International humanitarian law has always accorded women general protection equal to that of men. At the same time, the law recognized the need to give women additional special protection according to their specific needs.
The specific protections for women either as civilians or combatants, are enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and Protocols. Torture or cruel, or degrading treatment, slavery, and servitude are strictly prohibited as is sexual violence, forced prostitution and rape.
Belligerents must afford the same treatment and protection to everyone. No discrimination on the basis of sex is permitted. However, differences in treatment are outlined in international humanitarian law in order to respond to and acknowledge special needs of women. In addition, crucial protection for women taking an active part in hostilities is afforded by limiting the means and methods of warfare. Similarly, wounded, sick, shipwrecked and captured combatants, either women or men must be treated humanly, with due compliance with fundamental guarantees as outlined in article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions.
Provisions of IHL offering specific additional protection to women include, for instance, article 14 of the Third Geneva Convention which stipulates that women be treated with all the regard due to their sex, meaning namely the provision of separate detention quarters and sanitary facilities for female prisoners of war. Similarly, separate sleeping quarters must be provided to women who are interned, and if necessary, only be searched by women.
International humanitarian law scheme also responds to women's particular considerations of privacy and their medical and physiological needs as these are often related to their child-bearing role. Hence, expectant mothers are offered particular protection and respect through the Fourth Geneva Convention, especially in situations of occupation.
ICRC Women and War page
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
FIDH - Droit des Femmes