Sexual Violence as a Tool of War is Finally Being Addressed

By Emily Thompson

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris condemned the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and called for accountability in remarks made at the White House on Monday marking International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict.

“I especially thank the survivors and advocates that are with us today,” Harris said. “You are fearless advocates in the fight for justice, and you remind us of the resilience of survivors.”

The vice president said that “sexual violence has been a tactic of war since ancient times,” used to “humiliate and terrorize and subdue entire populations.”

She cited Russian troops fighting in Ukraine who had “raped women in occupied territories” as her first example.

Harris listed countries around the world where conflicts had seen sexual violence, including Sudan, Haiti, Ethiopia, Central African Republic and Congo. She said that experts estimate that for every rape documented during wars, 10 to 20 more occur.

“My heart breaks for the trauma and pain inflicted in each of these conflicts,” she said.

Harris, along with sexual violence survivors and experts on the topic, “condemned” conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) and called for the international community to join the United States in advancing justice and accountability for this crime,” a White House news release stated.

Turning to the conflict in the Gaza Strip, Harris said “Hamas committed horrific acts of sexual violence.”

She recounted seeing photos of bloodied Israelis abducted and that “women’s bodies were found naked to the waist down, hands tied behind their back and shot in the head.”

Harris said that released hostages have begun revealing stories of the sexual violence they endured in captivity.

At the event was Amit Soussana, who was abducted by Hamas terrorists from her home in Israel on Oct. 7 and released in March.

Soussana describes her ordeal in Sheryl Sandberg’s documentary film Screams Before Silence. The event included a partial screening of the film.

“These testimonies, I fear, will only increase as more hostages are released,” Harris said. “We cannot look away, and we will not be silent. My heart breaks for all these survivors and their families.”

Harris repeated the Biden administration’s demand that Hamas “needs to accept the deal that is on the table for the ceasefire.”

The United Nations General Assembly on June 19, 2015, proclaimed June 19 of each year the “International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict” to raise awareness of “the need to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence,” and to honor the victims and survivors of sexual violence around the globe, according to the United Nations.

“Globally, our system of accountability remains inadequate,” Harris said. “It is the responsibility of all of us—governments, international organizations, civil society and individual citizens—to actively confront combat-related sexual violence and work to rid our world of this heinous crime.”

“It starts, of course, with awareness and acknowledgement,” she said.

Harris concluded that “the bottom line is the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war is unconscionable, and any failure to hold perpetrators accountable is a failure to live up to our common humanity.”

The White House cites President Joe Biden’s 2022 memorandum on promoting accountability for CRSV, which states that it is U.S. policy “to promote accountability for perpetrators of acts of” conflict-related sexual violence “through relevant existing sanctions authorities, where applicable, and to ensure that these authorities are used to the fullest extent possible to target perpetrators of acts of CRSV and their enablers.”

Harris outlined a series of administration actions that will be taken consistent with Biden’s 2022 memo, including: incorporating gender-based violence prevention into humanitarian responses; supporting survivors of sexual violence in Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine; “expanding atrocity prevention”; increasing women’s leadership roles in Sri Lanka and Sudan; supporting other U.N efforts and a series of sanctions on Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Haiti, Iraq and Syria.

Millions of women around the globe are subject to sexual violence. This initiative, while not nearly enough, is a good step in the right direction towards addressing this important issue.

Image: Global Voices

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