The UN Women organization calls itself a “global champion for women and girls” but has failed in its response to the countless acts of violence—including sexual violence— committed by Hamas against women and girls on October 7. The US must demand UN Women redress this scandal — or face consequences.
A review of a list of confirmed October 7 fatalities by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz indicates the attackers killed at least 306 women and girls, while a list of hostages taken on October 7 shows the attackers took at least 91 women and girls captive.
The October 7 attackers also sexually assaulted women and girls. Reports include, as CNN noted: A teenaged girl lying dead on the floor with her pants pulled down, semen on her lower back, and a bullet wound to the neck. Female victims lying naked on the ground with their legs spread. One woman recounted that an attacker raped a woman, passed her on to another attacker who also raped her and chopped off her breast, and then turned her over to yet another man who raped her and shot her in the head while still inside her.
On October 7, UN Women executive director Sima Bahous issued a generic tweet calling for “immediate de-escalation” and saying “It is imperative that all civilians, including women & girls, are protected.” Incredibly, she neither condemned Hamas nor called for it to be held accountable. Her banal equivocation contrasts with a more forceful and specific tweet from UN Women’s account the following day: “Violence. Abuse. Rape. Women & girls in #Ethiopia face a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis as the country struggles to rebuild.”
UN Women tried and failed again on October 13, equating Hamas’s attacks deliberately targeting civilians with Israel’s defensive operations targeting Hamas. The body also did not mention or condemn the fact that the reason for the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza is that Hamas commits the war crime of using Palestinian civilians as human shields, operating within and underneath homes, schools, mosques, and hospitals.
Four days later, Bahous implicitly and falsely blamed Israel for an explosion at Gaza’s Al Ahli Arab Hospital, which turned out to have been caused by a misfired rocket from Palestinian Islamic Jihad aimed at Israel. She has neither retracted nor apologized for her accusation, and her tweet remains up as of this date.
UN Women remained silent about the sexual violence committed for an additional week. All the while, the organization and Bahous tweeted over and over and over in support of a ceasefire, which would allow Hamas time to regroup and attack Israel again. UN Women also tweeted about the toll the war took on the people of Gaza, without blaming Hamas for causing the death toll due to its use of human shields. UN Women uncritically cited data from Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry. UN Women has also published profiles of affected women in Gaza but never featured stories of women and girls victimized by Hamas on October 7 and since.
On October 25, Bahous belatedly noted the Israeli death-toll and that the attack was committed by Hamas, but immediately ‘balanced’ that remark with condemnation of the Israeli military’s response. Bahous then equated the violence on both sides—an #AllLivesMatter approach.
For all Bahous’s talk about condemning “every act of violence against women and girls,” it took until November 24 for UN Women to tweet that they had finally “met with Israeli women’s organizations & heard about the work of the Civil Commission for crimes against women & children.”
Facing public outcry about UN Women’s one-sided reaction to the Hamas attack, the organization’s deputy executive director ad interim, Sarah Hendriks, tried damage control in a CNN interview. Yet when asked to specifically condemn Hamas’s sexual violence on October 7, Hendriks deflected by saying UN Women would provide support to an “independent international commission” to investigate the attack. However, UN Women continues to take Hamas-reported casualty statistics from Gaza at face value instead of waiting for an “independent international commission” to investigate the humanitarian losses in Gaza. UN Women’s hesitance to condemn Hamas by name for these atrocities was noted by more than 80 Members of Congress, who wrote bipartisan letter to Bahous urging UN Women to condemn Hamas. 28 senators wrote a similar bipartisan letter to UN Secretary General António Guterres on December 11.
It took until December 1, 55 days after the Hamas attack, for UN Women to release a statement saying, “We unequivocally condemn the brutal attacks by Hamas on Israel on 7 October. We are alarmed by the numerous accounts of gender-based atrocities and sexual violence during those attacks.”
The question now is what UN Women will do in the future. Will it say it believes the accounts of sexual violence on October 7? Will it call out Hamas by name for its continuing use of Palestinian civilians, including women and girls, as human shields, and for its rocket attacks against civilians in Israel? Or will it continue to focus on harm to Palestinians and only pay lip service to the Israelis affected by Hamas’s violence?
The Biden administration and US allies should use their leverage to ensure UN Women makes the right choice. America contributed $10 million to the organization in 2022. The US and other leading donors should make clear to UN Women that their funding is conditioned on performance and integrity. Women and girls around the world—including those murdered, sexually assaulted, and kidnapped on October 7—deserve much better.