Julie A Mertus, 'War's Offensive on Women. The Humanitarian Challenge in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan'

IssueJune - August 2002
Review by Sian Jones

War's Offensive on Women catalogues the failure of the international humanitarian community to address the needs - and rights - of women in war, and provides that community with concrete recommendations for respecting women's human rights in war.

Mertus makes a useful addition to the debate on gender-sensitive approaches to both the protection of refugees and internally displaced persons, and the administration of humanitarian and development assistance.

Identifying the different protection needs of refugee women, internally displaced women and those described as “war-imperilled” women (those who remain in war zones), Mertus then cogently argues that all of these women face similar threats - from discrimination to gender-based violence. Yet - in law - only refugee women are currently provided with international protection.

Mertus advocates a gendered human rights approach to women in war as an antidote to the emphasis on needs-based protection, which often denies the protection of women's human rights. This is highlighted in Judy Benjamin's account of the international agencies working in pre-11 September Afghanistan. There, the conflict between needs and rights was compromised in that agencies had to negotiate with the Taliban to provide basic humanitarian assistance, while simultaneously attempting to protect the rights of Afghan women and girls.

Through two other cases-studies on Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosova - Mertus catalogues both the sometimes well-intentioned, but often totally inappropriate, attempts of aid and development agencies to address the needs of women. She demonstrates how the agency of domestic women's groups was at worst ignored, and at best undermined and controlled by international agencies, whose policies forced women's groups to jump through funding hoops set by the international donors merely to survive.

These case studies ably illustrate the effects of the gap between the laudable policies on gender adopted by humanitarian agencies, and their actual practice - which, Mertus argues, has failed women. (For a description of the conflict within humanitarian organisations on gender policy, and on the tension between “female” development work and the “masculine” sphere of emergency aid see, for example, Tony Vaux, The Selfish Altruist.)

Mertus then goes on to chart the development of international humanitarian law that should protect women in war. From Grotius' observation in 1623-4 that rape “should not go unpunished any more in war than in peace”, she charts the development of the prohibition of rape in war from the 1907 Hague Convention, through the Geneva Conventions to the statutes of the ad hoc criminal tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, where finally the perpetrators of sexual violence against women in war can be tried. But although international humanitarian law and human rights law are clear about the protection women have a right to expect, they have - with some exceptions - conspicuously failed women: even now Canada is the only state to consistently provide refugee status to women under the 1951 Refugee Convention on the grounds of gender-based discrimination or persecution including sexual violence.

The final chapter - a series of recommendations aimed at humanitarian organisations - is perhaps too specific for the general reader, and too general for professionals, but if Wa'rs Offensive on Women was received in the spirit in which it was written, women war survivors would perhaps be less frequently subjected to further abuses of their rights, currently ignored and sometimes actively denied by the very agencies that are ostensibly there to protect them.

Topics: War and peace, Women
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