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100 years of Women in War

On International Women's Day in our centenary year, Red Cross looks at Women in War.

Tuesday March 11, 2014


"You need to be resilient, you need to have unrelenting faith in humanity, you need hope, and you need to be 100 per cent neutral and impartial." They are words that echo across three generations of Red Cross women who have served in conflict zones from World War II to Vietnam and Afghanistan.

See our moving video about Red Cross Women and War.

To mark International Women's Day in its centenary year, Australian Red Cross hosted an event at the Melbourne Town Hall on March 12 highlighting 'women and war', the protections they are provided, and the increasing contribution women have made on the front line of major conflicts as humanitarian workers.

Women have become increasingly involved in conflicts over the past century, as combatants, civilians caught up in the violence and humanitarian workers.

"Red Cross and war are closely linked, particularly here in Australia, where Red Cross was formed 100 years ago at the outbreak of World War I," explains Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, author of the book Women and War. "Since then, women have played a significant role in Red Cross' work in conflicts."

"During World War II, more than 450,000 Australians were members of Red Cross. With 95 per cent of members being women, Red Cross was probably the largest women's organisation in Australian history," she says.

"By the end of World War II, Australian Red Cross had developed its Field Force. That's where you get young Australian women who wanted to do something actively for the war joining Red Cross and serving overseas."

About 540 Australians, including 193 women, served overseas as part of the Field Force during World War II, predominantly working with wounded soldiers. Australian Red Cross Field Force officers continued to work in conflicts, including Korea and Vietnam, until it was reorganised in 1988.

Today their successors - specialist Red Cross aid workers - are providing humanitarian relief around the world, many of them in conflict zones. From health specialists in South Sudan to protection delegates in Afghanistan, 20 of the 26 Australian Red Cross aid workers currently working in conflict zones around the world are women.

Dr Helen Durham, Director of International Humanitarian Law at Australian Red Cross, said that during armed conflict women face threats to their personal security, often experience sexual violence, are regularly forced to flee from their homes and have limited freedom of movement. "They also struggle with basic rights, such as food and water, shelter, sources of livelihood and access to healthcare."

"It is also important to acknowledge that women increasingly play a direct role during armed conflicts as combatants."

"International humanitarian law acknowledges that women have specific needs. And thus we can see a range of protections in IHL - the laws of war - that are unique to women both as civilians and combatants." she said.