An October 20 report from UN Women, the United Nations organization dedicated to protecting gender equality and women’s legal rights, details the devastating impact of the crisis in Gaza on women. Upward of 400,000 women and girls have been displaced from their homes in Gaza, it reports; an increasing number are widows; thousands more are suffering fear and depression. Though UN Women describes itself as “a global champion for women and girls,” and its press release calls it “imperative” to “ensure the prevention of gender-based violence,” the group chose in its report to ignore the atrocities against women committed by Hamas. These include murder, sex crimes and the intentional abuse of hundreds of women, teens and young girls during their incursion in Israel—not to mention those still held captive by the terrorist organization.
The report’s only reference to Hamas’s crimes is an aside written in a dry and gender-neutral manner: “…the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, which resulted in an estimated 1,400 dead, 4,629 wounded and some 200 people taken hostage…”
Such silence is not new. Throughout history, the wartime rape of women has been considered inevitable, necessary—like crimes such as looting—for maintaining the morale of the combatants. The conquest of women through rape was, for generations, a standard of victory, proof of the soldier’s masculinity, part of his success and a tangible reward for his service. Later the prevailing approach was that there would undoubtedly be some cases of rape, but that these were unavoidable. International law was mute, and in times of conflict, for many years, women were excluded from the protection of the law.
This gender subjugation slowed the statutory development of the crime of rape in state law and in international criminal law as well. This silence continued through two world wars. The constitutions of the first two international tribunals established in Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II were also silent on this topic, despite the mountains of reports that explicitly documented acts of rape, forced sterilization, forced abortions, pornographic exploitation and sadistic sexual assaults that had been committed in wartime.
It was only in the second half of the 20th century that international criminal law recognized rape as a crime—but only as a crime against women’s “honor.” In 1949, with the signing of the Geneva Conventions, the international community explicitly addressed the concept of “rape” for the first time in the context of protecting civilians during war. Article 27 of the Convention states that “Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honor, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.” This article reflects the concept that rape, during armed conflict, is a crime not primarily against the woman but against the honor of the family and the nation. The body of the raped woman is a symbolic battlefield, ground trampled in the march of the victorious battalions.
However, associating the act of rape with injury to honor obscured the brutality of the bodily harm it caused. It led to a discussion focused on society, not the victimized women. In addition, although this article requires the conquering army to protect women from rape, the language of the Convention does not explicitly characterize acts of rape or sexual violence as crimes. This is because protection of the victim is not defined as protection against the physical harm that may be caused, or the emotional damage, or the injury to their “dignity” as a human being, but only as protection against the violation of their “honor,” an abstract criterion that is difficult to prove.
At the beginning of the 1990s, a new era began with the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the inclusion of sex crimes in international criminal law. In the constitution of the international tribunal in Yugoslavia, rape was added to the list of crimes against humanity, and in its rulings the tribunal recognized rape as torture. The Rwanda tribunal’s constitution, too, defines rape as a “crime against humanity.” That constitution also expanded the authority of the court and explicitly included the crime of rape as one of a list of violations that are also considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions. In 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the Akayesu ruling established for the first time that sexual violence can constitute a crime against humanity and a tool of genocide by a government official.
The 1998 Rome Statute, under which the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established, represented another landmark. Although the United States, Israel and a few other countries have not ratified this treaty, the Rome Statute codifies all the criminal offenses recognized by international law and is supported by a respectable majority of the world’s countries. Significantly, the Rome Statute determined that sexual crimes are subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC and established a clear procedure to ensure that the crimes and their victims are dealt with appropriately. Thus, only 25 years ago, sex offenses were anchored as crimes in international law.
The October 7 Hamas attack showed that sex crimes are not absent from the modern battlefield. According to the testimonies of captured terrorists, and material from the battle plans seized in various arenas, the rape of Israeli women, teens and young girls was part of the Hamas battle plan. Shocking evidence of serious sexual abuse was apparently filmed by the Hamas perpetrators themselves. First-hand accounts by massacre survivors further attest to these facts.
And yet, with regard to these intentional and planned sex crimes, carried out to terrorize and to use women’s bodies to humiliate the Israeli people, the international feminist community has chosen to remain silent. UN Women, an organization that strives for gender equality and seeks to be a reliable partner for lawyers and decision-makers, and to lead the effort to achieve gender equality, has ignored and continues to actively and consciously ignore the horrific sexual crimes committed by Hamas and excludes these crimes from the moral and legal discourse. It’s silence once again, and this time not at the hands of men, but of feminist women. Worse than silence, some actually deny what happened to Israeli women at the hands of Hamas terrorists.
As an international society, we must not remain complicit in this silence. The distortion must be exposed, and the silence must be broken. We must reveal the scale of the sexual crimes committed by Hamas, support the victims and bring the criminals to justice.
Alona Hagay Frey is a research fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and the author of Sex and Gender Crimes in the New International Law.
Top Image: Dafna Elyakim, the fifteen-year-old hostage represented in this mural, was released as part of Biden’s hostage deal on November 26. Photo credit: Oren Rozen/CC BY-SA 4.0