Conflicting reactions to the recent attack on Israel and subsequent war in Gaza have led to heated and even violent disagreements in communities, colleges, Congress and coffee shops. People across the globe are protesting on all sides and shouting in the streets. But for one moment, I urge us to shift our focus from politics to humanity.
Because no matter which marches you are attending —or if you are attending none at all; no matter which flag you are flying — or if you are flying none at all; no matter what religion you practice — or if you practice none at all, there is one opinion that everyone can agree on: Rape should never be used as an act of war.
On October 7, Hamas terrorists committed unspeakable atrocities that we must speak about — and speak about loudly. Numerous witnesses have testified that sexual violence was widespread on that day, according to reports by Israeli investigators. An eyewitness has recounted the horror of watching a fellow concert-goer being gang-raped, then murdered. Rescue workers have reported recovering lifeless bodies, naked with their legs spread. Yet some are flat-out denying that these atrocities occurred. Even worse, some might actually believe that these women — mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives — ”deserved it.”
We have come so far in believing survivors of rape and assault in so many situations, yet this time, many are ignoring the stories that these bodies tell us about how these women spent the last moments of their lives.
The silence on these war crimes is deafening. It’s time to see beyond historical arguments about the past and political arguments about the future to denounce this now.
Throughout history, women’s bodies were considered part of the destruction and spoils of war; sexual violence was widely viewed as an inevitable by-product of conflict rather than a grave offense. A breakthrough came just thirty years ago when the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo saw the devastating and deliberate use of mass sexual violence. This evoked a loud response from global women’s organizations and human rights activists. They yelled in horror and fought for change. Under pressure, the United Nations Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993 with an unprecedented commitment to prosecute rape as a crime against humanity along with other war crimes.
US leaders on both sides of the aisle, especially women, have taken a strong stand against the use of rape as a tactic of war. In 1995, then first lady and future secretary of state Hillary Clinton traveled to China, and in her famous “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” speech, insisted that “it is a violation of human rights … when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war.” In 2008, addressing the use of sexual violence in armed conflict, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that “rape is a crime that can never be condoned.” The world agreed.
Not loudly condemning the rapes of October 7 — or any rapes — is a massive step backward for the women — and men — of the world. The ground gained was hard-fought and must not be lost. This is as true for Israel as for Ukraine where Russian soldiers have been accused of sexually brutalizing victims from ages four to 82. According to one United Nations report, a pair of Russian soldiers brutally raped a 22-year-old mother repeatedly and sexually assaulted her husband. Next, one of the soldiers raped their four-year-old daughter. Investigations of these reprehensible crimes are underway, but as always, prosecution of these cases is difficult. Cries for justice will help victims, who deserve our unconditional support.
Dr. Denis Mukwege has spent his life providing medical, psychological and legal assistance to survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At Panzi Hospital, which he founded in 1999, he and his staff have cared for more than 50,000 survivors. Mukwege’s vocal advocacy against rape as a weapon of war has led to both an assassination attempt and a Nobel Peace Prize. As he accepted his award in Oslo, he declared, “With this Nobel Peace Prize, I call on the world to be a witness and I urge you to join us in order to put an end to this suffering that shames our common humanity.”
Today, it’s urgent that we add our voices to Mukwege’s. No matter what you believe should happen in the Middle East — I personally support a two-state solution where a Palestinian state and Israel co-exist so that both their populations can enjoy peace and security — we can surely unite against these atrocities. We can each “be a witness” and together call out this unacceptable horror and unimaginable suffering.
We must denounce these rapes in every conversation, at every rally, and on signs held on every street corner. We must forget our conflicting politics and remember our common humanity.