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Old Wars, New Rules – The Impacts of Hybrid Warfare on Women

A few days ago, in her address to the United Nations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the international community of states to “give greater priority on a day-to-day basis to resolution 1325” (of the UN Security Council from the year 2000).1 German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier added: “to an ever greater extent, and ever more frequently, it is non-state actors who are responsible for war and violence – to whom no rules appear to apply, not even the minimum standards of the law of war.” 2

Among others, this includes the terrorist organizations Islamic State (IS) and Boko Haram, neither of which yet appear on the United Nations’ terror list of groups subject to sanctions.

New forms of aggression in current armed conflicts on several continents significantly worsen the situation for people in affected areas. This aggression does not take place on isolated battlefields between armed soldiers, but instead deliberately involves the civilian population in terrorist acts. One consequence of this is that very many women and children become victims of these wars. A new term is used – “hybrid warfare” – which can be explained as follows: it is “the combination of covert and overt operations, of diplomatic pressure and economic coercion, of disinformation and cyber attacks, it is cutting off gas supplies and broadcasting propaganda. It is the intermeshing of military and civilian means. It is, in a word, the blurring of war and non-war.”3 The international legal situation with regard to hybrid warfare is not yet clear.

From the perspective of women and children, who are supposed to be protected as civilians under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, it matters little what name is given to the aggression that fundamentally violates their human rights. Gender-based sexual violence, which is used as a tactical weapon in declared armed conflicts or in “nonwars”, deserves special attention. People are “broken” with brutal violence, and the perpetrators in these often patriarchal societies suggest that men are unable to protect their families, women, and children. Rapes committed to demoralize the enemy – including in specially set-up rape camps – are also used to recruit fighters, to intimidate or drive out the population, and even to generate income by trafficking women. Meanwhile the enslavement of women and girls, forced marriages, and even stonings destabilize communities and often leave former combatants brutalized. Once hostilities cease, this brutalization spills over into reconstructed societies, and there is a significant increase in the form of violence later referred to as “domestic violence.” Sexual violence committed against women and girls implies a security problem in these societies and produces noticeable economic consequences.

As ancient history tells us, sexual violence has “always” been used as a tactical weapon of war. Women and girls were the booty of the victors.

But at least since the time of the founding of the United Nations and the adoption of the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international community has been sure that gender-based, sexual violence in armed conflicts or in “nonwars” is a massive violation of human rights, and should be punished.

Since then, a series of legal instruments for prosecuting these war crimes has been put in place. These include the Rome Statute of 1998, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague; and the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which was supplemented in 2013 with General Recommendation No. 30 for women in conflict prevention, conflict, and post-conflict situations, and which clearly states that the implementation of resolution 1325 falls within the responsibility of every state. Since 2014, the London Protocol – an initiative by British foreign minister William Hague – has provided guidance for combating the human rights violations of sexual violence in war.

UN Security Council resolution 1325 on “women, peace and security”, with eight supplementary follow-up resolutions, is the most comprehensive legal framework for the prosecution of sexual violence and rape in armed conflicts, for the active involvement of women in all phases of conflict management (“women at the peace table”), for conflict prevention (“agents for change”), and for the protection of women and girls.

Unfortunately, resolution 1325 is still not sufficiently respected or implemented on a day-to-day basis. Getting away with war crimes is rather the norm than the exception – this is also seen where there have been attacks during UN peace operations. Thus, a large security gap still exists for women and girls.

At least three “roles” fall to women and girls in current armed conflicts: they are victims of sexual violence in war, they are combatants in the “female brigades” of ISIS or Al-Shabaab militia, and they work to rebuild and shape postwar societies as participants in peace negotiations and/or as Trümmerfrauen or “rubble clearers.”

Although the proportion of signed peace declarations that contain a reference to women has risen from 11 to 27 percent since the adoption of resolution 1325, women are still not involved in peace negotiations in sufficient numbers. I recall the UN special representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, at the Geneva peace talks in 2014, who is said to have called off pending negotiations with the words: “no women in my room.” Not enough consideration is given to women’s knowledge and involvement in reconstruction and conflict prevention.

Far too few women are proposed and appointed by their governments for peace missions. Even though nine women representing the military, police, and civil society received public recognition for their peacebuilding activities on Peacekeeper’s Day 2015 in Germany, women only make up a small share of our German contingents on peace missions.

To date, only 54 states have issued a National Action Plan for resolution 1325. Much too slowly, national governments are beginning to recognize the importance of national healing processes as part of integrated justice and accountability processes, and the decisive role that women play in them.4 Germany’s National Action Plan of 2012 is due for review next year, and in this process German civil society will voice its demands based on experiences of aid work in war zones.

In October 2015, with regard to the current armed conflicts and “nonwars” in Syria and Nigeria, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women (the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women) underlined the call by the UN Secretary-General to affected states and the international community to place gender equality at the heart of interventions. She said that this was the only sustainable, systemic way to prevent and respond to violent extremism, and that empowered women and empowered communities were the best defense against radicalization and further violence. She continued: “We must engender counter-terrorism. We must involve women as equal partners in all peace-building measures. We must protect civil society, find ways and means to provide remedies for women and girls who have experienced sexual violence, and facilitate comprehensive assistance. Mechanisms should be introduced to prevent child marriages and forced marriages. In addition to these measures, there is an immediate urgent need to involve women in the design and provision of humanitarian response that addresses the specific needs of women and girls. Schools must be kept going, not only for the education they give, but for the strength, security and solidity that their routines provide to children whose world is being so profoundly disrupted.”5

She therefore touches on the key point that men and women can only end wars and build peace together – even if it is also becoming clear that “without women, neither peace nor development can be realized.”6

1 Speech by German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the UN Global Leaders’ Meeting in New York, September 27, 2015.

2 Speech by German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the United Nations in New York, October 1, 2015.

3 Matthias Naß, DIE ZEIT, No. 11/2015, March 12, 2015.  

4 Global Study: “Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, Securing the Peace”, October 14, 2015.

5 See­ent-by-executive-director-on-boko-haram

6 Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury , co-initiator of resolution 1325, September 7, 2015.


Karin Nordmeyer

Karin Nordmeyer is a human rights activist specializing in women’s rights. Since the 1990s, she has worked in the Council of Europe as a representative of Zonta International, where she was spokeswoman for the Conference of International Non-Governmental Organisations in the drafting of the text of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and the Istanbul Convention. Through her longstanding involvement in the institutions of the Council of Europe, she is familiar with the women’s rights situation in the Balkan regions and in many Eastern European countries. Since 2004, she has been chairwoman of UN Women Nationales Komitee Deutschland e.V. (formerly UNIFEM), the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women. Karin Nordmeyer represents the association on German and international committees. She is a member of the German delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and has been appointed to the German federal government’s advisory board for civil crisis prevention.

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All articles in this issue

Hybrid Attacks Demand Comprehensive Defense
Bastian Giegerich
Hybrid Wars. The Dissolution of the Binary Order of War and Peace, and Its Consequences
Herfried Münkler
"Hybrid Warfare" – A Possible Trigger for Advances in the Comprehensive Approach?
Fouzieh Melanie Alamir
From Hybrid Threats to Hybrid Security Policy
Christian Mölling
Just Peacemaking and Hybrid Wars
Drew Christiansen SJ
Old Wars, New Rules – The Impacts of Hybrid Warfare on Women
Karin Nordmeyer
Myths of Hybrid Warfare
Mary Ellen O’Connell
"Hybrid Warfare" and the Continuing Relevance of the Just War Tradition in the 21st Century
David Whetham
Media Battlefields: Hybrid Wars and Their Communicative Declarations of War
Bernd Zywietz


Michael Gmelch Jan Heymann Andreas-Martin Seidl Elke Tießler-Marenda Jürgen Weigt