April 2014Volume 19Number 5PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Women in conflict—A UN response

“It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict.”

—Major General Patrick Cammaert,
former UN force commander


In areas of armed conflict, horrifying reports of violent rapes made their way to the United Nations Security Council. Rather than conventional war tools such as guns, tanks, and bombs, raping and abusing women seemingly became a favorite tactic in many war-torn countries.

The most brutal stories of sexual violence come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.1 Soldiers in the Congo “trademark” their manner of violating women. After raping a woman, certain groups of soldiers shoot a gun into her vagina. Other groups of soldiers rape with bayonets, sometimes causing fistulas, or holes between a woman’s vagina and one or more of her internal organs. These fistulas can leak urine or feces, causing other health issues.2 In developing countries, a woman’s virtue is prized, whether through virginity or fidelity to her husband. These brutal rapes result in shaming of the victim and their husbands, families, and communities oftentimes shun raped women. Degradation of the women may also be viewed as degrading the family and community. These tactics have proved more destabilizing than traditional warfare, as these soldiers have managed to humiliate, infect, and disperse their victims.

While the circumstances of sexual violence are horrifying, the aftermath is arguably more shocking. In 2013 study by the World Health Organization, “women who had been physically or sexually abused were 1.5 times more likely to have a sexually transmitted infection.”3 In the Congo, roughly 30% of raped women now have the HIV virus.4 This statistic is alarming, particularly in Africa, where the AIDS/HIV epidemic continues to take the lives of millions. AIDS/HIV in third world countries often is a death sentence. Women infected through rape and sexual violence quite literally die as a result of infection by rape.

These reports and statistics alarmed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and in 2000, the UNSC took its first stance on the rights of women in armed conflicts. That first step led to the adoption of no less than six additional resolutions on women in conflict. Over the last decade, the theme of women, peace and security has resulted in more resolutions than any other theme area addressed by the United Nations Security Council. While these resolutions are certainly steps in the right direction, much more work needs to be done to protect women in conflict.

Resolution 1325 (2000)

Resolution 1325 was the UNSC’s first response to issues facing women in armed conflict.5 This resolution was groundbreaking because it urged women to take an active role in the prevention of conflicts, resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, and humanitarian response. Additionally, the resolution stressed the equality of women in the efforts to maintain international peace and security.

This resolution brought to light many alarming statistics about issues facing women in conflict. First, the resolution expressed concern that women and children account for the majority of displaced persons and refugees during times of armed conflict. Additionally, as violence against women has become a war tool, particularly in African countries such as the Congo, this resolution addressed sexual abuse in armed conflict. Specifically, violence against women includes “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”6 Resolution 1325 called on member states to take the necessary measures to ensure women and girls are free from gender-based violence in times of conflict.

Not only did Resolution 1325 offer insight into the key issues facing women in conflict, but it also offered some suggested solutions on how to address these issues. First, the resolution urged member states to incorporate women into the decision-making process, particularly regarding the “prevention, management, and resolution of conflict.”7 Additionally, the resolution urged the Secretary General of the United Nations to appoint more women as representatives in order to “expand the role and contribution of women in the United Nations.”8

Resolution 1820 (2008)

Security Council Resolution 1820 expanded on Resolution 1325, but this resolution emphasized the important issues surrounding rape and gender violence against women.9 The Security Council noted that civilians are most affected by armed conflict. Among those civilians are women and girls, who are targeted through use of gender-based sexual violence.10 In conflicts, rape and other forms of sexual violence have been employed as “a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group; and that sexual violence perpetrated in this manner may in some instances persist after the cessation of hostilities.”11

The Security Council expressed its deep concern that, despite the illegality of such acts of violence, rape and sexual violence continue to occur, becoming “systematic and widespread, reaching appalling levels of brutality.”12 Given such acts of violence were occurring at this time, the Security Council demanded the “immediate and complete cessation” of acts of sexual violence.13 The Security Council further noted that those engaging in sexual violence are engaging in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and/or a consecutive act with respect to genocide. As such, the Security Council demanded that member states prosecute those engaging in such acts of sexual violence to ensure that women have equal protection under international law. The Security Council further requested a zero tolerance policy with regards to rape as a war tool and encouraged militaries to educate their troops about issues facing women in armed conflict.

Resolution 1888 (2009)

On September 30, 2009, the Security Council passed resolution 1888.14 Essentially, this resolution expounded on previous resolutions regarding women in conflict, because the Security Council remained “deeply concerned over the lack of progress on the issue of sexual violence in situations of armed conflict in particular against women and children, notably girls.”15

The Security Council reminded all member states of their duty to prosecute those responsible for “genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other egregious crimes perpetrated against civilians, and in this regard, noting with concern that only limited numbers of perpetrators of sexual violence have been brought to justice, while recognizing that in conflict and in post conflict situations national justice systems may be significantly weakened.”16 To hold perpetrators responsible, the Security Council suggested the use of international criminal courts.

While much of the resolution recounts data and suggestions made in the previous resolutions on sexual violence, it is clear in this resolution that the Security Council is extremely alarmed about the growing issue of sexual violence in armed conflict. To address the issue, the Security Council uses strong language, demanding that parties to armed conflicts take immediate action to protect women and children.

Resolution 1889 (2009)

Shortly after Resolution 1888, on October 5, 2009, the Security Council passed Resolution 1889.17 In contrast to the earlier resolutions, this one focused on the lack of women in leadership positions in member states and the United Nations itself. The Security Council noted the need for women leadership in order to end issues women face, particularly issues of sexual violence. In expressing its concern about the lack of women in leadership roles, the United Nations Security Council noted that these issues continue in post-conflict times.

Without the involvement of women in post-conflict life, women may face more “violence and intimidation, lack of security and lack of rule of law, cultural discrimination and stigmatization, including the rise of extremist or fanatical views on women, and socio-economic factors including the lack of access to education.”18 Additionally, the Security Council noted that women should not be viewed as victims but rather should be empowered by giving women active roles in peace building.19 The Security Council continued to condemn sexual violence against women, but the main message of this resolution centered on the need for female leadership around the world. To ensure women are treated fairly, the Security Council noted its intention to include provisions promoting gender equality in all mandates of the United Nations.

Resolution 2106 (2013)

On June 24, 2013, the Security Council passed Resolution 2106, which prohibits sexual violence in armed conflict and post-conflict situations.20 This resolution recognized the Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence, which was adopted during the London G8 conference in April 2013. In this resolution, the Security Council sought to affirm women’s political, social, and economic empowerment. The Security Council reaffirmed that rape and other acts of sexual violence in armed conflict are war crimes, and Member States should prosecute violators.

Resolution 2106 noted that systematic monitoring of acts of sexual violence was essential. It urged member states to encourage timely, objective and accurate information as a basis for prevention of sexual violence.

The resolution also called for the deployment of Women Protection Advisors (WPA) in accordance with Resolution 1888.21 These WPA’s will contribute to the monitoring and reporting of sexual violence in order to comply with the UN’s requirements of data collection regarding sexual violence. WPA’s additionally will prepare reports on investigations of human rights violations so the UN and member states understand patterns and trends of sexual violence. In working closely with peacekeepers and injured persons, WPA’s are asked to be professional and empathetic while working to gather information about sexual violence in conflict areas.

The Security Council emphasized the important role members of society—particularly women’s organizations—play in raising awareness about the importance of preventing sexual violence during armed conflicts. To prevent these situations, a zero tolerance policy will ensure full accountability by Member States if conduct by their nationals violates this resolution.

Resolution 2122 (2013)

Most recently, on October 18, 2013, the UNSC reaffirmed its commitments to the previously stated resolutions and urged all states to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW currently has 187 state parties, not including the United States.22 Resolution 2122 further emphasized “persisting barriers to full implementation of Resolution 1325 (2000) will only be dismantled through dedicated commitment to women’s empowerment, participation, and human rights, and through concerted leadership, consistent information and action, and support, to build women’s engagement in all levels of decision-making.”23

Like prior resolutions, Resolution 2122 expressed deep concern about the human rights violations against women in armed conflict. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable during conflicts, and the international community must do more to ensure that differentiated impacts on women are limited. The Security Council additionally condemned all violations of international law, but particularly violations including women and girls involving rape, sexual and gender based violence, killing and maiming, obstructions to humanitarian aid, and mass forced displacement.

“Stop Rape Now”

In addition to adopting the above resolutions, the United Nations took action against sexual violence in armed conflict through its campaign “Stop Rape Now.”24 This campaign works to prevent all forms of gender-based violence, including sexual violence in conflict. The goal of “Stop Rape Now” is to “generate public awareness on the growing use of sexual violence as a weapon of warfare, and how to prevent it; end impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict; improve and scale up services for survivors; address the longer- term impacts of sexual violence on communities and national development.”25

Although sexual violence in conflict areas is still prevalent, the “Stop Rape Now” campaign has given women in war-torn countries a voice they lacked before. Women were often ignored or hurt for speaking out against the violence they faced. Now, women are telling their stories and bringing awareness to the terrible situations they face. As women continue to tell their stories, awareness will continue spread throughout the international community. Such awareness may bring relief to women worldwide.


According to Pablo Castillo Diaz of UN Women, these resolutions addressing women, peace and security have changed the normative landscape and practice at the United Nations.26 Soldiers and other high-ranking officials who commit rape are being put on trial.27 Peacebuilding funds have significantly increased in the last three years, as has the number of women serving on important commissions. Women now hold positions of leadership in the UN, such as Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. And the participation of women is changing the conversation, bringing more focus to issues such the need for access to clean drinking water and childcare.28 Former Under-Secretary General of the UN, Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy is also encouraged by these UN resolutions, prosecutions of perpetrators in international criminal tribunals, and the robust monitoring and reporting requirements that have been adopted with respect to women in conflict, which are the most extensive requirements as compared to any other issue.29 As a result of these measures, she asserts, there has been “a sea change in attitude” in the international community. Thus, progress is being made.

But that progress is slow. Female peacekeepers have only increased from 1% in 1993 to 4% in 2014.30 Enforcement and implementation by states of many aspects of these UN resolutions and treaty obligations designed to protect women remain limited.31 For example, some of the posts created to monitor sexual violence remain unfilled and funds are lacking to carry out the mission. Thus, much more work remains to be done, both to protect women during conflict and to ensure gender equity in post-conflict goals set forth in these UN resolutions are achieved. ■


Cindy Galway Buys is a Professor of Law and Director of International Law Programs at Southern Illinois University School of Law. She serves on both the Women and the Law Committee and the International and Immigration Law Section Council of the ISBA.

Julia Kaye Wykoff is a student at Southern Illinois University School of Law. She is specializing in international law.

1. Stephanie Nolen,”Not Women anymore. . .”, Ms. Magazine (spring 2005), http://www.msmagazine.com/spring2005/congo.asp.

2. Fast Facts & FAQ, Fistula Foundation, (accessed on March 25, 2014), http://www.fistulafoundation.org/what-is-fistula/fast-facts-faq/.

3. World Health Organization, Violence against women, Fact Sheet N 239 (updated Oct. 2013), http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/.

4. Nolen, supra note 3.

5. S.C. Res. 1325, U.N. Doc. S/RES/1325 (Oct. 31, 2000).

6. Global Norms and Standards: Ending Violence Against Women, UN Women, (accessed on March 25, 2014), http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/global-norms-and-standards.

7. Id. at ¶ 1.

8. Id. at ¶ 3-4.

9. S.C. Res. 1820, U.N. Doc. S/RES/1820 (June 19, 2008).

10. Id.

11. Id.

12. Id.

13. Id. at ¶ 2.

14. S.C. Res. 1888, U.N. Doc. S/RES/1888 (Sept. 30, 2009).

15. Id.

16. Id.

17. S.C. Res. 1889, U.N. Doc. S/RES/1889 (Oct. 5, 2009).

18. Id.

19. Id.

20. See S.C. Res. 2106, U.N. Doc. S/RES/2106 (June 24, 2013).

21. Id. at ¶ 7.

22. United Nations Treaty Collection, (accessed on March 24, 2014), https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-8&chapter=4&lang=en

23. See S.C. Res. 2122, U.N. Doc. S/RES/2122 (Oct. 18, 2013).

24. Stop Rape Now, Stop Rape Now (accessed on March 1, 2014), http://www.stoprapenow.org/about/.

25. Stop Rape Now: U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, Stop Rape Now (accessed on March 1, 2014), http://www.stoprapenow.org/uploads/aboutdownloads/1282162584.pdf.

26. Pablo Castillo, Comments delivered at the American Association of Law Schools Annual Meeting, New York NY, Jan. 3, 2014. United Nations Women, (accessed on March 25, 2014), http://www.unwomen.org/.

27. DR Congo officers in rape and war crimes trial, BBC News Africa (Nov. 20, 2013), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-25019953.

28. UN Women, Facts and Figures, http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation/facts-and-figures#notes

29. Radhika Coomaraswary, Grotius Lecuture delivered at ASIL Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C., Apr. 9, 2014.

30. United Nations Peacekeeping, Gender Statistics, http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/resources/statistics/gender.shtml

31. Coomaraswamy, supra note 31.

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