Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Women and War Crimes

Picture1By Margaret Drew, Associate Professor of Law, UMass Law School

Women have been raped and otherwise assaulted during war as far as memory can reach.  Domestic abuse also increases during war, with women being the primary targets.

Sexual abuse of women and girls is tactic of war, not a byproduct of war.

As Jewish women have been attempting to tell the world, the female Hamas captives and other victims suffered horrific sexual and other gender-based abuse.  A New York Times investigation found that rape was not an isolated offense, but part of a pattern of gender-based violence by Hamas.  There is no reason to hide the graphic details.  Women for generations have attempted to call attention to their suffering during war only to be unheard.  Following the October 7th attack, bodies of women were found with legs splayed and clothing torn.  Women alive and dead were found with genital injuries.

One survivor gave a detailed account of sexual abuse of women during the attack as reported by the New York Times:

“The first victim she said she saw was a young woman with copper-color hair, blood running down her back, pants pushed down to her knees. One man pulled her by the hair and made her bend over. Another penetrated her, Sapir said, and every time she flinched, he plunged a knife into her back.  She said she then watched another woman “shredded into pieces.” While one terrorist raped her, she said, another pulled out a box cutter and sliced off her breast.  “One continues to rape her, and the other throws her breast to someone else, and they play with it, throw it, and it falls on the road,” Sapir (the survivor) said.  She said the men sliced her face and then the woman fell out of view. Around the same time, she said, she saw three other women raped and terrorists carrying the severed heads of three more women.” 

Some Jewish women blame other women for the lack attention to their plight.  #Me TooUnlessYou’reaJew particularly addresses the failure of United Nations Women to immediately recognize and condemn the slaughter and abuse of women.  On December 1, 2023 UN Women finally issued a statement that recognized Hamas’ actions but was without detail and was without an action plan other than encouraging women from Israel and Gaza to report abuse.

The failure of the world to act has little to do with the fact that the sexually abused and killed women were Jewish.  I do not know of a war in which there has not been initial or ongoing sexual abuse of women.  The Serbian-Bosnian war is the most recent example of widespread sexual abuse of women during war.  In that case one Serbian motivation was to impregnate Bosnian women so diminish Bosnian ethnicity.  The Serbian military set up “rape camps”.  Bosnian women were released only when they became pregnant. 

UN member states have been aware of the sexual abuse of women in Rwanda for decades. 

We have no reason to believe that Palestinian women are not suffering sexual abuse, as well.  We know that Palestinian women suffer from high rates of domestic violence, which increases during war.  We likely will hear of stranger rape and rape by soldiers as time passes. Only today, as I am wrapping up this blog, the UN issued a press release with reported incidents of abuse of Palestinian women and girls:

“We are particularly distressed by reports that Palestinian women and girls in detention have also been subjected to multiple forms of sexual assault, such as being stripped naked and searched by male Israeli army officers. At least two female Palestinian detainees were reportedly raped while others were reportedly threatened with rape and sexual violence.”

Other reports note that photos of female detainees in degrading circumstances were taken by the Israeli army and uploaded online.

Lack of action to assist Israeli women and other female survivors of war sexual abuse is not because of their religious affiliation. The abuse occurs because they are women.  The world has not raised its collective voice to protect women during war.  The perpetrators, world leadership, and the military share the blame – these are primarily male actors.  Until men prioritize the prevention of female sexual abuse, their abuse within and without of war will not diminish.


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