Sunday was International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, held every year on November 25 as the start of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. The annual event, which was first marked at the inauguration of the Women’s Global Leadership Institute in 1991, has since become a key day for those around the world working on protecting women and girls, especially those who work at the UN and other major international institutions.
I give this context to highlight how powerful this day is and could be. Instead it is the pointless international moment when global institutions pick and choose exactly which women and girls they seek to protect. On October 7, Hamas raped, killed and kidnapped women and girls in Israel. Those of us who have worked on violence against women and girls know this is a crime against humanity.
The brutality of what happened to Jewish women on October 7 was reminiscent of the war crimes committed against Yazidi women and girls in Iraq in 2014. They too were raped and kidnapped by terrorists who believed that, because of their ethnicity, they could be abused.
I remember my colleagues in the violence against women and girls sector standing up for Yazidi women against the Islamic State terrorists. I thought the same would happen with Hamas. Depressingly, I was wrong. I have been beyond distressed to see so many of my colleagues and counterparts ignore what happened on October 7.
A drive against gender-based violence is pointless when institutions pick and choose which women matter
The aim of the work around the UN’s 16 days of activism is about recognising the global nature of men’s violence against women. It is about standing side by side with my sisters on the frontlines and saying that we understand that, no matter who we are or where we live, these 16 days are about calling out crimes against humanity like rape, murder and kidnapping. But sadly, this year the silence from international women’s organisations in failing to condemn Hamas’s use of sexual violence against Israeli women is deafening as well as dangerous.
It is not just that the UN and others did not formally acknowledge what happened on October 7. When I posted a powerful video by technology executive and philanthropist Sheryl Sandberg, who said what international law has said for years, that rape should never be tolerated during any war, the replies I got on social media and privately were horrific. People have convinced themselves that the evidence put forward by Israeli witnesses of mass rape is all a lie. This is not because someone else has counted this evidence but because it’s actually normal for people to say they don’t believe Jewish women.
The pushback I got was not just from random people but from those who on a daily basis would proudly tell the world to believe women. People who are certain that no woman or country would lie about rape. I actually feel sick writing these words because the dismissal of Israeli victims of rape does not just hurt those victims of October 7, but it weakens the fabric of the work to keep women and girls safe globally.
The thing about Hamas is that they are the same as Islamic State, Boko Haram and other terrorist organisations who hate women and girls. And they will use this silence about Hamas to justify their own abuses. I know I am going to get a lot of flak for saying what I am saying, but I have never been scared to tell the truth nor call out those in positions of power when they are wrong. This time last year when the UK held a conference on ending sexual violence in conflict, those in the room were given feedback on their selective outrage of violence against women and girls. At the time there was a war raging in Ethiopia where mass rape was being reported. Yet few of the institutions and leaders in the room said anything. They were rightly called out by women’s organisations, especially those from Africa.
And now it’s time to call out those same groups and organisations again. Because what’s happening in this respect in the Middle East is not complex. There are no two sides to women being raped and murdered, and in not being clear, we are complicit in the legitimisation of terror groups using rape and kidnapping as a tool in their oppression of women and girls.
Again terrorist organisations and governments who oppress women and girls are watching the world’s reaction. Those who fail to recognise the gender-based violence directed at Israeli women are not just unfit to lead any campaign to advance human rights, they are also making every day harder for women and girls.
Nimco Ali is a columnist