Rostrum’s Law Review | ISSN: 2321-3787

Internal Displacement and Gender Based Violence


War or armed conflict is characterized by outbursts of primitive, raw violence. When states cannot or will not settle their disagreements or differences by means of peaceful discussion, weapons are suddenly made to speak. War inevitably results in immeasurable suffering among people and severe damage to objects. War is by definition evil, as the Nuremberg Tribunal set forth in its judgment of the major war criminals of the Second World War. Yet, states continue to wage wars and groups still take up weapons when they have lost hope of just treatment at the hands of the government. And no one could condemn a war waged, for example, by a small state protecting itself against an attack on its independence or by a people rebelling against a tyrannical regime.

Laws and customs regulating warfare may be traced back to ancient times. While such norms have varied between civilizations and centuries, and were often shockingly lax by modern standards, it is significant that diverse cultures around the globe have recorded agreements, religious edicts, and military instructions laying out some rudimentary ground rules for military conflict. Armed conflict often represents the dark side of human nature such as anger, greed, vengeance, false pride, strong sense of ill feeling, intolerance, or hatred. War and armed conflict survive in both international and national societies, despite the fact that most ancient civilizations of the world have clearly laid down humanitarian rules which were required to be observed, by nations who go to war. Indeed, the human society has till this day failed to abolish use of violence in interstate relations and intra community relations.

War and violence today spare no one, but they affect men, women, boys and girls in different ways. More conflicts are now fought internally between rival ethnic, religious or political groups over the control of resources, territories or populations. But whether the violence is internal or cross border, civilians are all too often caught in the firing line, directly targeted or endangered by the proximity of the fighting. Women and girls in war torn countries are therefore faced with unimaginable risks, threats and challenges. War can mean violence, fear, and loss of loved ones, deprivation of livelihood, sexual violence, abandonment, and increased responsibility for family members, detention, displacement, physical injury and sometimes death. It forces women and girls into unfamiliar roles and requires them to strengthen existing coping skills and develop new ones.

Internal Displacement

Internally displaced persons are part of the broader civilian population that needs protection and assistance because of conflict and human rights abuses or due to natural disasters. Internally displaced people are often wrongly called refugees. Unlike refugees, internally displaced persons have not crossed an international border to find sanctuary but have remained inside their home countries. Even if they have fled for similar reasons as refugees, internally displaced persons legally remain under the protection of their own government even though that government might be the cause of their flight. As citizens, they retain all of their rights and protection under both human rights and international humanitarian law.

For decades severe and sudden crisis have caused massive displacements of population groups within national boundaries. These require an urgent humanitarian response. When large groups of people are displaced within a country, the public authorities who have the primary duty of care can find their resources overstretched and weakened. Displacement has serious consequences for many different groups. It is covered by the legal framework such as national law, international humanitarian law where applicable and international human rights law, protecting the displaced themselves, those left behind and the host communities who share their resources with the displaced group. The term internally displaced persons is now used virtually unanimously by the international community, as though the reality it designates were uniform and agreed. Yet, depending on the context and on who is using the term, the population group to which it refers is very heterogeneous.

The internally displace persons can be defined as ‘persons or group of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human made disasters, and who have not crossed an internally recognized state border.’[1]

The displaced population is an uprooted population living in a no man’s land between war and peace, between here and there. As the result of violence and up rootedness, it is slipping into a new condition that seems to be never ending.

Gender based violence

Physical and sexual violence, particularly against women, continues to be a well documented feature of armed conflict. Although it is most often women who are targets, both women and men may be victims and subject to rape; increased rate of sexually transmitted infections, damage to physical and psychological health, disruption of lives, and loss of self confidence and self esteem.

Some types of gender based violence are experienced almost entirely by women and girls during and after conflict, such as forced prostitution and sex work; increases in trafficking for sexual or other types of slavery; and forced pregnancy. Also, the impact of gender based violence has distinct consequences for women and girls including sexual mutilation; sterility; chronic reproductive and gynecological health problems; and marginalization from family and community due to stigma associated with sexual abuse. In conflict zones, sexual violence becomes a weapon of ‘ethnic cleansing’.[2]

After incidences of sexual violence, women are often rejected by family or community. Despite pity for the trauma the women have suffered, society marks the victims as ‘damaged goods’. Women also have particular healthcare needs as a result of these violations. For example, they require additional nutritional and health support if they are pregnant or lactating. Food scarcity and inequalities in food distribution are exacerbated during periods of armed conflict, rendering women and girls more susceptible to malnutrition.

The guiding principle on internal displacement explicitly provide protection for displaced women against violence and exploitation and promote their equal access to assistance, services and education, as well as their participation in decisions affecting them, reflecting international law such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Provisions in favour of displaced women are guided by the need to safeguard them from gender based violence, and to uphold their rights to equal access to services. In practice the rights of displaced women were violated in many countries with often devastating physical and psychological consequences for them and their families.

Rape and sexual exploitation of children and women have remained a frequent characteristic of conflict and displaced women and children are at particular risk. In conflicts with an ethnic dimension, systematic rape has commonly been used to destabilize populations and destroy community and family bonds. Displaced women have faced an increase in abuses such as domestic violence, and exploitation by people in positions of power, including those who control and distribute humanitarian assistance.

Despite lack of comprehensive statistics on sexual or gender based attacks in countries undergoing internal displacement, there is a clear sexual or gender based violence against displaced women or children. Government troops were cited as the primary perpetrators of sexual abuses, followed by members of armed non state groups, criminal groups and the general population and in few instances peacekeeping troops.[3]

When mentioning sexual violence as a war crime or as a crime against humanity or as an evidence of genocide, it is here referred to human actions and techniques whose main aim is the destruction, death, annihilation, disintegration and humiliation of human beings, countries, ethnic groups, nations, in total people and their geographical and political surroundings. Domestic and international wars are not an invention of the present century. War is a mistake that has been happening from the back room of history.

The last century, has evolved to become sexual aggressions targeting, mainly but not exclusively, women. It is a   new instrument of terror and ethnic cleansing. This phenomenon has claimed the attention of women and men who are realizing how the female body has become a new extermination weapon used   by men to humiliate each other.

Rape-A Neglected Crime

Rapes and other sexual crimes against personal integrity and dignity have been happening in every armed conflict. Before 1990, previous to the Balkan war and Rawanda’s genocide, sexual violence or gender violence was not typified as war crime. Historically, war laws prohibited crimes of sexual nature. In the Hague Convention, only article 46 rejects slightly and indirectly, sexual violence when it was typified as a breach to family honour. In the 46 volumes and in the 732 page index of the Nuremberg Trial’s transcription, the words “woman” and “rape” do not appear once, even when crimes of sexual violence against women, from different national armies involved in World War II were so widely documented.[4]

In the five supplementary indexes to the 22 volumes of the Tokyo trial’s transcriptions the word “rape” is included in the list of “atrocities” committed by the Japanese Imperial Army in the Far East War. However, during the trials there were only four references and nobody was condemned as perpetrator of the atrocities.[5]

Protection of women in wartime is enshrined in international humanitarian law, which is binding on both states and armed opposition groups. This body of law, which includes the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocols of 1977, provides protection for women as civilians and as captured or wounded combatants. Many of its rules constitute customary law and are therefore binding on parties to an armed conflict whether they have ratified the relevant treaties or not.

In the 429 articles conforming the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, only in article 27 of the fourth convention is it possible to find a paragraph which explicitly protects women against rape and enforced prostitution, which could be interpreted as prohibitions of sexual violence. In just one line in each of the two additional conventions’ protocols, it is possible to find an explicit prohibition of sexual violence described here as illegal i.e. protocol I, article 76 and protocol II, article 4.[6]

 It is advisable to make clear the differences between sex and gender to avoid any unnecessary confusion. Here, referring to sex, it has to be understood as the biological differences between men and women.

Are women more vulnerable than men?

Women are often portrayed as helpless victims and as a particularly vulnerable group in situations of armed conflict. However, women are not vulnerable as such. On the contrary, many display remarkable strength and courage in wartime, protecting and supporting their families or perhaps taking on the role of combatant or peace activist. They often find indigenous ways of coping with the difficulties they face.

The real question is not who is more vulnerable but rather who is vulnerable to which particular risk. Women and men are often exposed to different risks. While men make up the vast majority of those killed, detained or made to disappear during war, women are increasingly targeted as civilians and exposed to sexual violence in times of conflict. They also generally bear all the responsibility for ensuring the day to day survival of their families. Obviously, it is simplistic to judge vulnerability based on stereotypes. A thorough assessment should be carried out to assess every situation, in order to identify who is most vulnerable and why.

Rape as a Method of warfare

Rape is considered to be a methods of warfare when armed forces or groups use it to torture, injure, extract information, degrade, displace, intimidate, punish or simply to destroy the fabric of the community. The mere threat of sexual violence can cause entire communities to flee their homes. By violating women, arms bearers are able to humiliate and demoralize the men who could not protect them. Where the integrity of the community and the family is perceived as bound up in the “virtue” of women, rape can be used as a deliberate tactic to destabilize families and communities.

As in many contexts a woman who has been raped is believed to have brought dishonor upon her family or community, victims may be abandoned or even killed to salvage the family’s reputation, a so called “honour” killing. Victims of sexual violence may also be rejected by their community on the assumption that they have been infected with sexual transmitted diseases.

Lasting scars

Rape may leave a victim with no visible injuries. And yet her trauma, both physical and mental, can be agonizing and enduring. Rape can have severe consequences for a woman’s health, ranging from sexually transmitted infectious to infertility or incontinence. In some countries affected by conflicts sexually transmitted diseases rates are rising due to the high number of rapes committed by arms bearers, a phenomenon that is often exacerbated by increased population displacement and vulnerability. Acts of sexual violence can cause long lasting psychological trauma and severe depression. If the woman in question is a breadwinner, the economic life of her entire family may be affected; the trauma may make it impossible for her to care for her children and other family members who depend on her for their survival.

Raped women often have to deal with unwanted pregnancy and may reject their children because they are a constant reminder of the horror they have suffered. However in countless instances, women accept and take care of these children.  For fear of stigma or reprisal, most rape victims keep quite. Rape is rarely addressed openly, as sex is often a taboo subject and the scars may be outwardly invisible. All these factors can make it very difficult, even dangerous for humanitarian’s workers to access and assist these hidden victims. Furthermore, extreme care has to be taken to avoid stigmatizing women as “rape victims” in the eyes of their family or community.

Young girls as victims of gender based violence

The hardship children endure during war strikes at the very heart of childhood. Conflict kills thousands of girls and boys and disables many more through injury, disease or malnutrition. The experience of war often harms children’s physical development while the violence they witness inevitably has a psychological impact. War frequently deprives girls and boys of family members, educational opportunities and health services, as well as carefree time spent with friends in the playground.

Girls per se are vulnerable in armed conflicts, but the younger they are, the more vulnerable they are. As children, they can be categorized as vulnerable by virtue of their age, their stage of development and their dependence on others for their well being. As females, they may face the same discrimination, challenges and risk that women are exposed to.

Girl’s safety depends largely on the traditional protection afforded to them by their families and communities. However, during conflict, communities and families are fragile. They may be forced to flee their homes and in the chaos children may become separated from their parents. Girls alone are frequently exposed to threats, abuse or violence from members of military forces or armed groups or other men, including those who were supposed to be protecting them. Arms bearers often abduct girls to fight or to serve as forced labour to cook, clean and fetch water and firewood. All of the above leaves girls vulnerable to sexual violence, which often has even more serious consequences for girls than for women. The violence of the act combined with their physical immaturity increases the likelihood of physical trauma and of sexually transmitted infections. In some cultures rape victims are considered unmarriageable, meaning that a girl’s entire future in her community may be jeopardized.

Early pregnancy, often a result of rape or exploitation, poses a serious threat to a girl’s health. Girls who become pregnant prematurely are at great risk of complications and death, especially as medical as services are often scarce in wartime. Motherhood at a young age also has profound socioeconomic implications, since girls encumbered by child rearing are generally unable to complete their education and are thus consigned to a lifetime of poverty.[7]

International agreements for the protection of women

There are several international agreements that form a basis for peace building with allowance for gender equality.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly and has been since that time the base for all international equality policies. It also demands affirmative measures for the preferential promotion of women and active political and legal steps for gender equality. Another notable platform is the 1995 the Beijing Platform for Action adopted at the United Nations World Conference on Women and armed conflicts.

Based on these two important documents, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325 on women, peace and security in the year 2000. This is the first Security Council resolution dealing with the impact of armed conflicts on women and girls and with their active role in all phases of peace processes, which has contributed to raising international awareness, as evidenced by the following resolutions.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325

In October of 2000, the United Nations Security Council held a debate on Women, Peace and Security, which led to the passage of Security Council Resolution 1325 on 31 October 2000. Among other things, the Resolution recognizes that an understanding of the impact of armed conflict on women and girls and effective institutional arrangements to guarantee their protection and full participation in the peace process, can significantly contribute to international peace and security. The United Nations calls on all parties involved in conflict and peace processes to adopt a gender perspective.[8] This will include supporting local women’s peace initiatives and indigenous processes for conflict resolution. The nongovernmental organization Working Group on Women, Peace and Security is working to ensure the implementation and raise the visibility of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and incorporate more women in peace and security issues.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1820 (2008)

In 2008, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1820 on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post Conflict Situations to halt acts of sexual violence against civilians in conflict zones, which specifies certain points already cited in Resolution 1325 in more detail but also extends it. Greater stress is placed on the prevention and punishment of sexual violence. This has elevated sexual violence to the status of a separate security theme with a direct bearing on peace building, reconciliation and lasting peace. Rape and every other form of sexual violence can therefore be treated as a war crime, a crime against humanity or a constitutive act of genocide.[9]

Another resolution was prepared and adopted in 2009 on the basis of these two documents, Resolution 1888 on the Protection of Women and Girls from Sexual Violence in Armed Conflicts.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1888 (2009)

It calls for the appointment of a special envoy and expert teams to expedite the implementation of Resolution 1820 and provide the United Nation strategy with the necessary leadership. In addition to human rights observers and gender advisers in the course of United Nation peace building and peacekeeping operations, women protection advisers are also to be assigned. It provides for raising the number of women in peacekeeping operations, stepping up training for the protection of the population against sexual violence and ensuring full accountability for offences by personnel.[10] It also places general emphasis on improving the means of sanctioning sexual violence.

Difficulties in implementation and enforcement

Although the importance of these laws, resolutions, conventions and commitments must not be understated, they are limited in their application. International commitments are difficult to enforce in practice because of the limited interpretations of human rights that deny various forms of gender specific violations. Also, a range of cultural, historical and patriarchal justifications exist for the exclusion of gendered concerns in both human rights and human security approaches. This oversight is reflected in the use of language in international laws, in that emphasis is placed on women and girls in isolation as opposed to gender and gender relations. Furthermore, many states have yet to ratify these international commitments. Finally, despite the availability of this information, communication and information sharing with respect to these laws and commitments within organisations and between policymakers and grassroots organisations has been poor.


Despite all the hardship women endure in armed conflicts, the image of women as helpless victims of war is flawed. Women are playing an increasingly active role in hostilities whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Women may be found in military dress or lining the perimeters of prisons to visit relatives. They may be found queuing for food parcels or clearing debris from their shelters in transit camps. Many also play a proactive role post conflict in peace building and social reconstruction. On a daily basis in conflicts around the globe, women demonstrate their resilience by caring for family members and by holding communities together. Much on war’s impact on women depends on how a woman’s personal safety is affected, how well equipped she is to ensure her survival and that of her family, whether she suffers injury or loss and if so how she deals with it. It is also often a consequence of what happened to the men of her family. Women benefit from the general protection afforded by international humanitarian law. Along with the rest of the protected population, they must be able to live free from intimidation and abuse. In addition, international humanitarian law includes a specific protection regime for women, primarily in respect of their health and hygiene needs and their role as mothers. Human rights law and refugee law and guiding principles on internal displacement provide further protection for in times of violence. Hence, the tremendous difficulties women continue to face in today’s conflict do not arise because of gaps in the law, but rather because the law is not sufficiently respected, implemented or enforced.

Real peace does not only mean the end of armed conflict, but rather the establishment of durable and inclusive social institutions. Conventions designed to protect the human rights of marginalised groups, particularly women, during and after conflict do exist. However, the negative impacts of war, such as forced displacement and gender based violence, continue to destroy families and communities. Interventions such as humanitarian aid and peace keeping are meant to alleviate suffering and assist in the reconstruction process, but where administered without regard to gender, they may actually exacerbate inequality.

About the Author



[1] Yoram Dinstein,(2004), The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict, United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press,p.77.
[2] Pablo Antonio Fernandez,(2005), The New Challenges of Humanitarian Law in Armed Conflicts, London, Nijhoff publishers,p.232.
[3] International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 91 Number 875 September 2009, Humanitarian debate: Law, Policy, action Displacement, p.23.
[4] Zarkov, D., Towards a new theorizing of women, gender and war’, in Evans M., K. Davis &
J. Lorber (eds.) Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies, 2006, SAGE, p.214-233
[5] International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 91 Number 875 September 2009, Humanitarian debate: Law, Policy, action Displacement,p.24
[6] Id
[7] Peter D.Trooboff,(1975),Law and Responsibility in Warfare-The Vietnam Experience, United States,University of North Carolina Press.
[8] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1325 (2000), Retrieved April 20,2013 from https://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N00/720/18/PDF/N0072018.pdf?OpenElement
[9] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1820 (2008), Retrieved April 20,2013 from https://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N08/391/44/PDF/N0839144.pdf?OpenElement  (English)
[10] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1888 (2009), Retrieved April 20,2013 from https://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N09/534/46/PDF/N0953446.pdf?OpenElement 
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