Prague, 8 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, civilians have been engulfed by violence for most of the past decade.
Tens of thousands of civilians are believed to have died during Russia's two wars in the North Caucasus. Many more have been displaced, forced to seek refuge in Daghestan, Ingushetia, and elsewhere as their homeland is systematically destroyed.
In Chechnya, as in conflicts the world over, women suffer a particularly heavy burden.
They see their husbands and sons die, and often struggle alone to provide food and shelter for their families.
And with the recent emergence of female Chechen suicide bombers, women are now seen as an enemy in their own right. Some are coerced into terrorist acts by armed separatist militants. Amnesty says many are tortured, raped, and even murdered by Russian federal forces.
One woman described her treatment to Amnesty while being detained by Russian soldiers.
"They stretched me on the bed and handcuffed me. My arms were swollen. I was asking, 'Where am I?' But they gagged me and said, 'You are BVP [disappeared]. You don't exist. Time has stopped for you.' I spent several days like this. The entire time I just wanted to know where I was," she said.
"Women deserve justice. They are demanding justice, and we think now there is a great opportunity in the International Criminal Court to bring to justice perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities of violence against women."
In a new report titled "Lives Blown Apart," Amnesty International looks at the crisis of women living in conflict. From Colombia and Sudan to Nepal and the Middle East, millions of women and girls are targeted for violence or otherwise forced to endure consequences of armed conflict.
"The vast majority of victims of modern war happen to be women and girls," said Irene Khan, Amnesty's secretary-general. "The women and girls are not just killed. They are raped, sexually attacked, mutilated, and humiliated. And the sexual violence is not just an accident of war, it is actually a tool of terror used to uproot people, to humiliate communities, and destroy women's lives. Women's bodies and women's lives are not acceptable collateral of war."
The Amnesty report is part of the organization's global campaign Stop Violence Against Women. Launched in March, the two-part campaign looked first at the problem of domestic violence.
In its new stage, which examines the millions of women living in conflict worldwide, Amnesty has documented the cases of hundreds of women and girls living in war-torn regions.
In African countries like Uganda and Sierra Leone, girls as young as 12 years old are used as soldiers and sexual slaves. Women in Sudan have been routinely raped by Arab militiamen -- assaults that cause not only physical harm but a powerful social stigma.
As grown men die in conflicts, millions of women around the world are forced into prostitution as a way to feed their families. This in turn has caused a sharp rise in the spread of HIV/AIDS through female populations.
Women also make up the majority of people displaced by conflict. There are believed to be 40 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide. Of those, a staggering 80 percent are estimated to be women and children.
Even in postconflict countries like Afghanistan, women continue to suffer profound discrimination that limits their ability to contribute to the development of society.
Women were stripped of nearly all their rights under the Taliban and forced in many parts of the country to live according to strict male-dominant traditions. Even now -- as one rights activist told Amnesty -- Afghan women remain largely sidelined from the country's political and social process.
"During all the fighting, we can remember that it was always women and children who were targeted by different armed groups as a military tool to weaken their military opponents. And I think that it made women that much more fragile -- women still cannot dare to at least to take part in social life," the activist said.
Afghanistan's October presidential election marked a potential milestone for the country's women, who made up 40 percent of potential voters. But many women were forcibly prevented from voting in conservative regions of southern Afghanistan -- in many instances, by members of their own family.
Shahida Barmal of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission says progress has been made in helping many women support themselves and their families. But she said much needs to be done to ensure that women are given legal and political protection.
"My biggest hope for women is that they should have equal rights with men. This is the main dream in my life. I hope that one day my dream will come true, and it will be possible to see men and women with equal rights in Afghanistan," Barmal said. Governments Not Helping
Amnesty says governments worldwide have done little to protect women living in conflict and postconflict situations. The group is fighting back, calling on governments to honor their international commitments to protect women's rights.
The UN war crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda were seen as major steps forward in terms of recognizing crimes against female civilians. Khan says the new International Criminal Court can develop that trend further.
"Women deserve justice. They are demanding justice, and we think now there is a great opportunity in the International Criminal Court to bring to justice perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities of violence against women. We also think it is important that women should be involved in the process of peace, in rebuilding societies where women do not suffer violence, where women can enjoy equality," Khan said.
The U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq -- and the violent insurgency it has sparked -- continue to take a profound toll on civilian life in the country. Some 75 percent of casualties in Iraq are believed to be civilians, and recent estimates say the civilian death toll in the war is at least 14,600.
An Iraqi man spoke to Amnesty in English on behalf of his 13-year-old niece, who lost her father, brother, and two sisters when their car was caught in a gunfight near a traffic checkpoint in Baghdad.
"She said, 'My father is dead. My whole family is dead. Please help me,' but no one could get to the car. Where is the liberty they talked about? Is this liberty democratic? I don't know. I don't think so," he said.
The Abu Ghurayb prison scandal focused the world's attention on the treatment of male Iraqi detainees by American military personnel. But thousands of women have also been detained in an attempt to uncover information about the growing insurgency.
This 18-year-old woman says she and her 12-year-old sister were sleeping at home when coalition forces broke into their house and took them to a military base for questioning.
"People were shouting and screaming, women and men. We also heard the sound of beating, of people saying, 'Speak, speak!' And people responding with, 'What should I say? I don't know anything,'" the woman said.
Amnesty International says violence against women and children is often tolerated -- or even ordered -- in wartime. It is a strategy, much like any other aspect of war.
But Amnesty notes such violence is not inevitable. If governments are forced to recognize their international commitments to protect the rights of women, the group says, the horrors of Sudan, Chechnya, and Iraq could become a thing of the past.