a potential draft Convention on Violence Against Women, to include violence in conflict and address lacunae in existing treaty law both in the area of human rights and humanitarian law. Scholars and civil society opponents call for an instrument that could be appended as a Second Optional Protocol to the Women’s Convention. In that case, the CEDAW Committee would monitor its implementation. It could also be subjected to the individual complaints and inquiry procedures available in the current Optional Protocol to the Women’s Convention, thus helping to develop jurisprudence in the area.

Every possible method must be utilized to bring the advances made in the area of women’s human rights to bear on the mainstream understanding of IHL. Still, any such efforts undertaken must be balanced with a significant emphasis on full and universal implementation of existing technical rules of IHL. Despite deficiencies in the overall framework, this would go a long way toward greater protection for women in conflict.

Civil society’s role and advocacy should continue to amplify the need to consider more fully the entire suite of monitoring and enforcement mechanisms attached to women’s rights in conflict under international law and strategize to reinforce their comparative advantages.

Women’s Missing Voices in Conflict

Although Ukrainian women have been at the forefront of the humanitarian response and advocating for the restoration of collective human rights, they have so far, been starkly absent from the negotiation table between the Russian Federation and Ukraine. The Ukrainian women’s role in the ongoing conflict with Russia is a reminder that women remain excluded from the decision-making processes and humanitarian response. Women’s inclusion is essential to ensure that their rights are upheld. There can be no de-escalation and search for peace without the participation of women.


Today more than ever, as fragility and conflict deepen in many parts of the world, there is an urgent need for the international community response to adopt an intersectional approach in addressing aggravating factors of discrimination faced by women and girls, including in protection response, to ensure the particular needs of women and girls are taken into account; and to urge countries at stake to adopt measures to protect, respect and fulfill women’s human rights in situations of conflict.


Dr. Leila Hanafi is a Moroccan-American lawyer, senior staff at the World Bank Group and adjunct law professor at George Washington University Law School’s International and Comparative Law Program.


Suggested citation: Dr. Leila Hanafi, Women’s Rights in Times of Conflict: Reflections on International Women’s Day, JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 7, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/03/leila-hanafi-international-womens-day/.

This article was prepared for publication by Jaclyn Belczyk, JURIST Executive Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org.

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