International Justice Must Include Women

July 17, 2016

Violence devastates the lives of millions of women and girls worldwide every year (Photo Credit: Mahmud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo Credit: Mahmud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images)

By Nicole van Huyssteen and Magdalena Medley, Women’s Human Rights Thematic Specialists 

Ask yourself a question: When you think about war, what is the first image that comes to mind? Do you consider how it affects women?

Women and girls are usually forgotten when thinking about armed conflict, yet they are uniquely and disproportionately affected by it. They represent a high number of casualties of war* and many are victims of rape and sexual violence, which are often used as strategic tools of war to terrorize women and their communities.

On the other hand, women are also active agents in times of armed conflict. They can be powerful advocates for peace. In fact, a new study shows that a peace agreement is 35 percent more likely to last  if women take part in its creation. Nonetheless, too often women are underrepresented or left out of negotiations. Between 1992 and 2011, only nine percent of negotiators in peace processes were women.

As we observe International Justice Day, women and girls must be part of the conversation, especially in three main areas: protection, participation, and prevention.


During the last fifteen years, significant advances have been made in international law and jurisprudence to better protect women and girls and secure justice for conflict-related, gender-based violence. In 2000, the United Nations Security Council adopted landmark Resolution 1325, which calls on all UN member states to increase the participation of women and to include a gender perspective in all peacekeeping operations, and subsequent Resolutions 1820 and 1888 acknowledge the explicit impact of sexual violence in conflict and recognize the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) criminalizes sexual and gender violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity in its statute. These crimes include rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilizations, gender-based prosecutions, trafficking of persons, and sexual violence.

The criminalization of these types of crimes is extremely important to protect women from not only armed conflict but also government practices during times of peace. For example, in Peru during the 1990s around 200,000 women – mainly peasant and indigenous – were sterilized as part of a demographic control policy targeted at those living in poverty.

Yet eighteen years after the first charges were filed, victims of this grave violation of human rights are still awaiting justice. You can read the full case and help Amnesty achieve justice for these women by taking action here.

While these international resolutions and statutes represent some of the significant measures that have been adopted to prevent, monitor, and respond to violence against women in conflict, women continue to be targets of sexual and gender-based violence, and many, like those in Peru, are still waiting for justice.


For peace building initiatives to be sustainable long-term, it is important to include women at every level of the process—not only as victims of conflict. Women bring different perspectives and priorities than men, and their participation is critical to the success of both formal and informal post-conflict peace building processes.

Fawzia Nawabi, investigator at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Mazar-e-Sharif, gathers information in a local women's prison.
Fawzia Nawabi, investigator at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Mazar-e-Sharif, gathers information in a local women’s prison.

On a formal level, international bodies should strive to set an example for the international community when it comes to gender equality. Not only for the sake of gender parity, but also because the perspective of women judges, advocates and staff are more likely to contribute to women’s rights. Yet women are woefully underrepresented in almost all of the international courts, tribunals, and United Nations monitoring bodies. In 2016, not only will the UN’s next Secretary-General be appointed, but several UN Special Procedures (human rights experts) and other monitoring bodies will gain new appointments. Now is the time to lead by example by ensuring that these appointments make significant strides in achieving gender parity in the international system.

On a local and regional level, involving women in informal access to justice programs is another way in which we can support women’s rights and gender equality. These mechanisms are often the primary legal resource for the majority of citizens in post-conflict countries. It is therefore important that women are encouraged to participate in these processes, particularly in societies where traditional justice may be gender-biased, or where traditional or cultural norms prohibit women from accessing justice in any meaningful way.

In South Sudan, for example, most disputes are still resolved through traditional, customary structures and institutions, which often undermine and victimize women, particularly in rural communities. As a result, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has sponsored paralegal training on access to justice and human rights, which has enabled women to empower and protect the lives of other women in their communities. And in Nepal, a local survivor-led organization offers a paralegal training program to female trafficking survivors to empower women to achieve financial independence to protect themselves, and to act as leaders and legal resources for their communities and other victims.

These are only a few of the ways in which women contribute to the strengthening of judicial systems globally.


An international system of justice is essential to enable victims to obtain justice and redress, and to rebuild and support the rehabilitation of post-conflict societies. Countries with higher levels of gender equality are less likely to resort to use of force, and security of women is one of the most reliable indicators of the peacefulness of a State.

Although women have already made significant contributions to both formal and informal peacebuilding processes and access to justice initiatives worldwide, there is still a long way to go in ensuring that gender perspectives and participation are prioritized and sufficiently integrated in justice initiatives globally.

We need to ensure that women are seen as equal contributors and agents of change, and not only as victims of war or silent heads of households.

To learn more about how you can campaign for international justice in the aftermath of crisis, download Amnesty’s Activist Handbook here.

*Casualties of war include those killed or injured in or because of war.