Content warning: This article discusses the ongoing violence in Israel and Gaza, sexual violence, and death, including death by suicide.

On December 12, 2016, 20 women in Aleppo, Syria died by mass suicide. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops had captured the city, and the women faced a choice: be raped or kill themselves. The women knew that al-Assad’s soldiers were raping and imprisoning women across the country and decided that death was better than sexual violation. It was not the first time that women have killed themselves to escape sexual violence. Women and girls, throughout ancient and modern history, often pay the greatest price of conflict.

On October 7, 2023, Hamas militants raped and mutilated Israeli women. Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza has caused enormous suffering for Palestinians generally but specific agony for Palestinian women. The horrors in Israel and Gaza on and since October 7 are a reminder of how uniquely dangerous it is for women and girls in times of conflict.

In 2008, the United Nations (UN) Security Council passed resolution 1820, declaring that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.” Sexual violence, in particular, has a long history as a war tactic. Countless terrors in recent history have manifested as mass rape and violence against women and girls.

In the 1994 genocide against Rwandan Tutsis, Hutu militants sexually assaulted between 250,000 and 500,000 women. During World War II, Hitler’s soldiers raped thousands of women. When soldiers of the Red Army conquered Nazi-occupied territories, they mass-raped German women and girls, leaving a wake of some 10,000 deaths by suicide. Here, in North America, both Union and Confederate soldiers sexually assaulted hundreds of women during the American Civil War — crimes that are still only being uncovered. This is still happening to this day, as the world has seen with reports of Russian soldiers committing sexual violence in Ukraine, and, of course, the predations by Hamas on October 7.

Sexual violence is not the only type of suffering women and girls face. As one of society’s most vulnerable groups, they endure other agonies worsened by conflict.

Consider the effect that Israel’s bombing campaign and invasion has on Palestinian women. In late November, the UN estimated that 50,000 women in Gaza were pregnant and would give birth in a war zone. It can be a death sentence to give birth without doctors, medical infrastructure, or proper supplies while bombs rain down. Women in Gaza are reportedly taking menstruation-delaying medication owing to shortages of water and menstrual-hygiene products. 

Analysts may disagree on the geopolitics of the Middle East or any other global conflict zone. Still, I believe no one should dispute that women and girls are uniquely at risk in times of war and instability.

Unfortunately, political polarization can hinder the ability to recognize this reality and mourn or even acknowledge the victimization of women and girls if those women and girls belong to the “enemy camp.” Some voices that see Israel as the sole source of conflict in the region, and who have either denied or rationalized the sexual violence committed by Hamas, seem to have had a difficult time accepting that Israeli women and girls can ever be victims.

We have seen this phenomenon on Canadian university campuses. Most notoriously, the then-director of the University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre signed an open letter that included suggestions that the sexual violence of October 7 were “unverified accusations,” in a pattern of popular denialism that has led some Jewish women to adopt the slogan “MeToo, Unless You’re A Jew.”

As a Jewish woman at U of T, I was distraught by an Instagram post from the student coalition The PEARS Project, a group that is supposed to advocate against gender-based violence. While the PEARS Project said in its statement that it offers “support, grief, and care to all those impacted by this violence” regardless of race, religion, or nationality, and that it stands with survivors everywhere, this post made me feel that Jewish and Israeli women don’t have space with PEARS. 

The post wrote, “Pointing to Hamas sexual violence as a means to encourage support for Israel is an act of commodifying survivors voices as a political tool, rather than a true act of standing with survivors.” I interpreted the statement to mean that those who sympathize with survivors of Hamas’ sexual violence do so only to garner support for Israel, which seemed to me to suggest that Israeli girls and women cannot be legitimate victims in their own right. I believe this logic comes dangerously close to rationalizing the violence against them.

This is also one of the only two sentences in PEARS’ statement that refer to but does not specifically condemn Hamas’ use of sexual violence. I am concerned that PEARS is politicizing sexual violence because the group did not unambiguously denounce Hamas for using sexual violence, but specifically denounced Israel’s use of sexual violence in the same statement. The refusal to specifically condemn Hamas for weaponizing sexual violence on October 7 and readiness to denounce Israel for its own history of sexual abuse immediately after feels like a case of ‘whataboutism’ that, in my view, renders hollow any expression of support for the victims. 

Similarly, one cannot deny or minimize the trauma and violence that Palestinian women face. In 2016, after Israeli courts convicted an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier of sexually assaulting Palestinian women from the West Bank, Israel barred its media from reporting on the case — a particularly disgraceful instance of sexual violence being, if not denied, certainly covered up, to preserve a political narrative: in this case, a narrative of the IDF’s unblemished character. Today, we shouldn’t deny Palestinian women and girls the empathy they are due on the grounds that “Hamas started the current conflict.” That is wrong.

Women and girls have suffered and are suffering — in Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and wherever else violence and conflict occur. It is said that war is hell. For girls and women, it is even worse than that.

Sarah Stern is a fourth-year student at Victoria College studying English and European affairs.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence or harassment at U of T:

  • Visit for a list of safety resources.
  • Visit for information, contact details, and hours of operation for the tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266 or by email at [email protected].
  • Call Campus Safety Special Constable Service to make a report at 416-978-2222 (for U of T St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (for U of T Mississauga)
  • Call the Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre at 416-323-6040
  • Call the Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre at 416-495-2555
  • Call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 866-863-0511

If you or someone you know has experienced harassment or discrimination based on race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship and/or creed at U of T, report the incident to the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity office:

You can report incidents of anti-Muslim racism through the National Council of Canadian Muslims’ Hate Crime Reporting form at, and antisemitic incidents at U of T to Hillel U of T at

If you or someone you know has experienced anti-Muslim racism and is in distress, you can contact:

If you or someone you know has experienced antisemitism and is in distress, you can contact:

  • Hillel Ontario at [email protected]
  • Chai Lifeline Canada’s Crisis Intervention Team at 1 (800) 556-6238 or [email protected]
  • Jewish Family and Child Services of Greater Toronto at 416 638-7800 x 6234

The Hamilton Jewish Family Services at [email protected]