Pramila Patten, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, is currently in Israel with her team to investigate the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas on October 7th. The UN has been repeatedly criticized for its conduct around the atrocities of October 7th. UN Women’s response came in too late and too weak, and UNRWA’s staff members’ links to Hamas and participation in October 7th cast a dark light on the organization. But now that Pramila Patten is in Israel, she is urging victims to ‘come forward’ and talk to her and her team about what they experienced and witnessed. In her message, she urged victims to ‘break their silence’. She’ll be ‘here for a week’ and wants ‘to listen to their stories’.
Oh Pramila, if only it were that easy! Sexual abuse often takes an unimaginable toll on survivors’ psyche. In order to speak up about such a traumatic event, first, one has to understand what happened to them and find a language to describe it. In most cases, that would take heaps of psychological support and help. ‘Speaking up’ is not something that survivors can simply decide to do within ‘a week’. It is a process that requires healing and support systems. Without doing the proper work and building up the support, simply ‘urging’ survivors to speak up is nothing short of a burden on them.
She goes on to mention the stigma around sexual violence. ‘The stigma, the shame, is on the perpetrators. And you have to join us in shifting the stigma’. The only thing that survivors ‘have to’ do is prioritize their well-being, safety, and healing. They should be able to do what is best for them, and we, as a society and with its organizations, should make sure that they can. Survivors are usually not the ones perpetuating that stigma; it is societies with their systems and organizations who do. This is work that we all need to be doing; it cannot be a burden on survivors of sexual violence.
Speaking of support: ‘I want to say that survivors and victims, we owe you all more than solidarity,’ Patten said. As mentioned above, for weeks, did the UN and its agencies ignore the violence against Israeli women on October 7th. It is clear that they did not do enough to believe and support these women until this day. Jewish women all over the world felt overlooked, rallied, and protested in front of UN Women’s offices. Solidarity is something that the UN has failed to give Israeli women. Can we really expect the survivors of October 7th to feel safe enough to turn to Pramila Patten and her team? Can we expect these women to trust them? Is it reasonable to ask this of the survivors, without even as much as an apology?