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Fighting back for Gender Justice: Holding States and Non-State Actors Accountable for CRSV

Explore the nexus of power and sexual violence in conflict zones. This article unveils the structural roots of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), shedding light on its normalisation and the urgent need for accountability. Through a critical lens, it examines missed opportunities for intervention and calls for a reevaluation of global responses to combat SGBV and promote gender justice.

Image credit: Digtallife | Pixabay
Louise Arimatsu, Madeleine Rees & Christine Chinkin
21 March 2024

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is always about power. It is a phenomenon that both founds and reinforces a power dynamic based on domination and subjugation. Incidences of SGBV may manifest in individual acts but must be recognised as a structural pattern of social organisation. 

Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) is likewise rooted in existing relationships of inequalities and oppression. It affects all persons irrespective of gender or sex. In armed conflict, a condition in which collective violence becomes the norm, different forms of SGBV are enacted against differently situated groups including rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation, forced marriage and other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity. Amidst the heightened frenzy of war, the relationship between oppressor and oppressed, which is always grounded in violence, explodes before our eyes. The celebration of SGBV in armed conflict is a process that helps to normalise the subjugation and dehumanisation of the perceived adversary that in turn paves the way for further violence, often morphing into other forms of mass atrocities.

Public celebrations of SGBV deprive all states from later pleading that they did not know what was happening and could not have foreseen what followed.

Social media is awash with images and videos posted by members of Israel’s armed forces deployed in Gaza. Many of these depict the soldiers rummaging through, fondling, wearing and displaying underwear belonging to Palestinian women who have been displaced from their homes, disappeared, maimed or killed since 7 October 2023. The soldiers are often laughing and smiling for the camera. There is glee and pride in their faces. In most images the women’s underwear is displayed alongside the soldiers’ assault rifles, which are also accorded prominence. Perhaps this is a ritual common to all armed conflict. Perhaps this is how soldiers have always behaved. Only this time these acts are being witnessed by a global audience. 

Social media is also saturated with images of forced nudity. They are primarily of Palestinian men and boys, detained and stripped down to their underwear, while their captors, clad in full military attire, surround and point their weapons at them. Justified as necessary to ensure the security of the oppressor, these images have become normalised. Those of us who bear witness see the power dynamics being played out. We no longer need ask ourselves how CRSV happens: the answer is staring at us on social media.

In the corridors of power CRSV has become weaponised. The issue is now an integral part of political narratives mutating into an ugly competition to justify greater violence. Yet again, women are portrayed as property to be protected and avenged. The CRSV crimes perpetrated on 7 October (which we deplore as with all SGBV) are invoked perversely to ‘counter-balance’ the killing and maiming of over 100,000 Palestinians, 70% of whom are women and children. For feminists who fought for decades against the patriarchal establishment to surface the preponderance of CRSV, who secured the recognition of CRSV in international law – to prohibit and hold perpetrators accountable – its hyper-politicisation is another bitter blow. The co-option of women’s rights to justify patriarchal violence is not new. We saw this in Afghanistan in 2001 and more recently in Ukraine. Its roots date back much further in time.

On 4 March 2024, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict (SRSG-SVC) released a report following a visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank. The report stresses the visit was ‘neither intended nor mandated to be investigative in nature’ since that task, at the international level, falls to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights both of which have been shunned by Israel despite repeated requests for access to investigate all serious violations including CRSV. Given this context and other obstacles faced by the SRSG-SVC, the report nonetheless concludes that: ‘there are reasonable grounds to believe that multiple incidents of sexual violence took place’ [on 7 October]; that with respect to the hostages held in Gaza, there was ‘clear and convincing information that some have been subjected to various forms of conflict-related sexual violence including rape and sexualised torture and sexualised cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’; and that there are ‘reasonable grounds to believe that such violence may be ongoing’. That the report would lead to further divisions and cement existing ones was only to be expected. 

But what might the SRSG-SVC have said? What opportunities were missed? 

The SRSG-SVC mandate was established by SCR 1888 (2009) under the SC’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda to prevent and protect against CRSV and to tackle impunity. It follows that an integral part of the mandate in furtherance of accountability is to clarify the international legal responsibilities of all actors. Since 2017, three strategic priorities have shaped the mandate:

  • effective prosecution;
  • a survivor centred response;
  • and addressing the root causes of CRSV, namely, ‘structural gender inequality and discrimination’. 

Effective prosecutions are contingent on having in place a legal framework applicable to all, robust national institutions and the requisite expertise to investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators. Each requires political commitment not only to address but to prioritise accountability for CRSV. But what is clear from the report is that there was a failure on the part of the authorities to do just that thereby depriving victims/survivors of justice. The failings were structural and should not be explained away as the consequence of the atrocities that unfolded on 7 October. Israel’s disregard for countering CRSV is further evidenced by the fact that little has been done to address allegations of sexual violence by its security forces against Palestinians held in Israeli detention facilities. As the SRSG-SVC report notes, since 2001, out of 1,400 complaints filed with the Israeli Ministry of Justice for alleged acts of torture including sexual violence, only three criminal investigations have been opened with no indictments resulting. Thus, the SRSG-SVC could have taken the opportunity to push back against the cynical politicisation of CRSV and instrumentalisation of women by reminding the Government that it had singularly failed to take adequate measures to ensure that perpetrators be brought to justice through criminal procedures and of the need to clamp down on impunity for SGBV in all its forms, including against women serving with Israel’s armed forces (Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of Israel, CEDAW, 2017). More importantly the report could have demanded that all states – and not only Israel – reflect on whether adequate measures have been adopted to guarantee against impunity for CRSV. 

The SRSG-SVC could have also reminded the leaders of Hamas that they too had the responsibility to prevent CRSV. Measures to prevent would include identifying perpetrators of CRSV and ensuring that they are held accountable for all acts of CRSV perpetrated on 7 October and subsequently including, most notably against the hostages taken into Gaza. Countering CRSV is not an obligation that is exclusive to states.

There is little in the report that deals with the existence or otherwise of a survivor centred response. This too was a missed opportunity. All states have a responsibility to ensure that there are appropriate support structures and systems in place for survivors. Israel may indeed have in situ gender-responsive and survivor-centric support systems that could have been commended or provided a model for emulation by other states. We simply do not know. 

Finally, the report is silent on what steps must be taken by all governing authorities to address the root causes of CRSV. No state is above reproach. The SG-SVC had the world’ attention and could have reminded all states of their legal obligations to counter SGBV, pursuant to CEDAW for states parties and in line with commitments pursuant to the UNSC’s WPS agenda. In contrast to forced nudity, international law does not prohibit the public display of women’s underwear belonging to an adversary. But if states are serious about tackling CRSV they must pay attention to the gendered symbolic gestures that objectify and are intended to demean women and girls; that perpetuate sexist behaviour often at the intersection with race; that normalise gender inequality and discrimination; and that stand as a continuum of violence experienced disproportionately by women and girls across the world. 

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Louise Arimatsu, Madeleine Rees & Christine Chinkin

Dr Louise Arimatsu is Distinguished Policy Fellow in the Centre for Women, Peace and Security, where she works on the AHRC project ‘A Feminist International Law of Peace and Security’ and the ERC project ‘Gendered Peace’. Her current research projects include ‘A Feminist Foreign Policy’ and ‘Women and Weapons’.

Madeleine Rees is a British lawyer and Secretary-General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a role she has held since 2010. For most of her adult life, Rees has worked nationally and internationally to advance human rights, eliminate discrimination, and remove obstacles to justice. As Secretary-General of WILPF, Rees is leading the organisation’s efforts to work through national and international legal frameworks to advance a future of human security and justice for all.

Christine Chinkin, FBA, is Emerita Professor of International Law and Founding Director of the Centre for Women, Peace & Security at LSE. A distinguished barrister, she has been honoured with the American Society of International Law’s Goler T. Butcher Medal for her significant contributions to human rights law.

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

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WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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