Room 350
Eisenhower Executive Office Building

4:47 P.M. EDT

     THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Please, have a seat.  Good afternoon.  Good afternoon.  Good afternoon. 

What an extraordinary group of leaders I see.  It’s so good to be with everyone, and thank you. 

And thank you to Jen.  She has been — I mean, just — like, we are just doing this thing together, Jen.  And you have been so wonderful.  You have been such a power in our administration on fighting for gender equity, and I thank you for that and for the introduction.

And to all our distinguished guests, thank you for being here.

     I especially thank the survivors and advocates that are with us today: Kolbassia, Oleksandra, Amit, and Nadia, whose Nobel Peace Prize on the topic of sexual violence is an extraordinary testament to her global leadership. 

Every day, each of you brings to light the atrocity of conflict-related sexual violence.  You, in particular, are fearless advocates in the fighter — in the fight for justice, and you remind us of the resilience of survivors. 

     President Joe Biden and I stand with you in solidarity and with all the survivors around the world. 

     So, sexual violence has been a tactic of war since ancient times.  Throughout history, those who have waged war have specifically targeted and violated women and girls to exert dominance and power over their bodies and to humiliate and terrorize and subdue entire populations.  And sexual violence remains a gruesome part of modern conflict around the globe. 

     In Ukraine, Russian forces have raped women in occupied territories.  In Iraq, when ISIS seized territory a decade ago, they forced women and girls into sexual slavery as they massacred thousands.  In Sudan, the ongoing conflict includes paramilitary forces terrorizing women and girls through sexual violence.  In Haiti, gangs have used sexual assault to rape and coerce communities into submission.  And we’ve seen similar horrors in South Sudan, in Ethiopia, Central African Republic, and the DRC. 

     My heart breaks for the trauma and pain inflicted in each of these conflicts. 

     And October 7, last year, Hamas committed horrific acts of sexual violence.

     Sheryl, I thank you for all your work to bring to light the horrors of this issue and for your film about what happened on October 7.  In the days after October 7, I saw images of bloodied Israeli women abducted.  Then it came to light that Hamas committed rape and gang rape at the Nova Music Festival, and women’s bodies were found naked from the waist down, hands tied behind their back, and shot in the head. 

     I’ve heard the stories from a former hostage of what she witnessed and heard in captivity.  And I just met with Amit, a survivor who has bravely come forward with her account of sexual violence while she was held captive by Hamas. 

     These testimonies, I fear, will only increase as more hostages are released.  We cannot look away, and we will not be silent. 

     My heart breaks for all these survivors and their families and for all the pain and suffering over the past eight months in Israel and in Gaza. 

We are deeply concerned by all reports of sexual violence and degradation, and we mourn every innocent life lost in this conflict.  It is devastating, which is why President Biden and I have made clear: Hamas needs to accept the deal that is on the table for a ceasefire, which would bring the hostages home and lead to a permanent end to hostilities. 

     Specifically, on the issue of conflict-related sexual violence, in recent years, the international community has made great progress on recognizing that it is an attack on peace, stability, and human rights.  And the United States has been proud to lead the way at the United Nations and around the world by providing rape kits and healthcare for survivors, training militaries and peacekeepers, and supporting the appointment of a Special Representative to the U.N. Secretary General to monitor this issue. 

     But that is not enough.  It’s not enough.  The crimes persist.  And globally, our system of accountability remains inadequate.  More must be done. 

And it is the responsibility of all of us — governments, international organizations, civil society, and individual citizens — to actively confront conflict-related sexual violence and to work to rid our world of this heinous crime and to do what is necessary to hold perpetrators accountable. 

     And it starts, of course, with awareness and acknowledgement.  We must speak truth about the prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence against women and girls and men and boys.  All of these crimes are too often ignored.  The U.N. estimates that for each rape documented in connection with a conflict, there are 10 to 20 cases that go undocumented. 

     Conflict-related sexual violence must be condemned, unequivocally, wherever and whenever it occurs.  And we must fortify systems to prioritize action — systems that support survivors, effectively collect evidence, and promote investigation. 

     That is one of the reasons why our administration is launching the Dignity in Documentation Initiative to improve documentation of these crimes.  For far too long, systems, whether law enforcement or judicial, have not sufficiently addressed conflict-related sexual violence.  And for far too long, the consequences, then, stopped at mere condemnation — which, of course, is important, but stopped there, rather than going to accountability. 

     We have to change that.  We must condemn, of course, this conduct.  But there must be accountability.  So, we have committed, as an administration, to move the system from only condemnation to consequences. 

Thanks to the leadership of our administration, we have made it the policy of the United States to use all of our diplomatic, financial, and legal tools to punish those who commit sexual violence. 

     For example, for the first time, we imposed sanctions based solely on conflict-related sexual violence, including for crimes committed in Haiti, Sudan, Iraq, and the DRC, with the knowledge that meaningful systems of accountability also contribute to deterrence. 

     If one is held accountable by a system that takes seriously the outrageousness of the conduct, it stands to reason that it will serve also as a deterrence to prevent further crimes from happening in the future.

     The bottom line is: The use of sexual violence as a tactic of war is unconscionable.  And any failure to hold perpetrators accountable is a failure to live up to, by all of us, our common humanity.

     We must agree that in civil societies there must be outrage that prompts action to address what is happening around the world and that we commit ourselves to speaking truth about the failures of these systems with the purpose and goal of holding ourselves to the highest standards to ensure that we all prioritize what is right for the sake of the safety and the dignity and the well-being of all people.

     So, let us rededicate ourselves to build a future where women and girls and all people can live free from violence, abuse, and fear.  President Joe Biden and I are committed to work with all of you to that end. 

And I thank you.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

END                     4:57 P.M. EDT

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