Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a longtime advocate of justice for sexual assault victims, said she “nearly choked” when she saw a list of women’s rights organizations that have not spoken out against Hamas soldiers’ sexual attacks on Israeli women. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand stood before the United Nationsn on Monday to condemn the silence of women’s groups following an onslaught of evidence that Hamas is using sexual violence as a war tactic. 

“It is very important that we are giving voice to the women that were raped and murdered on Oct. 7,” she began. “It’s very important that we are speaking truth to power at this time and in this place.”

The New York senator spoke at an assembly hosted by Israel at the United Nations headquarters in New York, which included testimony from first responders from the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 and women’s rights advocates like former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. The session was centered around the investigations into sexual and gender-based violence targeting Israeli women in the Israel-Hamas war.

Rape and sexual assault are considered war crimes and a breach of international humanitarian law. This past Friday, UN Women released a statement condemning the Oct. 7 violence, which killed 1,200 people: “We are alarmed by the numerous accounts of gender-based atrocities and sexual violence during those attacks.”

However, the organization has faced criticism for how long it took to condemn the attacks, which Gillibrand touched on in her speech. “When I saw the list of women’s rights organizations who have said nothing, I nearly choked,” she said, although she did not name specific women’s groups in her remarks. “Where is the solidarity for women in this country and in this world to stand up for our mothers and our sisters and our daughters?”

Gillibrand has long been an advocate of justice for victims of sexual violence, and has co-sponsored legislation aimed at sexual assault such as the Military Justice Improvement Act and the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. When speaking before UN Women, she was nearly in tears as she described the raw, unreleased footage she’d seen of the attacks on women in Israel. 

“It takes your breath away at the sheer level of evil it depicts,” she said. “You can’t unsee it when you see it, and it haunts you like no other image you could ever see on a movie screen. The barbaric acts are acts beyond what we have seen from ISIS, Al-Qaeda or other horrific terrorist organizations around the globe.”

Still, women’s groups like the UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the international MeToo movement have hesitated to condemn Hamas’ use of rape as a war tactic. Gillibrand said the international community’s reluctance to condemn this violence “doesn’t just strike fear in the hearts of Israeli women, it strikes fear in the hearts of every woman and girl around the globe,” she said. “Their bodies are not worth defending. Their humanity is not worth protecting.”

She concluded her speech by calling on the UN to live up to its purpose of upholding the principles of international law. “The world community must do more,” she said. “It must demand accountability for these intolerable crimes.”