ROME – In light of this month’s celebration of International Women’s Day, a prominent Israeli historian specializing in gender issues has decried the apparent use of sexual violence against women hostages taken by Hamas, and said she wished the pope and the Vatican would do more on their behalf.

Speaking to Crux, Herzig said, “the Vatican could have mentioned our hostages more, I think it is a humane obligation to not just count the dead bodies, which is a very important thing, but the cases of rape.”

“Rape as a weapon of war is considered a form of slow murder, but it never gets into the equation of how many dead bodies are on each side,” she said.

Herzig said that the body count for the ongoing war in Gaza includes not only those who have died as a result of bombs, but also many women who were apparently raped prior to being killed during Hamas’s Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel.

“I don’t recall any western country, definitely not during the 21st century, that had so many hostages held in such, we know they are very difficult conditions, for so long,” she said, lamenting that there has been “no international outcry.”

In this sense, as Pope Francis is a frequent advocate for an end to violence against women, “I think the pope could have been more active, the Vatican could have been more active in this respect,” Herzig said. “I was definitely hoping they would do more about women.”

Herzig is a historian of Early Modern Europe who specializes in the oppression of marginalized groups, female slavery, gender violence, and religious conversion.

She spoke at a March 12 event organized by the Israeli embassy to the Holy See to commemorate International Women’s Day, observed annually on March 8, with the all-female guestlist including several ambassadors to the Holy See.

Herzig in her remarks lamented that as the world celebrated International Women’s Day, there was little talk of the 19 women who remain captives of Hamas, and many of whom have likely endured sexual violence.

“Israel is still in shock from what happened,” she said, saying that while the rest of the world has moved on, “for us, October seventh has not ended, we’re still living October seventh.”

Most people either have relatives or friends “that were massacred” within their own families, or they know people who lost their homes and communities.

Showing images and video footage of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, which left 1,400 Israelis dead and saw around 250 others taken as hostages, Herzig said that by paying close attention, it is obvious that “taking women was part of the plan,” pointing to one video specifically in which a Hamas militant is heard saying, “this one is a girl, take her.”

Of the 19 women who remain in captivity, some “are probably already dead,” she said, adding, “we hope not.”

Calling the Oct. 7 attacks the most traumatizing violence the Jewish people, especially women, have seen since the Holocaust, Herzig referenced a recent report from United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten.

After completing a visit to Israel and the West Bank earlier this year, Patten released a report saying “clear and convincing information” had been found indicating that some women and children held by Hamas had been subject to rape and sexualized torture.

The report also found “reasonable grounds” to believe that sexual assaults, including rape, gang rape, and the mutilation of female bodies had taken place in at least three places during the Oct. 7 attacks on a music festival and several kibbutz communities, among other places.

No survivors of sexual violence were spoken to as part of the on-the-ground inquiries, the report said, citing a distrust of international organizations and institutions following Oct. 7, however, information was ascertained from witness testimony and from reviewing video footage.

Frist-hand accounts from released hostages, the report said, recounted the rape, sexual torture, and degrading and inhumane treatment of women and children in captivity, with reasonable grounds to believe that this violence is ongoing.

There have been some indications, Herzig said, that some of the women hostages might be pregnant as a result of rape, though she said there is little information available, given the delicacy of the issue and the need to safeguard privacy.

Herzig said she herself has been to four funerals since Oct. 7, including a former student who was burned alive inside her home along with her husband during the attack.

“Time went forward for the rest of the world, but for us it stopped,” she said, noting that for months, Israeli citizens were glued to the radio and the television as more victims of the attack were identified.

She read aloud an open letter from the mother of 19-year-old Naama Levy, who was abducted by Hamas on Oct. 7 and remains in captivity. Video footage of the attack shows Hamas militants dragging a bloodied Levy by her hair into a truck, still wearing her pajamas and with no shoes or socks.

In her letter, Levy’s mother, Ayelet Levy Shachar, said that “those atrocious moments” seen in the video have “turned Naama into all of our daughter.”

For over 150 days, she said, Levy has been absent, and “As her mother I’m powerless…I am a mother, and my heart is broken. My days and nights are tormented by the absence of Naama. Her nightmares are my own.”

She said she wanted to be Levy’s voice, since Levy’s was “silenced,” and described her daughter as a happy and optimistic person who was “full of compassion” and believed in the goodness of other people.

“Where is the international community in the face of all this? Where is the world? How can a month dedicated to women be celebrated when women are held hostage by a group of terrorists and are living unspeakable sufferings?” she asked.

Herzig said that personally she would like to see the current war end, but that initially, it was necessary for Israel to fight, because for over three months, Hamas continued to fire missiles into various parts of Israel.

A solution to the ongoing war must be found, she said, saying she is in favor a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but for this to happen, “we must find a partner in Palestine” that is not Hamas, which is difficult.

“I would like to see the end of the war,” she said, but insisted that “we must do everything possible to free the hostages.”

Herzig made an appeal for the world to do “everything possible” to ensure the release of the rest of the hostages, especially the women, who she said are likely being subjected to sexual violence.

“It’s very late to release them after five months, but better late than never,” she said.

Pope Francis frequently prays for peace in Gaza and has made repeated appeals for the liberation of Israeli hostages, but he and top aides have also made waves for reportedly referring to the current war in Gaza as a “genocide” and for calling Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attack disproportionate.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen