This Israeli Activist Is Tirelessly Working to Deal with the Sexual Violence of October 7

The founder of Survivors of Sexual Violence Advocacy Group, Yael Sherer's expertise in the field has made her the go-to person during this unprecedented time.

Yael Sherer wears vibrant tops with yellow flowers and bright red lipstick. Her appearance is literally radiant, and it matches the kind of exuberance that she speaks with when you ask her about her job, about her expertise on a subject that many associate with only a muted somberness: sexual assault.

Yet, Yael Sherer, an Israeli journalist, filmmaker and policy-maker, is a truly unique (she hates that word, but I think she wears it well) expert on health policy — one who travels across the world, and even to the U.N., to talk about her realm of expertise. The Israel-based activist is also the founder and head of Survivors of Sexual Violence Advocacy Group (SSVAG), an incredibly effective non-partisan and private organization that works to shape policy about sexual assault survivors in the country, passing important legislations and funding life-changing resources in even the most underfunded populations.

And now, after October 7, as an independent expert, Sherer is also helping to counsel the government about how to deal with the unprecedented — at least in this region of conflict — sexual violence that took place on that day, helping create policy on how to support the surviving victims and how to bring the perpetrators to justice. It’s a job she is uniquely (there’s that word again) qualified to do.

Sherer is a survivor of sexual assault herself. She sued her father, who sexually abused her as a minor, and won, and created the 2012 “Dirty Laundry,” a documentary that follows that arduous journey. Her case, and her highly visible struggle, opened doors for others, who as she says, may not be as privileged to do the same on their own.

Hey Alma spoke to Sherer about how she became such a prolific activist, how October 7 changed her work and the trauma-informed way to speak about the sexual violence that happened that day.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Can you tell me how you got from being a filmmaker and a journalist to doing this incredibly effective political work with the Survivors of Sexual Violence Advocacy Group?

I didn’t start off as a journalist or as a documentarist. At face level, I’m a survivor. That precedes everything that you said. I’m a survivor.

My father went to jail after I testified against him. After he was released, I filed a lawsuit against him, a civil lawsuit, and I filmed during the proceedings. That was my documentary, “Dirty Laundry.”

I really didn’t think about other people because I felt very much alone. Sexual violence was not talked about in Israel… I really thought I was alone. I didn’t think about social justice or activism or helping others. I just wanted to make a film. I wanted to work in TV and film, that was my goal.

In order for me to show the film, I had to petition the state because it was illegal to publicize the name and the identity of a victim. The law was written in such a way that never took into account the possibility that the victim would want to speak up themselves. It was unheard of. People didn’t do that in Israel, so I had to petition the state.

I [received] special permission to make public my name, my face and also the name and face of my father. He couldn’t hide behind that law anymore. My film was shown on national TV. And that is how I started [doing this work].

Suddenly hundreds of people approached me, phoned me, even came up to me in the street, saying: You won, you can talk, your father went to jail, how did you do it? I said to people, let me help you with this. And suddenly, I found myself helping so many people, or at least trying to. And the realization came that this is not a unique problem. There are so many people that nobody’s going to deal with on a governmental level who have the same problems. It’s not unique. So the system is flawed.

I thought, why aren’t we doing something about it? I was very naive.

Before October 7, what did your average day of work look like?

As I told you, I had the court establish this ruling that said that I [as a victim] could say my name… after the law changed, [then] other people could speak up. [But first] I was the only one who could speak up. So I started speaking up.

But then something weird happened: I became the face of the phenomena. And that is the wrong thing to happen. Because that’s not diverse. Suddenly, people from the Israeli parliament, the Knesset and the Israeli government thought, “Survivors are this.” They come from a rich family, white, educated. And no — there are other voices. So I established this organization [SSVAG] to make sure that I’m not the only one heard.

Can you talk about how, post October 7, your work has changed?


When I started out, I was nothing and nobody. And it just became a movement, a phenomena, whatever you want to call it, of people speaking up, testifying and telling their story. It didn’t require me to be anything but the victim, or the survivor.

But as time went on, I wanted to educate myself. So I finished my first degree. Then my master’s. I went to study health management. And I specialize in health policy to do with emergency care and the emergency care of sexual assault victims, rape kits, forensic evidence and forensic science. That is what I do. During the last few years, I’ve been in contact with the WHO, the World Health Organizations, the United Nations. I’ve been consulting with other countries… I really like my field.

But then October 7 came. I was supposed to have a meeting with the Ministry of Health on the 8th, Sunday morning, to discuss rape kits and collection of evidence and you know… That meeting didn’t happen.

We were all called in to identify the victims, to take fingerprints, to do collection of evidence and deal with the bodies. And everybody was managing the huge, huge undertaking of burying people, of everything. But these were people that I already knew. The Shura army base is where the identification [of bodies] was happening, and out of a staff of, I don’t know, 100 people, 10 of them were my friends — 10% of the people on the ground were friends with me. These were my people.

We understood quite quickly that we had something unusual. This conflict never had sexual violence, widespread and methodical, as what happened on October 7. I started working with whatever government organization, the IDF, the prime minister’s office, whoever called — I started to work with. It wasn’t a decision — people found me and I started helping out with whatever I could.

And you would be the perfect person to…

I was the only person. I don’t want to be rude or anything. But the speciality of health policy to do with the collection of evidence from rape victims is very rare. This field is like, six people. So the fact that Israel had a specialist in that field is like a weird coincidence. We’re a narrow field.

Sexual violence is part of war, but it’s never been part of this specific conflict in this way.

No. And I’m not an expert on sexual assaults in the war here because I mainly work with other countries. I never thought I’d have to do anything with Israel. We’ve dealt with things that were new to me — like, how do you treat people who came back from captivity? I don’t know. Let’s see.

I was asked to give interviews, and I was asked to give talks. I was asked to go overseas and explain both to the public [and the governments] in other countries. This is what I’ve been doing since the 8th of October.

Do you feel like it’s unique, the kind of minimizing and denial that is happening around the sexual violence in this event?

For sure. We never saw that, not in Africa, not in the Congo, not in Ukraine, not in Nigeria… Of course there’s minimizing of what happened here. It’s political.

What do you think is the most trauma-informed way to discuss these topics?

Always the truth. I hate fake news. I hate it when people exaggerate for political reasons. I don’t like when people make claims just in order to sound smart, or to get interviewed, or to give talks — there’s a lot of opportunists. But I really think the truth will set us free.

I also think you need to be informative, not graphic. I never show pictures in my talks. People don’t need it. I don’t think we should try and make people feel a certain way. I state the facts. I show maps. Sometimes I give numbers. But I also never quote numbers that we cannot back up. So when people ask how many people were raped — both men and women — we will never know. We will never know, because they set fire to so many places. So many houses and so many bodies were burned to nothing, to ash. And in that situation, as somebody who deals with forensics — I cannot tell you, from ash, what happened to that person… I have no way of knowing.

So when you’re asked to give concrete facts, what can you say?

I can say that it happened. I can say that it happened a lot in comparison to the amount of time and people involved. When people say to me, Oh, it’s nothing — no, it’s not nothing compared to an event that happened for two to three days and involved that amount of people.

I think people see what’s happening in Gaza and they say, oh, these accounts of sexual violence are used to justify that

I’m not a political figure. I don’t do politics. It’s not my job to defend the IDF… I’m not part of the government. I’m an expert in my field, and I can say now that we have had rape here, in high numbers, compared to the amount of time and people involved. We have survivors. We have eyewitnesses, first responders. And we have other medical staff and staff that identified the bodies. They know what happened. They understand. And if you find people naked and tied up with zip ties and tied to furniture or to a tree, you understand.

Eyewitnesses were hiding in the bushes or up trees or in ditches, in trenches or in holes in the ground, and pulled leaves over them and were quiet while they saw terrorists raping and gang raping. And they didn’t say anything. They just laid there as quiet as they could be so they wouldn’t get killed. They didn’t jump up to help. And now they have to live with it.

Because they wanted to survive.

They saw girls that were screaming and fighting, and they didn’t do anything to help and that’s their burden to live with. It’s not an easy thing to speak about.

Is part of your job also helping the victims and helping the traumatized?

Not personally — my job is policy. I was given information by the Israeli government in order for me to help the Israeli government determine and write policy. I’m not a social worker, not a psychologist, not a psychiatrist. I’m a person who knows funds. I’m a person who knows the government and what sort of facilities we have, how many people we can treat or how much money we can take from somewhere else… I’ve been doing that for a very long time, so they trust me.

The Israeli government was shocked [after October 7]. Didn’t know how to respond, what to do. They were really surprised and had to work faster than they could. That’s the truth.

What do you do to care for yourself as someone who does this type of work?

The most important thing is to adopt a cat.

I like bubble baths. And Taylor Swift. I often enjoy really trashy TV shows on Netflix, like “Love is Blind,” I don’t want to think, a cat on my knees, Netflix, a bit of ice cream… I’m a regular person — nothing special.

But you need that kind of time to do your work. It’s essential.

I don’t want it to be like, my work is so hard and depressing. I understand that people think that policy to do with rape is depressing. My mother doesn’t let me speak about this at dinner. But I love my work, I love my job.

You get to make a difference in the life of survivors.

Yeah, and on an international level, and I think that’s a gift. That’s not an opportunity that is given to a lot of people. I don’t think other people would enjoy this job, but I love it.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about this field and about survivors of sexual violence?

I don’t think [the government] knows what survivors think, feel or want. And I think because of that, we have facilities that don’t help survivors, that are not designed for survivors. The governments are guess-timating… I’ve sat in meetings where people said, the victims are this and that, and we were saying, victims are in the room with you! So you can ask them.

You don’t need to speak for them.

Victims are sitting right here across the table having a pastry from the same plate. They are right here. They’re willing to speak to you if you are not speaking over their head. Don’t guess. Talk to us. Nothing about us without us.

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