Arthur C. Helton Memorial Lecture: Preventing and Addressing Sexual Violence in Conflict

Monday, April 8, 2024
Rodi Said/Reuters

Senior Fellow and Head, Women, Peace, and Security, International Peace Institute

Secretary General, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (speaking virtually)

Deputy Director, White House Gender Policy Council (speaking virtually)


Founder, Lean In

The United Nations recognized rape as a war crime in 2008 through the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1820. Despite this step, sexual violence remains a widespread practice in wars and conflict zones globally. Panelists discuss the extent of sexual violence used as a tool of war and policies that can address it and help prevent future atrocities.

The Arthur C. Helton Memorial Lecture was established by CFR and the family of Arthur C. Helton, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who died in the August 2003 bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad. The Lecture addresses pressing issues in the broad field of human rights and humanitarian concerns.

SANDBERG: As I was just saying proudly to Mike Froman, I’m a CFR member in good standing, right? We’ve double checked. But I never actually get to come to anything because I don’t live in New York, and it seems so both lovely but also important that people take time out of busy days in a busy city to get together in rooms like this to have real conversations and substantive conversations on issues.  

And so I’m really honored to be here. So grateful for the new leadership of this institution by my very dear friend and someone I admire so much, Mike Froman. So thank you so much. (Applause.) 

OK. I’m Sheryl Sandberg, the founder of Lean In, and this is—and I’m going to read to get this right—the Arthur C. Helton Memorial Lecture, which I think is so lovely. Arthur was the director of peace and conflict studies at CFR and this lecture is dedicated to his lifetime mission of paying attention to the world’s humanitarian and refugee crisis.  

And I believe we are joined by Arthur’s wife, Jackie, and Arthur’s friends online. Is Jackie here? Virtually. OK. Wherever she is we’re grateful to you—to your husband’s legacy and to you for being part of making important work like this happen. 

Today we’re here on a very unhappy but very important topic, which is preventing sexual violence in conflict areas. Unfortunately, as I was discussing with my niece who’s here with some of her college friends, this topic is as old as war itself where for most of human history women’s bodies were considered part of the spoils of war—just something that happened that was not to be avoided. 

We know better now. This is very timely because right now as we sit here in this beautiful room eating our beautiful lunch this is happening. It’s happening in Europe. It’s happening in Africa. It’s happening in the Middle East. It’s happening all over the world as it always is. 

I’ve just come back from Israel where I filmed a documentary on the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas on October 7. It is a nonpolitical documentary. It does not take a political position on anything that’s happening in the war. It only deals with one issue which is what happened on October 7 and sexual violence and bearing witness to those atrocities, something that we maintain should not happen anywhere in the world for any reason under any circumstance. The world needs to be absolutely free from sexual violence. 

And I’m so honored to have three unbelievable panelists who have dedicated their lives. These are incredible human rights experts. I’m going to start with Dr. Phoebe Donnelly, who’s here in person. We’re so glad to have her. She’s a senior fellow and head of women, peace, and security at the International Peace Institute.  

Right here the great Madeleine Rees, who is joining us. She’s the secretary general for Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and she is on the wrong time zone but with us and we are so grateful. And do you see that look? She does this work in every time zone. She knows how important it is.  

And the great Rachel Vogelstein who is the deputy director and special assistant to the president for the White House Gender Policy Council working from D.C. today and also has a long affiliation with CFR working on these issues.  

I want to start by thanking these three women for their dedication to this issue on behalf of women and men everywhere. Thank you not just for being with us today but for your lifetime of work on these issues. Please join me in thanking our panelists. (Applause.) 

We have about thirty minutes for conversation I’m going to ask the panelists. So as we prep we’re going to keep our panelists’ questions and answers pretty tight because our main goal is to get to the questions from the CFR members and audience both in person and virtually. And, again, thank you for letting us be part of your important community today.  

Phoebe, you’re here. Why don’t you set the stage? You’re sitting on the stage and you’re going to set the stage for us. Let’s talk about what conflict-related sexual violence means and what has the research you’ve done and others taught us about its, unfortunately, very common patterns? 

DONNELLY: Thank you. Thank you, Sheryl, and to the audience. I heard this is the most amount of women at a CFR that we’ve seen. So very important— 

SANDBERG: That’s awesome. 

DONNELLY: —and to have the men in the room talking about this issue. Thank you to my fellow panelists and to CFR for the invitation.  

So I think it’s important to clarify what are we talking about. We all have different ideas. We hear these terms around sexual violence. So conflict-related sexual violence is one form of sexual and gender-based violence and it’s what we’re most frequently talking about in these type spaces because it’s been explicitly linked to peace and security and linked so in the Security Council. 

But conflict-related sexual violence, or CRSV as you’ll hear some of us working in this space refer to it as, can include many different forms. We’re often talking about rape as one of the most common but it also includes sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, and forced sterilization, and what I’ve specifically focused on in some of my work, forced marriage. 

It’s also important to flag that conflict-related sexual violence doesn’t always come from external conflict actors. It also can come from local—from U.N. peacekeepers and that we usually refer to as sexual exploitation and abuse.  

So what do we know about patterns of conflict-related sexual violence? First, I think it’s really important to say it’s not inevitable. So while it has been around for a long time not all groups use sexual violence. Some, in fact, see it as counterproductive to their aim. So it’s really important to keep this in mind that we think about, you know, how to arm groups yet and that not all armed groups use it.  

We also frequently talk about rape as a weapon of war or sometimes rape as a strategy and this is just one form conflict-related sexual violence can take and this is when it’s adopted by commanders and specifically in pursuit of an objective, of the group goals. But this isn’t the only form that we see.  

There can be opportunistic rape when it’s a personal individual decision or, finally, right might not be condoned but it’s kind of tolerated by commanders and we refer to this as rape as a practice.  

So I think it’s important to go through these not to create a hierarchy but that understanding patterns is the key to combating these forms of violence. Thanks, Sheryl.  

SANDBERG: Thank you. 

Madeleine, you’ve been working on this for decades. There has been so much attention paid to sexual and conflict-related sexual violence, especially through your—and other work. Why are we still—I mean, I think this is the most important question—Madeleine, why are we still unable to prevent this? How is it possible that this is still happening?  

REES: Well, I think the great question—thank you for inviting me. I really wish I could be with you. I’m sure it’ll be far more exciting in person.  

The conversations we’ve been having for decades have been about how to get accountability for conflict-related sexual violence. That was our entry point, and in order to get to the accountability part we have to have laws which actually enable us to get that accountability, right.  

But in so doing we’ve done amazing—we’ve got amazing legal progress as, you know, we’re moving away from when international humanitarian law was all about women as property, it was about honor, her honor, the property rights of men over women, that sort of thing.  

Then we had Bosnia and Rwanda and the tribunals came up with this jurisprudence, which showed and more accurately described the experience of women which was—and some men, obviously, as well—tortured. It became a crime against humanity, war crime, and on occasion genocide when—you know, what Phoebe was saying about the nature of the harms that are done actually can become a component part of genocide. And we got some good jurisprudence so good in terms of law being a prevention avenue, if you like.  

But we have not joined the dots because in fact that narrow focus meant that we weren’t really looking at the totality of the crime, that I think all women everywhere know that conflict-related sexual violence is part of a continuum of violence against women more broadly and it’s all based on power.  

So you can’t prevent sexual violence in armed conflict unless you go back to really looking at how it works in ordinary life and that’s to do a gender analysis within a political economy analysis. Who has power? What do they use it for? Who owns the—you know, who owns the houses? Who owns the tools of production?  

Starts in the family, moves up to the governance structures, and you see that power imbalance, then you start having gender differences and gender discrimination, which enables and facilitates violence.  

And there’s so much research and so much work done on this that I’m really—you know, I am now a total convert to the necessity of doing this because if we had known all this before we started doing some of the prosecutions maybe we would have moved further and faster.  

But there’s two things I think we need to do and one is a mindset shift and that’s really to move away from this it’s just a sexual violence armed conflict. Pull back. Look at the bigger picture and see how power lies. To do that we’ve got to start valuing social reproduction, which is mainly done by women but is not valued within communities and within households and then within government structures, and investing in it, really showing that it has real value.  

And the other thing we absolutely have to do is to look at how do we create a masculinity—a violent masculinity which enables this to happen, and it’s structural. It is—actually sits very happily within a patriarchal way of living, which we then have to go back to human rights as an entry point to do the prevention work.  

And I hope we can discuss later, you know, how much—how hard it is for women to come forward to be part of that accountability but also what we need to be doing to create that understanding of the continuum and how we can actually break that cycle.  

SANDBERG: Thank you. I really appreciate where you started in this answer, Madeleine, which is the broad acception (sp) of women as property. Think about that, that we are actually not so many years and in parts of the world that is still true, and how much we have to systematically reject these constructs that allow this to be happening.  

Rachel, you’re sitting proudly in front of an American flag. I know the U.S. government and particularly the office you’ve been part of has really taken this very, very seriously. Can you talk to us about the work you’ve done with President Biden, especially the 2022 memorandum on promoting accountability and how has that work changed the U.S. approach?  

VOGELSTEIN: Well, thank you very much, Sheryl, for your leadership on this issue and thanks as well to CFR for hosting this important conversation. It’s always a pleasure to be back at the Council and, of course, to join my fellow co-panelists today.  

There has been a long history actually of U.S. leadership and policy to address the scourge of conflict-related sexual violence. Back in the Bush administration the U.S. championed the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1820, which first recognized that, as Madeleine said, sexual violence used as a weapon of war can constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity or a constituent element of genocide.  

Then in the Obama administration under Secretary Clinton’s leadership to promote accountability the U.S. introduced and led the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1888, which created the position of special representative to the secretary general on sexual violence in conflict, facilitating real-time fact finding in situations of particular concern.  

And then under this administration improving accountability for gender-based violence including for sexual violence in conflict has been a top priority to both President Biden and to Vice President Harris, and this commitment is exemplified by the presidential memorandum on promoting accountability for conflict-related sexual violence that President Biden issued in November of 2022 which strengthens the standard under which the U.S. can impose consequences for this crime.  

So as my co-panelists have testified, for far too long conflict-related sexual violence really is taken less seriously than other war crimes or serious human rights abuses. And the memorandum that President Biden issued addresses this by closing a gap in our own sanctions regime. Prior to the president’s action, conflict-related sexual violence was just one of many factors that could be considered by U.S. officials imposing sanctions or other consequences on human rights abusers. And as a result, while sanctions for conflict-related sexual violence could be imposed, in practice they seldom were. 

What the 2022 presidential memorandum did was change our policy to permit the imposition of sanctions on the basis of conflict-related sexual violence alone. So that means that for the first time U.S. departments and agencies are now required to ensure equal consideration of acts of sexual violence in conflict when employing sanctions authorities and I’m proud to say that we’ve already taken concrete action to implement this presidential memorandum. 

Following the release of this policy we issued a package of sanctions last June, which marks the first time that a dedicated focus on conflict-related sexual violence has led to the imposition of U.S. sanctions and these were sanctions that designated political and military targets from South Sudan, who had overseen the rape and murder of civilians during their civil war, as well as against two ISIS terrorists responsible for the rape and torture of Yazidi women and girls.  

And we followed that this past December with sanctions against thirteen targets from four countries for their connection to acts of sexual violence, which constitutes the largest set of financial sanctions and visa restrictions the U.S. has ever issued against individuals connected to this abuse.  

We expect to continue to issue sanctions in our effort to promote accountability for this crime under this memorandum and other actions that we’re taking.  

SANDBERG: I really want to applaud that, in a sense that—(applause)—this is about accountability. It is very hard in the fog of war to find ways to hold accountability and our government taking these actions is so important.  

I’m going to go back to Madeleine and then come back to Phoebe because what we’re hearing is not only does this happen but the only way to prevent it is to have accountability at a higher level.  

Rachel just shared with us one method of accountability. But what are the others, Madeleine? What are the other methods of accountability holding perpetrators accountable and how do they work?  

REES: OK. Well, there’s a ton so bear with me. I’m just going to say so just to pick up on the prevention. Yes, accountability is part of prevention but it’s—I think it is one and only. It’s a cherry on the cake, if you like, for prevention.  

But just to build on that, Rachel said that—already spoken to the women, peace, and security resolutions, which don’t contain within them strictures against conflict-related sexual violence. But we also have the International Criminal Court who want hard law. Are you going to bring individuals actually to account for the crimes they have committed? 

Sadly, flawed because not all states of the United Nations are parties to the Rome Statute. So I would invite you to lobby very hard for the United States to become a party so that it has greater efficacy because if everybody’s in everybody’s in and the law will apply. 

That has tremendous jurisdiction in some respects but not sufficient. As mentioned, it takes too long, difficult to access, and there are many things that need to be fixed, going forward. We can discuss that at length.  

But there is also the national jurisdictions where accountability can be had and the perspective of universal jurisdiction where crimes are committed, where states have allowed for cases to be brought within their own jurisdiction.  

So you commit a crime in Syria but you turn up in Germany and because they have incorporated the statute into their legislation you could be prosecuted and that is happening. So that’s a really good way I think of actually ensuring there can be accountability.  

And then we have—that’s for individuals. But when you think of it, it takes so long and so much effort to get an individual before a court. The incredible investigation, evidence base that has to be put forward is enormous.  

So we also have complementary to that are the way in which you can hold states accountable and that’s through the mechanism of the Human Rights Council. You know, you have fact finding missions, commissions of inquiry, most of which will look into if their mandate is actually given to them—they will investigate sexual violence in armed conflict.  

And you also have the treaty bodies who will then scrutinize states in their reporting to see whether or not they have actually taken all necessary steps to prevent sexual violence at home and in the conduct abroad, which then manifests into the Universal Periodic Review where other states will get to review what it is that has been said about the state under review.  

Sounds great, but it’s not coherent because what we’ve got is different bits working and in order to get to that coherence, to get real accountability, and to do what I was saying in the first intervention is to make sure we understand the three-dimensional nature of sexual violence. Whether it be domestic, whether it be in country, whether it be in conflict, we have to be able to make this work.  

So I would say yes, let’s say. Have we been able to prosecute some individuals? Yes. And have we been able to understand and document patterns of violations? Yes. Have they been emblematic? Yes.  

No one in the tribunal from the former Yugoslavia who was prosecuted for sexual violence walked away. Everyone was got in the end—eventually, in the end, and I say we need to talk about the difficulties and actual witnesses coming forward.  

But what we really need to do is to have a much more holistic approach and there’s some really good initiatives. We’re talking about establishing a hub that would help to bring all these different parts together so that they are coherent and have an approach which addresses both state-based sanctioned violence against women and individuals. So it would bring in some of the work that’s been done under the women, peace, and security council, some of the ways in which individuals can be sanctioned, but also importantly how that must relate to the state obligation towards both prevention and accountability.  

And I think that is something we are all learning as we go along. And I say I’ve been doing this for, what, nearly thirty years—(inaudible). I think I’m seeing more coherence now and more understanding of the need for coherence than I did previously.  

So I am hopeful that this will be one of many conversations which will start bringing all these threads together and if we hold them together then we will be able to make a real difference in both prevention, accountability, and very, very importantly will come on to, I hope, redress. Thank you.  

SANDBERG: Thank you, Madeleine.  

I’m going to go to Rachel now and move on to the next question, and then come back to you if that’s OK.  

So we’re in the midst of a very political moment in the world where there’s a lot of, I think, understandable anger on all sides of the issues of what are happening in the Middle East. In the middle of this I think the sexual violence of October 7 has been or could be very politicized.  

Rachel, is this kind of politicization new? What are your thoughts on this and what does it say about the need for independent investigations?  

VOGELSTEIN: I think it’s important to begin by recognizing the persistence of sexual violence in conflict around the world, from the conflict in Ethiopia to Russia’s war against Ukraine, and that includes the reports of violence used by Hamas as part of the October 7 attacks, and President Biden has been very clear about the importance of condemning sexual violence in every context whenever and wherever it occurs as a matter of fundamental human rights.  

So from the earliest days following the October 7 attacks President Biden emphasized his deep concern about the horrific reports of sexual violence used by Hamas and he stressed that the world cannot look away from these brutal accounts by survivors and witnesses, and in the months that have followed we have seen these horrific reports continue from survivors, from civil society organizations, physicians, researchers, and others about gender-based violence in conjunction with this conflict.  

We are profoundly troubled by reports that Hamas continues to commit acts of gender-based violence against hostages in their captivity in Gaza and the president’s commitment to ending gender-based violence whenever and wherever it occurs is clear and it’s long standing. This is a cause that President Biden has championed throughout his career as senator, as vice president, and since day one of this administration.  

So as an administration we will continue to make clear the importance of reducing harm to Israeli and Palestinian civilians and we will also remain clear about our concern about potential violations and indicators of atrocities including sexual violence in this conflict and in other conflicts around the world.  

SANDBERG: Phoebe, we’re in New York, obviously the home of the U.N. and the International Peace Institute. You work closely with the U.N. member states on sexual violence and conflict.  

So while we’re here can you talk about the infrastructure within the U.N.? What are the capabilities? And I know people talk a lot about what are the gaps in terms of preventing sexual violence but we want to hear about both.  

DONNELLY: Great. Thank you, and Madeleine and Rachel set me up very nicely for something else to build upon.  

I think the coherence piece is really important in some of these mechanisms we have. So Rachel mentioned the office of the special representative of the secretary general on sexual violence and conflict, and their office has the capacity to list perpetrators suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of CRSV violations based on U.N. verified evidence.  

So they have this annual report—I think it should be coming out any day now for those interested—and there is an open debate on sexual violence at the Security Council next week. So this report lists perpetrators and there’s a lot of persistent perpetrators who continue to be listed, and so it’s meant to have this naming and shaming function but it’s often disconnected from some of the other mechanisms we have.  

So when we’re looking at an IPI, which Rachel also mentioned, is this idea of sanctions regime so really having measures to respond to perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence and so the U.N. has fourteen sanction regimes in place and seven of them sanction parties for sexual and gender-based violence.  

But through our research at IPI we’re finding that political dimensions and dynamics often prevent these listings including sexual and gender-based violence. So it’s another tool that by connecting what we’re getting from the special representative on sexual violence and conflict and the sanctions committee to tie these together and really have some teeth behind them. 

And in terms of gaps, I mean, I’m thinking about this debate next week where U.N. member states are going to be proclaiming they’re, you know, against sexual violence in conflict and there’s often very strong rhetoric. But then what happens after these moments and after these debates? 

So a big gap really is political will and seeing this rhetoric turned into reality, making sure positions are funded and empowered so we have positions like women protection advisors that are meant to be in-field missions around the world mainstreaming consideration of sexual violence into the work of the U.N. presence. 

But they need to be funded and empowered. So I think the big gap really is thinking about this political will and on all of us to hold member states accountable for the rhetoric they’re saying to turn it into reality.  

SANDBERG: That is such a good point, going from rhetoric to actually implementation.  

I had a long list of questions I want to ask our panelists but I’m going to jump to my last one so that we can make room for our member questions and then if we have time I’ll come back. Last one I’ll go maybe in reverse order—Rachel, Madeleine, and then Phoebe. 

I’ve always believed, always believed deeply, that the only way we’re going to get to better outcomes on issues not just for women but for everyone but particularly for women are to have more female voices. Apparently, this is—a lot of females in this room, women members of CFR which we have, females running countries, females running these institutions.  

Men can be great, too, but I think that the—there are some great ones out there. I would, you know, follow Mike Froman to the ends of the Earth. I would follow Bob Rubin to the ends of the Earth and many of the other men here as well.  

But the balance is so off in terms of leadership positions in every country, in every industry, and every government in the world, and getting more female voices. I’ve been working for a long time on trying to increase that balance. The progress has been moderate.  

So given that that’s not going to happen anytime soon what can we do to ensure that women’s voices and experiences are central to this work?  

Rachel, I’m going to start with you, go to Madeleine, go to Phoebe, and then turn to the audience.  

VOGELSTEIN: It’s a great question and, Sheryl, you’ve done such important work on this issue.  

The Council has produced important research showing that women’s engagement in decision-making actually results in more equal jobs and, importantly, securer societies and it makes it more likely that issues like this one, gender-based violence, will be addressed and that’s why advancing women’s political participation and leadership has been a priority for us here.  

We know how much work there is to be done. You outlined the dramatic and persistent under representation of women in governments around the world and this is especially true for women in crisis and conflict settings where we continue to see women and women peacebuilders excluded from—(background noise, inaudible). 

And I’ll add that in today’s digital world that women, political and public figures including those from conflict and crisis-affected contexts face new threats to their participation in public life, not only violence but also gender disinformation, online harassment and abuse, and all of this is incredibly corrosive to democracy.  

So to advance women’s full participation we are working in the U.S. government with partners to form a new initiative that will bring together governments, philanthropies, civil society, multilateral organizations, and others to advance women’s political and civic participation and leadership in the digital age.  

This is a new partnership that will invite partners to support programs to help close the gap, the gender gap you identified in leadership including by establishing a global community of practice for organizations that are focused on building the pipeline of women leaders and, importantly, addressing the barriers to women’s participation in leadership.  

We’ve already invested 50 million (dollars) in these efforts to advance women’s leadership around the world in conjunction with our efforts to promote democracy and peace and security, and we welcome partners to join us in this important effort.  

SANDBERG: Thank you. 


REES: I think one big thing we keep talking about is including women in decision-making. Women are making decisions, the most important decisions ever in people’s lives, all the time. Women are making the decisions over how to feed their kids, where to send them to school, how to get them access to health care, et cetera.  

So it’s all done as part of social reproduction. The problem is it’s not valued. It is not seen as the relevant decisions. But, of course, it is the most fundamental part and as a result of that we then have to find ways of trying to include women to a system which has already excluded the value of what it is that women are doing.  

And I think that is half the problem because then we’re saying, yes, it’s important to include women but including women into what? Into a system which is still very binary, very much—very structurally discriminatory against women. So you break the glass ceiling, you go through the glass ceiling, but no, then you find out it wasn’t a glass ceiling at all. It didn’t shatter. It was a membrane, and it opened for you just to go through and then it sealed itself afterwards. (Laughter.) 

This is our problem. We have to get past that differential. We have to understand that there are decisions being made by women every day in terms of actually keeping communities together, whether it be in Ukraine, where they’re doing it all the time every day; whether it was in Bosnia, where I was for a long time, seeing how all that worked and held everything together, and then it is just completely eschewed as being relevant when it comes to any discussions on what a process towards peace and reconstruction must look like.  

It’s that we have to look at, and how that will then move towards changing those structures so the membrane, if you like, becomes so thin it can’t regrow afterwards. And there’s a lot we can do about that. It is about very much understanding and valuing, as I say, that contribution. And if we don’t do it, we’re going to keep on repeating the same mistakes. 

(Background noise.) I’m sorry; my dog is barking in the background. (Laughs.) Not a mistake. 

But there are many things we could do on that. There are many things. And I look forward to working on them going forward.  

SANDBERG: So I’m going to take a lot away from today but maybe the new metaphor for the glass ceiling—I’ve never heard of a membrane.  

Madeleine, I don’t know if you can fully appreciate the chuckles in this room and the nods as so many of us that is—and that is exactly what it feels like. That was brilliant, along with your other work.  

Phoebe, before we turn to audience questions turning to you, women’s voices.  

DONNELLY: Yeah. I mean, I think so often, at least in our work, we’re thinking about how do we get people to include women. Is it saying they make things better? It is saying this, saying that? And what I’ve heard many people now say is: We don’t need to argue it anymore.  

We have national legislation. Many organizations have policy. I know within the Department of the Defense they’re using this technique as well, and it’s more the idea of it is required. We’re stop making—having to justify it, but we are just following what is required and really ensuring that everybody working in those organizations knows the standard and that’s it. It’s not having to make the argument in so many different ways but reminding people what they are required in their positions.  

So I think that’s a big piece of it. Another piece of it I think Madeleine spoke a lot to is around cultural change, and often this comes from the top but really thinking about what needs to change within organizations, within spaces, so that women are seen as experts. They’re seen as important voices. They’re not just included to be included. They are fully part of the table.  

And then, finally, something we think a lot about at IPI in terms of women in different regions is that we have to make sure they’re supported and they’re able to safely and fully participate. 

So those are kind of a few areas but the membrane metaphor will also stick with me. Thank you, Madeleine. (Laughter.) And thank you, Sheryl. I mean, no one has done more work on this topic than you so it’s really an honor.  

SANDBERG: So all right. I love your hand. That was wonderful.  

Sorry. Do we have mics so people online can hear? And do we do introductions to introduce— 

Q: Yes. I’m Pat Patterson, Patterson Investments. 

OK. This is probably too simplistic but my sense is we’re going to get women recognized for their contributions. We’re going to put them in their organizations in a significant way. I’d like to know, OK, a group of soldiers come down into a village. They’ve killed all the men. There are other women left. They decided to rape them. They do rape them.  

How do they get caught? What happens then? Excuse me.  

SANDBERG: Who’s best prepared to answer that? Madeleine—I think Madeleine. 

REES: How do they get caught? Most of them do not and I think this is partly a failure of the way in which we approach sexual violence. Just two things.  

One, investigators often go in to look for sexual violence and that’s a problem because then they don’t find sexual violence. They think no bad things have happened to women, and that’s happened in numerous occasions that we’ve been dealing with.  

But how—and the answer specifically to your question this is where we need to make sure that we do have the capacity to have independent investigation as soon as is humanly possible after an attack. There are ways in which that investigation can be done. It’s got to include Sheryl’s point of making sure that we have women who are part of those teams who understand exactly how to work with women who have been forced into those situations and had survived it. 

We need to ensure that there is a context within which they can act, they can find out what’s happened if they have, in fact—to be sure of the death of their partners because the worst thing is not knowing. That was something we learned from Bosnia, those women who didn’t have information about their missing partners, didn’t know what had happened to their children, didn’t know what they were going to do, how they were going to live—you know, all of those things which are so important.  

If that were not—if that context of security was not provided it’s really, really hard to come forward and actually have an effective investigation because women won’t tell you what’s happened, not straightaway. There are other things that are more important that they have to deal with.  

So you need to have that sensitivity and then you actually have to have real-time empirical evidence, as much as you can possibly get, in terms of uniforms, insignia, direction of travel. I mean, there’s a whole list of different things that, obviously, a good investigation would create with it.  

But you’ve also got to bring the women testifying with you. You can’t just take a statement, off you go. No. And that’s, unfortunately, something that happened. When I was talking about the plethora of different mechanisms you can have a woman in Ukraine being interviewed by the national authorities, by commissions of inquiry, by, you know, NGOs who are doing the human rights investigations by the U.N. and they’ll be giving the same information five times. 

Where is the coherence in that? You’re not going to be able to take that forward. This is why we need this coherence. It’s why we need a hub to be able to make sure that we’re looking at that totality and ensuring the right organizations are providing it. 

If you have that and if—and this is the other thing I think is fundamentally important. It’s more difficult when you’re dealing with nonstate actors but states must provide very concrete information of what actions they have taken in advance to ensure that their troops are going to comply with international humanitarian law, that we should know exactly what the command responsibility is so we know which commander is and which battalion is where so that if atrocities do take place we know immediately where to start looking. And that is not enforced and that, again, needs to be something that is actually put into place when we’re talking about a coherent.  

But there’s one thing I really need to say before we finish today and that is I don’t think for one minute we will stop sexual violence in armed conflict. I really don’t, because it’s about power. And you know, the great Layma Baiyeh (ph) said that at the first big conference we had in the United Kingdom on preventing sexual violence.  

That’s an initiative which got so many states to sign up to it, and she said, don’t think for one minute you’ll stop it. The only way you stop rape in war is to stop war itself because of the power dynamics that come with it. The research shows very clearly that in all cases where there are weapons it is more likely that sexual violence will ensue.  

So if we start putting it all together from militarization projects which empower men, which encourage violence, we end up with a continuum which we can understand and we can unpick it and we can actually address each element within it.  

But we’ve got to have open minds on this and not hide behind the politics, which is what’s inhibited us in going forward in so many areas. So I hope that goes some way to answering your question but there is no perfect answer. We know what should happen. Now we’ve got to make it happen.  

SANDBERG: Thank you. 

We’re going to take an online question. I’ve been told to alternate. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next— 

SANDBERG: But I do feel—I feel the people in the room more, so I motioned—(laughter)—to online first. Please.  

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Sarah Leah Whitson.  

Q: Hi there. Sara Leah Whitson from DAWN. 

And I have over decades of experience studying systematic sexual violence against women, and I’m interested in the take of the experts on, first of all, the challenge of actually finding systematic evidence of sexual violence against women and also the extent to which it becomes used as a political cudgel even in the absence of such evidence.  

And I want to focus specifically on the distinction between arbitrary acts of sexual violence that, as you noted, occur in any war and what we call systematic sexual violence against women because that allegation has been made in the context of the recent conflict in Gaza but I don’t believe there has been evidence of any systematic sexual violence against women by Hamas, nor did we in my prior job at Human Rights Watch find such evidence of systematic sexual violence by Libyan-armed forces in Libya where there were widespread claims, and by Syrian armed forces in Syria where there were widespread claims. 

And instead it just, again, was used as a political cudgel which, unfortunately, I think has harmful effects and are we in a situation where parties to a conflict are turning sexual violence against women as a political tool?  

SANDBERG: I’m going to—thank you for the question. I’m going to start with—I’m going to give this to Rachel.  

VOGELSTEIN: Thank you. 

You know, I think when it comes to the conflict that you just mentioned and I think it bears repeating that sexual violence in conflict is endemic in so many places in the world. But since you raised the Israel-Gaza conflict specifically I would recommend to you the report of the U.N. special representative to the secretary general on sexual violence in conflict. 

Not so long ago Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer and others here at the White House including from the Gender Policy Council had a chance to meet with the U.N. special representative following the issuance of her report, and the report itself has plenty of information about the horrific accounts of sexual violence committed by Hamas on October 7, reports of ongoing acts of gender-based violence against those in captivity and, of course, the special representative calls for a full investigation of these accounts and reports.  

So I think for anyone with questions that report is pretty definitive and I recommend it to all of you. In terms of how to collect evidence it’s an important question and challenge and it’s one that we’re focused on here as we work to close this gap between rhetoric on conflict-related sexual violence and action and we’re really taking a three-pronged approach from our vantage point. 

The first is ensuring that sexual violence in conflict is addressed at the outset of any conflict and we have an initiative through our humanitarian assistance called Safe from the Start, which ensures that gender-based violence prevention and response is part of our humanitarian response because we know to look out for this issue, given its persistence.  

Second, importantly, to document sexual violence and conflict where it does occur we are supporting civil society efforts to investigate and memorialize the crime including through a new $10 million investment in line with the Murad Code, which is named for Nadia Murad, a courageous Yazidi survivor of sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS and a Nobel Laureate who’s spoken at the Council before. So that is an important initiative to ensure that we’re funding efforts to investigate and memorialize the crime.  

And then, third, we’re working with partners on the ground. So the presidential memorandum on accountability for the crime that I mentioned not only directs our own federal agencies to use sanctions authorities to the fullest extent possible but it also emphasizes the importance of consulting with civil society organizations including those who are working directly with survivors on the ground to safely gather information, and that type of collaboration can actually help with the accumulation of evidence that we need in the first instance in order to be able to impose sanctions.  

So this is challenging. I don’t want to suggest otherwise. But there are tools that we have at our disposal that we ought to be investing in and supporting.  

SANDBERG: Thank you. We’re going to go to this table. There were—yeah.  


Q: Thank you very much. I’m Mojubaolu Olufunke Okome and I teach political science at Brooklyn College. I’m also Nigerian.  

So I think what frustrates me is there is a culture of violence against women by armed forces in general but when emphasis—when reports are made the emphasis seems to be, like, OK, the Islamists do this, the radical whatevers are doing this. But every—there’s no armed force in the world that is immune from this.  

So where is the kind of balanced information that is needed to really truly address this problem? From its root causes that’s one thing. The other thing is if something really matters to institutions including governments they would put resources to it and when I look at resources that are put to weapons and arming people to go fight wars it’s actually—I mean, there’s no comparison between that and what, Rachel, your office graciously has facilitated in terms of resources that’s been put to this fighting the violence against women in wars.  

So the priorities are really warped and it doesn’t—if we’re talking about political will that’s one of the markers of it, that there’s really no serious interest but we are going to throw something, some crumbs, so that, you know, it wouldn’t seem like we’re doing nothing.  

Plus, when people are actually identified is there seriousness in prosecuting and, you know, meting out the punishment that is necessary? I, frankly, don’t see it. And I’m talking also as a professor of political science. I take international relations. I’ve been doing that for, like, three decades or more.  

So it’s frustrating and it seems like, you know, we just like to talk and let’s throw some crumbs at these women so they will be quiet—they wouldn’t say we are doing nothing.  

And Boko Haram still has ninety-one girls they took from Chibok fourteen years ago and there are thousands of other women and girls.  

SANDBERG: Thank you for your work and the question and reminding us. (Applause.) 

I’m going to turn this one to Phoebe. 

DONNELLY: Thank you so much for the question and it’s a question I think about a lot and the Boko Haram—I’ve studied forced marriage by armed groups and just how damaging and long lasting that is and we see that in the case of Nigeria. 

I also wanted to touch on—you made a great point about armed forces being the perpetrators. There’s actually data that looks at the highest record of perpetrators are the armed forces. They are perpetrating sexual violence more than nonstate armed groups, which is somewhat surprising when we think about kind of attention.  

So I think it’s really important to look at all the actors, like you said, within one conflict and the ways in which in some ways they’re connecting with each other. There’s some literature in the way that sexual violence is a way that actually armed forces are communicating to each other so this horrific pattern of using women’s bodies to speak and send messages to each other.  

And I also think your point really has us look at the continuum of violence which Madeleine was speaking about, the ideas of, you know, what happens in war and is taken more seriously versus what’s happening outside of the society and how they’re all linked.  

And then, finally, I think you were speaking a bit about disarmament and that the report of the special representative of the secretary general on sexual violence and conflict this year I believe is focusing on that link between small armed light weapons and disarmament or at least the debate coming up is. 

So I think there’s a very real important link to the influx of small arms and light weapons and cases of sexual violence and conflict. So thank you for flagging that as well.  

SANDBERG: Take another question online.  

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Jen Krause.  

Q: Hi. Good afternoon. I’m Rabbi Jennifer Krause. Thank you to all four of you and to the Council for this incredibly important conversation.  

Just building again on needing more women and more women’s voices but specifically now in a time in which we can all be grateful that women are more present in the clergy and in—as religious professionals in every religious community. 

In some patriarchal societies or even societies that are less patriarchal now because of women’s voices and women’s involvement in a variety of sectors it would be difficult not to focus on the fact that in many societies where there is structural violence against women, whether in conflict or otherwise, it often emerges from what I would call an unholy alliance between versions of religion and politics where a version of religion is used as justification for violence against women in its many forms including forced pregnancy and all of the other forms of violence against women that are nonconflict forms of violence against women.  

So what I would ask of this esteemed panel and our esteemed moderator is how can we galvanize the voices and the power of women in the clergy to help each of you in your very worthy, very critical pursuits?  

SANDBERG: I really appreciate this question. One of the students we have with us from NYU right before we all walked in the room asked me a question about what happens when sexual violence is perpetrated and excused as part of the culture, and I think that’s such an important question because I think the work of these esteemed panelists, what we would all say to this—and jump in and correct me if I get it wrong—is that there are things which are more important than any local decision. There are human rights that cannot be subordinated due to anyone’s culture.  

There are some things that are—like, our rights to our own bodies, like a young woman’s rights to choose her own path, not be subjected to marriage—you know, underage where she loses basically all control of her life and I think the role religion has played and the clergy has played and, again, to your point, Rabbi Krause, getting more women into the clergy is such an important part of this answer.  

We’re running out of time. Would one of our panelists want to also provide a little bit of more of an answer to that question?  

Anyone want to jump in? Rachel? Madeleine? 

REES: Yeah. No, just because we’ve got some amazing women who are part of WILPF in Afghanistan who worked tremendously hard. They are ulemas, and they worked with the mullahs to try to better understand how Sharia law should be interpreted as not against women. And they had tremendous success in that, and we got male allies as a result of that. And it’s all about understanding—for them understanding how you have these conversations and how you get this inclusion.  

So it’s a really important question that you asked Rabbi and I think, you know, we need—we really need to push on all fronts in order to be able to break the cycle of power which is all the structural power, which is very much a contributing factor in how we’ve ended up with conflict-related sexual violence being justified.  

SANDBERG: We have time for one more question in the room.  


Q: Thank you. Colette Mazzucelli, New York University.  

Our research is focused on using mobile applications to document forensic evidence of sexual violence, precisely MediCapt in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is a question specifically for Madeleine. Madeleine, in your view has this helped you in your work in any way and if not what could we be doing more? How could we improve to assist you in your work? Thank you.  

REES: No, thanks for the question. I am in complete ignorance about the use of that app. I know of its existence. I have heard that it can be used but I’m not quite sure yet because it hasn’t come to fruition as far as I know as to the evidentiary weight that it will have when it comes to prosecution.  

But I do think there is a whole discussion we can have about using IT so I apologize not being able to address that question properly.  

SANDBERG: I mean, potentially that one of the technologists are in the room. I don’t know enough about this specific thing to answer. But I deeply believe that one of the long-term problems we’ve had, and Madeleine spoke about it, is the gathering of evidence and in a world where most—a lot of people in the world are walking around with something that can provide documentation, had some problems in terms of false documentation as well, that we need to use every tool—every tool—at our disposal.  

And so I think the idea that we can take people who are there on the scene quickly with assets, very powerful technology—the phone you’re walking around with has more computing power than the largest machine in any building when I went to college. That has to be part of the answer. So I really applaud your use of it.  

All right. Should we take one more online? Online? In person? In person. There was a man. I’m going to—I have been accused of only taking questions from women in audiences.  

Q: It’s no longer true.  

SANDBERG: Exactly. I want to— 

Q: So I’m Mark Hetfield. I’m the president of HIAS which is the Jewish community’s refugee agency and we’re partners with the State Department and with UNHCR and Safe from the Start.  

We’re talking about women who are victims of sexual violence in armed conflict but, unfortunately, when women flee armed conflict the violence often flees with them and it’s often committed by different actors but they’re subject to it throughout the journey to seek asylum.  

So I’d love to hear the perspective on how the principles, the concepts applied in armed conflict, should be applied while they’re fleeing.  

SANDBERG: Rachel? 

VOGELSTEIN: I’m happy to jump in and want to thank your organization for your partner—(audio break)—the Safe from the Start initiative. We’re grateful for it.  

You know, I think you’ve heard from all of us, all of the panelists today, about the importance of situating this crime in the broader continuum of gender-based violence that we see manifesting in the U.S. and around the world and I think the answer to your question is in formulating a comprehensive approach to that challenge.  

And so we have increased our efforts not only to address conflict-related sexual violence in these contexts but to address gender-based violence more broadly and have updated our strategy to prevent and respond to gender-based violence globally which gets at the issues that you’ve raised and others that have been raised by our questioners today.  

So I think it’s really incumbent upon all of us if we really do want to solve this problem to situate it in that broader context and make sure that we are addressing gender-based violence whenever and wherever it occurs in all of its manifestations.  

SANDBERG: I want to thank our panelists for your decades of work. (Applause.) 

Our audience, both here and online, for joining us, CFR for hosting, and let everyone know that the video and a transcript of this session will be posted on CFR’s website. So as the people in this room and online who care so much about this we recruit others to care about this. They have an opportunity to join us virtually.  

Thank you all again to my fellow panelists. It is an honor to share this stage virtually with you. Thank you. (Applause.) 


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