In the session, religious leaders and civil society experts highlighted the distressing realities and urged joint action by women and men.
"As populations become more technologized, the weapons used in conflicts have become more advanced," said Rev. Nicqi Ashwood, WCC programme executive for Just Community of Women and Men, introducing the session.
"More and more innocent people, especially women and children, have fallen victim to unadulterated violence—weaponized and rendered statistics," she said.
Still, despite the impact of war on their lives and livelihoods, women have not always featured in peace negotiations, speakers noted.
Justice as viewed by victims
Oleksandra Matviichuk heads the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine, which also won the 2022 Right Livelihood Award. She said that after documenting war crimes for nine years, she saw that victims see justice differently.
"At present in Russian-war hit Ukraine, I found myself in a situation where the law doesn't work. Today, we're speaking about women and children in the types of war, and it's hard to discuss. Russia uses war crimes as a method of warfare," said Matviichuk.
Russian troops had "deliberately destroyed" residential buildings, schools, kindergartens, hospitals, organized forced deportations, arrested parents, and sent children for adoption to Russian families with "genocidal intent,” she said. "Occupation means torture, sexual violence, forced disappearances, detention, camps, denial of your identity, or civil adoption of your own child and mass rapes."
When war crimes are committed, the hurt extends beyond the victims. “Their family and neighbors feel guilt because they cannot stop it, and other members of the community feel fear,” Matviichu said. “They also try to fight for human rights and human dignity in circumstances when the law doesn’t work.”
Turning to justice, Matviichuk said that for some victims, justice means seeing their perpetrators put behind bars. “For other victims, justice means to get representation…and for others to be publicly heard."
Answering a question, Matviichuk said it's essential to involve women in all stages of the peace process, not just for themselves, but for their children to prove that "they are also human beings.”
Impact of sexual violence
Thomas Tongun Leone, a medical doctor and coordinator of the Catholic Health Commission of South Sudan, spoke of sexual violence that has plagued Africa's newest country in recent civil conflicts.
He said that the sexual violence which is known about in South Sudan is "deliberate and intended to punish and humiliate people and their communities.
"It can include rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced sterilization, forced marriage, and many other forms," said the South Sudan doctor.
"Sexual violence affects the health of those who experience it, damaging their life experiences," said Leone.
"In physical health, survivors of rape and other forms of sexual violence experienced immediate and long-term physical injuries and face the prospect of being at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases."
Survivors also suffer psychologically. He said South Sudan needs a trauma healing centre to help people who are survivors of sexual violence or other conflicts in the country.
"Coming out of war, we have many traumatized people,” he said.
Joy Eva Bohol, regional migration specialist-Europe, of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, told participants there are more than 17,000 refugees and migrants on the ancient islands around Greece such as Lesbos and Samos.
"So far this year 2,563 people are estimated by the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) to have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, European borders are secured or rather shut for several thousand kilometres.”
"That's worrying for so many people who left places of war and conflict and those who were displaced due to climate change, facing a series of horrific episodes of abuse at the border.
"Women and children are the most vulnerable in these situations.”
Seeking justice, seeking solutions
The victims' stories Matviichuk has documented have a common thread: the perpetrators were confident that they would avoid punishment. “In this regard, it’s very important to provide justice on several levels,” she said. “We have to prosecute perpetrators who commit these crimes with their own hands because they are responsible.”
But justice is not just about the future—it’s about the present, she said, and if government leaders are held responsible for war crimes, perpetrators might hesitate before committing serious crimes. “At least part of the perpetrators will have a doubt that, this time, they will not avoid responsibility,” she said. “It can save thousands and thousands of lives—that’s why justice is so important.”
Carla Khijoyan, WCC programme executive for the Middle East, made suggestions that have the potential to curb incidences of weaponization of women—and also to bring justice to victims and to the next generations.
“So, women as mothers, as sisters, as wives as educators, but also as politicians, mediators, intellectuals,” said Khijoyan, advocating roles for women. “This world needs love, empathy and gentleness, and who better than women to provide this gentleness for us to move forward into a better world?”
Madeleine Rees, secretary general of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, spoke about how men and women need to work together to solve the problems discussed.
"If we insist on having a gender binary and particularly prescribed roles, we're not going to get that because patriarchy is dependent on men performing certain roles and on some women colluding with it.," said Rees.
"And if we don't fix that, we're never going to get to the end of that patriarchal system. So, we'll never get past what you've all been talking about," Rees said.
Sikhonzile Ndlovu, advocacy officer for Gender Justice for the Lutheran World Federation, said she wanted to shift the narrative away from women being victims during conflict and to what role they can play.
"I want to also touch on the structural causes of inequality. Because when we talk about women's participation, wherever women contribute, or their lack of contribution, you know, is ultimately linked to the structural causes of inequality," said Ndlovu.
And referring to women’s presence in decision-making and women's space in public, Ndlovu affirmed, “This doesn't just apply to war and conflict, but all sectors of public life.”
“Women have enormous power and a huge impact,” Matviichuk said. “Women take political decisions in the communities. Bravery has no gender.”