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- Ukrainian women are participating in combat operations
- Ukrainian women are subjected to sexual violence
- Ukrainian women find it difficult to have an abortion and receive medical assistance
- Ukrainian women leave their homes – and take responsibility for their families
- Ukrainian women risk becoming slaves
- Ukrainian women continue to fight for their rights, although it has become harder to do so
Author is a journalist, blogger, and femactivist. Since the start of the war, she has been collecting stories of Ukrainian women.
Any crisis is a risk, but for women it is especially so. For example, due to the pandemic, progress in the field of women’s rights and freedoms has not just stopped, but has turned into regression. In the conditions of quarantines around the world, the level of domestic violence has increased. A huge number of women who worked in the trade and hospitality industry lost their income. They started to spend more time on domestic work and less on their own work and self-realization.
However, against the backdrop of Russia’s war with Ukraine, the pandemic already seems like something distant, almost harmless. We are used to thinking that “war has no female face,” that war is a man’s affair. We only hear isolated reports about what is happening to women during this conflict. However, women are not only victims of war, but also its participants.
This text is an attempt to assess how war changes their lives and what damage it will inflict (and has already inflicted) on women’s rights.
FOUR IMPORTANT DISCLAIMERS – BEFORE YOU START READING →
The first one is about femininity. As you probably already understood from the introduction, the text uses femininity. This is important for both Nastya Krasilnikova who wrote it and for the heroines of the material. If you are strongly against femininity, watch this video, for example. Perhaps your point of view will change (or at least soften).
The second part is about focus. This text is dedicated specifically to Ukrainian women. Firstly, because they bear all the hardships of the war. And secondly, because it is very difficult to combine in one material the problems that Ukrainian and Russian women are facing right now. Therefore, we will release another article later – about women in Russia.
The third (part) is about heroines. There are really a lot of them in the material. Perhaps we have never released texts with such a large number of direct speech. But we feel it is important to tell about women in the words of women themselves.
The fourth one is about what awaits you in this text. It contains descriptions of scenes of violence. Especially in the second part (which is entirely devoted to wartime rape). If it is difficult for you to read about it, skip the second part.
Ukrainian women are participating in combat operations
In the first weeks of March, CNN reporters went to the Ukrainian-Polish border. And they saw how dozens of Ukrainian women accompany children and elderly relatives to checkpoints, and then return home – to fight.
Before the war, the proportion of women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) ranged from 15 to 17%. With the start of hostilities, their number increased.
Kateryna Pryymak, the deputy head of the organization “Women Veteran Movement”, says, “Right now, no one will tell you the exact number of women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine because it is classified information. Before February 24th, there were 30,000 women who participated in combat operations [in the country], but now there are more in the military. Among the military personnel, about 15% are women, including soldiers and officers. And among all those involved in the military sphere, including officials of the Ministry of Defense, the number of women is 25%. This is a very high level.”
“The Women’s Veterans Movement” appeared before the current war – to explore women’s participation in the 2014 combat operations. And also – to protect the rights of women in the military. In 2018, Ukraine passed a law on gender equality in the armed forces. “We have opened 63 combat positions for women in the army, since then they can officially serve,” says Priymak.
According to her, immediately after the Russian invasion, women’s interest in military service significantly increased. “Women are joining the territorial defense and signing contracts, it’s true. We had huge lines – both at the enlistment offices and in the territorial defense. If you want to show yourself, you will find ways to get to the front line, because there are also volunteer battalions that you can join, there are medical services. There is a list of civilian professions that are subject to mobilization, including lawyers,” she explains.
Katerina says that there are women who serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and many of them have children. “There are two types of women,” she muses. “Some provide direct care for their children, accompanying them to a peaceful place. And there are other types of women – those who will fight for the safe future of their children – and such women go to the front. I don’t plan on having children precisely because great love means great responsibility and dependence.”
At the same time, Katerina acknowledges that her military friends often face condemnation: “They are accused of abandoning their children and going to war, but they actually do it for the most important reasons – to save their child’s life and future, because we are trying to deprive them of it. Imagine how difficult it is for a woman to kiss her child and leave for many months – and possibly never see him again. When I think about it, my jaw drops: what a tragedy military women go through making such a choice. Society should react to this with the utmost respect. But still, there is always a neighbor who will say that she left her child behind.”
Women don’t just fight – they are everywhere. According to Kelly Joseph, director of emergency situations for the feminist organization Voice Amplified, this is a typical situation. In moments of danger, Kelly comments, it is often women who react first: “As employees of helping organizations, as volunteers, as mothers – basically in any role.” This is confirmed by Ukrainian gender expert Martha Chumalo: “humanitarian initiatives are mostly female,” she says.
Therefore, in many ways it was thanks to women that there was a surge in the volunteer movement after the start of the invasion. It was already powerful before: there were about 2.5 thousand organizations in the country helping the Ukrainian army (more than 14.5 thousand people were involved in them). According to data from December 2021, the level of trust in volunteers reached 68% – only higher in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
After February 24, the volunteer movement became even more noticeable. Just one organization, the “Ukrainian Volunteer Service,” has gained more than 43.5 thousand volunteers in person and over 100 thousand people online. Volunteers help refugees, transport medicine and food from border areas, and organize fundraising for the needs of the army and civilian population.
Ukrainian writer, feminist and activist Olga Kotrus is not surprised by the active participation of Ukrainian women in all spheres of life in the country during the war. “When I see women with guns in the trenches or women in military uniforms taking their children somewhere, it doesn’t wow me. I know my people, I have lived with these women in the same country for a long time. I think there is a surge of righteous anger: everyone’s patience has run out, no one wants to put up with this aggression anymore, everyone has a desire to fight back”.
Both civilians and military fight in any way they can. In March, a story spread through the media about a Ukrainian woman who knocked down a Russian drone with a cucumber (in reality, with tomatoes and plums, as the heroine, Kiev resident Elena, herself told). Or here’s a woman from Konotop warning a Russian soldier: “Every other woman here is a witch. Your penis won’t stand tomorrow.” And 68-year-old pensioner Irina Pronchenko sews body armor for Ukrainian soldiers in her living room.
Not long ago, the wife of Ukrainian President Elena Zelenskaya wrote on Facebook: “Our current resistance has a female face.”
Ukrainian women are subjected to sexual violence
One of the main threats to Ukrainian women during the war is rape by Russian military personnel, says Ukrainian writer and activist Olga Kotrus. The first cases of such violence were recorded by human rights defenders and psychologists in early March.
Now, probably the count is in the tens and even hundreds. There is evidence of girls and women being raped, including elderly women; of group rapes and rapes in front of children; of boys and men being raped.
The authorized representative of the Verkhovna Rada on human rights, Lyudmila Denisova, provides such data: only in the first two weeks of April, about 400 messages about rapes were received on the hotline for psychological support. However, not every woman can decide to seek help, so the exact number of victims is impossible to determine.
“Before the war, we spread information on where to turn if you become a victim of domestic violence or rape,” comments Ukrainian writer and activist Olga Kotrus. “Since the beginning of the war, we have been spreading information on how to ‘disconnect from your own body’ when you are being raped (that is, how to ‘escape reality’ to reduce trauma – Ed.), how to provide first aid to yourself when there is no medical assistance available.”
Sexual violence during war is a war crime, it is prohibited by Article 27 of the Geneva Convention. The Prosecutor General of Ukraine, Irina Venediktova, emphasizes that, like any other war crime, it has no statute of limitations.
Venediktova’s department is collecting information on all military crimes in the country for the International Criminal Court. Independent international organizations are also currently engaged in this work. For example, the first report from the human rights organization Human Rights Watch on military crimes in Ukraine committed from February 27 to March 14 mentions rape, including group rape.
Moreover, information about group rapes (up to five people) comes regularly from unrelated sources such as psychologists. Clinical psychologist Katerina Galyant, who created a closed Telegram channel for victims of rape, reports that three girls aged between 16 and 20 who were raped by Russian soldiers in groups. One of them lost several teeth due to beatings, while the other suffered severe bruises.
There are also other cases known. For example, the story of Olena from Kherson. In a store, a local resident pointed at Olena and called her a “Bandera supporter”. After that, two Russian soldiers chased the woman on her way home and then raped her at gunpoint. Another case was described on Facebook by Lyudmila Denisova, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Verkhovna Rada: a 20-year-old girl from Irpen was raped by three Russian soldiers.
Women note that the most vicious wave of violence often preceded the withdrawal of Russian troops. For example, this was the case in Bucha, where Russian soldiers locked 25 girls aged 14 to 24 in a basement and raped them regularly, according to Lyudmila Denisova. Nine of them became pregnant.
Rape accompanies any war, admits the coordinator of the Russian center “Sisters” Natalia Timofeeva (this organization has been providing assistance to survivors of sexual violence since 1997). She emphasizes that rape is not associated with sexual attraction. That is why many experts call for replacing the term “sexual violence” with the term “sexualized violence” – because there is nothing sexual about violence.
“A person who commits violence may experience sexual arousal, but their primary motive is to gain power and control over another person’s life,” explains Timofeeva. In her opinion, what Russian soldiers are doing is the result of the country’s long-standing policy of normalizing violence, which has become an integral part not only of society’s life but also of official rhetoric. “Whether you like it or not, endure, my beauty” – a phrase from a crude folk song that Vladimir Putin said in early February, commenting on Ukraine’s dissatisfaction with the Minsk agreements – illustrates this policy well.
The British Ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, believes that rape is not only a conscious act of submission, but also one of the weapons of war. In her opinion, rape is not a private initiative of specific Russian military personnel, but a full-fledged method of the country’s armed forces as a whole. Catherine Cherepakha from the human rights organization “La Strada Ukraine” agrees with her. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken refers to rape in the current war as a “deliberate campaign”.
Rape is a crime that is difficult to investigate even in times of peace. Firstly, women do not always turn to law enforcement agencies: they rarely take on such cases with enthusiasm, and society is still prone to condemning the victims. Secondly, medical expertise becomes critically important for investigation; it needs to be done as soon as possible – preferably within the first few days.
During wartime, everything becomes even more complicated. Even if a woman reports the incident, it is practically impossible to find the perpetrator. Many victims report that during the rape, Russian soldiers do not remove their balaclavas. Furthermore, if the victim is in a town or city that is under attack or occupied, they cannot undergo a forensic examination.
The Head of the UN Human Rights Mission in Ukraine, Matilda Bogner, confirms that in the absolute majority of cases, rape during the war goes unpunished. Yes, the principle of universal jurisdiction applies to war crimes – it is possible to hold a person accountable anywhere and anytime. However, despite this, investigating any war crimes and conducting trials is a very difficult task (read more about this in a recent article).
Rape itself is a hate crime, says Natalya Timofeeva, but during war, the motive of hatred expands. Women, children, and men become representatives of the hated people: “The rapist as a representative of the people seeks to inflict maximum damage on the person as a representative of another people.” Explaining why military rapes are often committed in groups, Natalya Timofeeva says that “this is a way of solidarity, an attempt to remove some of the responsibility: ‘I am not guilty if everyone is doing it’.”
Sometimes relatives or neighbors of the victim are forced to witness the rape – and this is “terrorism of the civilian population, so that witnesses are afraid, so that they do not resist anything.” “People who have faced violence as witnesses have also experienced a terrible trauma. Some of their vital energy will go into surviving it. As a result, there may not be enough energy to actively resist,” says Natalya Timofeeva.
During pregnancy, which often occurs after an act of violence, she sees “a way to make women give birth to ‘right’ children, ‘our’ children”. “Or vice versa – if the violence occurs in especially cruel forms, it can lead to infertility,” Timofeeva comments. “Then it’s a way not only to deprive a specific girl or woman of her future, but also as if the whole nation as a whole.”
Speaking about the mass rapes in Ukraine, Timofeeva notes that the fact of the conversation about it means that the problem is recognized as a problem. “In other military conflicts, it could take many years before the victims gather the strength to seek justice,” explains Timofeeva. “For example, during the Chechen wars, sexual violence was left unpunished. In that society, it was impossible to talk about it because the consequences for the victims would have been even worse.”
Studies on military sexual assault show that those who are psychologically affected take a long time to recover, she says. Not only because of what they experienced: “I would like there to be understanding in society that this trauma is also related to society’s attitude towards sexual violence. People need to understand that those who have experienced violence do not become dirtier or worse from it, they do not become ‘collaborators’ (as women who experienced rape were called during World War II; their children were discriminated against. – Ed. note). These people are not to blame, they have experienced violence and only need help and support”.
Ukrainian women find it difficult to have an abortion and receive medical assistance
The international organization “Abortions Without Borders”, known for its active activities in Poland, documented more than 200 pregnancies resulting from rape between March 1 and April 12. The Inter-Agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crisis Situations (IAWG) has included abortion and post-abortion care on the list of priority humanitarian assistance services.
Most of the Ukrainian women who turn to AWB for help with abortion are in Poland (according to UN data, there are currently the most refugees there). Surgical abortions are prohibited in Poland, and medical abortions are conditionally allowed: there is no punishment for storing and using emergency contraception pills, but selling or transferring them to a third party is punishable by imprisonment. Therefore, if a Ukrainian woman decides to have an abortion after being raped, she faces serious obstacles, sometimes insurmountable.
Similar situations occur in neighboring countries with Poland. In Hungary, emergency contraception is only available by prescription, and obtaining one takes time. In Romania and Slovakia, refugees are not provided with financial aid, and they have to buy medication at full cost. Therefore, some organizations help women travel to countries with free access to abortions, such as the Abortion Support Network, which is part of “Abortion Without Borders”. Among such countries are Latvia, Czech Republic, Austria, and the Netherlands.
In addition, women are pressured by so-called pro-lifers. Christina Katspura, the head of the human rights organization Federa, says that refugees are given leaflets at the border with Ukraine stating that “abortions kill more people than wars.”
In April, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) sounded the alarm. The organization called on EU authorities to supplement humanitarian aid to Ukraine (so-called dignity kits – ready-made sets with non-food items of first necessity) with contraceptives and emergency contraception. They can be used within 72 hours after rape – to prevent pregnancy.
Similar packages are sent by IPPF itself and other non-profit organizations, such as UNICEF and the Women Helping Women organization. The Women’s Veterans Movement delivers such means to the Kharkiv and Odessa regions. However, Katerina Priymak from the Women’s Veterans Movement says that delivering emergency contraception to liberated territories from Russian troops is not so simple.
“The drug ‘Postinor’ for preventing unwanted pregnancy should be taken within 72 hours after rape. There is an alternative drug, ‘Elovan’, which can be taken within five days. The longer time has passed since the territory was liberated, the less sense these pills make, because women may simply not have time to take them within the necessary timeframe,” explains Katerina.
In addition, taking such medication should be done under the supervision of a doctor, which is why they are only issued to medical professionals upon request. “We cannot simply drop these tablets from a helicopter to all women who have survived rape: there is a risk that the woman will have bleeding and die,” continues Katerina Priymak. “And we simply do not have the ability to deliver them to occupied territories.”
However, rape is not the only reason why Ukrainian refugees terminate their pregnancies. Experts note that being separated from their partners (due to the universal mobilization law passed by the Verkhovna Rada, men aged 18 to 60 can no longer leave Ukraine) makes many women stop considering pregnancy desirable in principle.
In addition to difficulties with access to abortions, there are also challenges with medical care in general. According to WHO data, in Eastern Ukraine the healthcare system is almost destroyed. And throughout the country, 39% of Ukrainians cannot access medical help.
For women, the situation is complicated by the fact that services for maintaining reproductive health, as well as support before, during and after childbirth, have become virtually inaccessible to them. According to the United Nations Population Fund, as of the end of February, 265,000 Ukrainian women were pregnant. Within the next three months, 80,000 of them are expected to give birth. However, 15% of all pregnancies require qualified medical assistance. But where to find it when childbirth is now taking place in bomb shelters and basements?
Oncogynecologist Galina Maystruk from Kiev notes that the situation is complicated by the lack of medication and equipment even in hospitals: logistics chains are disrupted, and pharmacies are empty. The absolute majority of warehouses were located in the suburbs of Kiev – they are almost completely destroyed.
Ukrainian women leave their homes – and take responsibility for their families
Refugees from Ukraine primarily rely on the UN. However, these are approximate data: due to the absence of strict boundaries within the Schengen area, collecting statistics is difficult.
Here’s how the calculations are being done. In the UN data center, information is updated based on data from Ukrainian border posts. For example, as of May 11, 3,272,943 people alone crossed the border with Poland. Whether they stayed in the country or went further cannot be determined. Therefore, Ella Libanova, the director of the Institute of Demography of Ukraine, is convinced that the overall number of refugees is overestimated: people are counted both in the country of first crossing and at the time of receiving documents in the next state. Libanova herself is inclined to trust the data of the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine: according to the agency’s calculations, the war has made 3.2 million Ukrainians refugees. Ukrainian Forbes provides its own figures: 9 million Ukrainians are away from home, of which 4 million are abroad and 5 million are within the country.
The most difficult thing is to count those who went to Russia (or were forcibly deported there). Some of them obviously left the unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in April during the preparation for the offensive in Donbas. Russian media estimate the total number of Ukrainians who left for Russia at 1.2 million people. According to the UN’s estimate, there are no more than 740,000.
Experts unanimously agree that the absolute majority of refugees are women and children. However, their exact proportion in the overall flow cannot be calculated at the moment. Data is given at 90%, but the thing is that standard calculations based on big data analytics are used for the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis, rather than specific statistics. According to the UN, women and children make up 90% of all refugees in any armed conflict. Therefore, experts conclude that the same applies to this war.
Women run not only with their children but also with older relatives, pets, and bear responsibility for everyone. Ukrainian writer and feminist Olga Kotrus tells the story of her friend who found herself in such a situation: “Her father, a surgeon, said, ‘I’m going to war, and you’re responsible for the family. You don’t have the right to relax or cry.’ She’s about 30 years old, her younger brother is 14. She took her brother and mother to Poland. She spent all her energy on getting everyone transported, settled, comforted, warmed up, and finding a place for everyone. In the end, her mother and brother somehow adapted, but her father is still fighting. And she’s only in a terribly broken state writing to me, ‘Kitty, please tell me, how can I want to live?’ What can I say to her?”
Tatiana, a resident of Kharkiv (name changed at the request of the heroine), says that at first she could not imagine leaving. But when her daughter asked her if it hurts to die, the woman decided to evacuate. The road took seven long days. Now the family lives in Spain, near Valencia, in social housing.
“The day starts at seven in the morning, I wake up the children and take them to school. They study in different parts of town, so I take them one by one. After that, I take the dog for a walk, while also going on a raid on the garbage dumps. It’s shameful to admit, but it is what it is. In Spain, you can find practically everything in the garbage dumps. We don’t have any Red Cross branches or humanitarian aid here, we have to travel to a bigger city for that, but transportation is expensive for us. It’s difficult to understand that as a person with a higher education and a stable life before, now you are digging through garbage dumps while looking around,” Tatiana says.
Often refugees have no one to share what is happening to them. Kyiv resident Nina, who was evacuated to Ternopil with her parents, grandparents, and pets, says, “It’s hard that the fighting is taking place where my forest, my swamp is, where I’ve been picking mushrooms and herbs for many years, and now they are poisoning and trampling my land. It’s also hard that there’s no one to talk to about it – against the backdrop of everything else, it seems trivial, but it hurts me.”
Kelly Joseph from Voice Amplified is convinced that the current migration crisis is a women’s crisis. “Women and girls are often used as a visual example of people who receive humanitarian aid. But in reality, very little money and resources are allocated for their safety, protection, and the provision of services they need,” explains Kelly.
She spent a month in several European countries, helping Ukrainians. And she notes: “We do not observe a systematic approach to protecting women.”
At the same time, refugees feel immense gratitude for any help, which Kelly finds “very troubling.” “It’s like we would be grateful for breathing air. I think this level of gratitude is directly related to the lack of information about the amount of assistance that should be available in such cases,” she says.
According to Kelly, refugees are now forced to think about everything at once: their children, money, work, and many other things. “They worry that they will run out of money and won’t be able to take care of their families. In addition, women worry about who to call, what to do if they encounter violence. They worry about returning home, their husbands, their country, and how to send their children to school,” Kelly comments.
Taking children to a safe place is one of the main reasons for evacuation for Ukrainian women. Nadia, who left Kiev for Germany with her daughter, says: “When the war started, the first thing I wanted to do was to secure my child… I caught myself thinking: what should I do if she gets injured? I realized that my psyche would not withstand it if I saw the death or physical trauma of my child.”
After reaching a safe place, the women still couldn’t breathe a sigh of relief – now they need to worry about housing. Co-founder of the Women’s Perspectives Center, Marta Chumalo, says that housing is one of the most urgent problems for refugees. “For example, a woman lives with her family in France and says, ‘I don’t want to leave the room again. I don’t want to annoy them. I see that I am already superfluous, but I have nowhere to go,'” she explains.
Kelly Joseph from Voice Amplified highlights the housing problem for refugees: “Suppose some family takes you in for a month or two, but how long will this continue? And what to do when this time is up? How to get access to money? In some countries, social benefits are only 130 euros per month, which is very little. Women are offered jobs, but often these are offers from the black market.”
Many European cities are already overcrowded with refugees. And some Ukrainians, not finding a place for themselves there, began to return home – even where it is still unsafe. After all, no one provides systemic support to refugees, and people are left alone with their problems. “There are small initiatives that arise, and I do not want to pretend that I do not notice them, because there are many initiative groups, they really do a lot. But this is not enough,” Kelly concludes.
When asked about what such support would ideally look like, she lists: “Providing long-term and secure housing options, access to decent work, financial assistance programs, and quality information. We see that European countries are doing a lot to help refugees, but there is no centralized system with useful information.”
At the same time, many Ukrainian women feel guilty for surviving. “I am alive, my loved ones are alive, which is why I constantly feel an infernal sense of guilt towards the victims. Yes, a missile hit my house, but that’s already irrelevant,” says Kiev resident Sonia.
Kelly Joseph believes that “survivor guilt is a very real phenomenon”. And to deal with this, women need not only social but also psychological support.
Ukrainian women risk becoming slaves
Women who managed to leave Ukraine are faced with another danger – the risk of falling into slavery or sexual exploitation.
Human trafficking (also known as “trafficking”) is prohibited in the European Union by a special Convention. It has been ratified by Ukraine and all neighboring countries except Russia.
Concerns about the increasing risk of human trafficking first arose in the early weeks of the war, when the number of refugees from Ukraine exceeded one million people. Citizens themselves expressed concern (examples include petitions and appeals to the EU leadership), as did relevant NGOs (such as the Group of Experts on Human Trafficking of the Council of Europe; GRETA). UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “For human traffickers, the war in Ukraine is not a tragedy, but an opportunity: their targets are women and children.”
At the same time, there are no officially confirmed cases of forced labor or sex trafficking. Researchers themselves, including the independent commissioner of the UK in the fight against slavery, Lady Sarah Thornton, acknowledge this. However, there is private evidence. For example, Ukrainian volunteer Margarita Usmanova reported suspicious Italian men seen in a refugee camp to the police on the Polish-Ukrainian border. “I called the police, and it turned out that I was right in my suspicions,” Usmanova is quoted by BBC.
According to eyewitness accounts, the tactics of scouts (as recruiters who act in the interests of slave traders and slave owners are called) have changed. In the early days of the war, they stood openly in places where refugees gathered with makeshift cardboard posters. They talked about the possibility of moving to comfortable and attractive countries – for example, to Italy. Then recruiters became more cautious: now they represent themselves as volunteers and can even wear special clothing. Scouts lure refugees with false job offers (for example, in a massage salon) – and this is a direct path to sexual exploitation. Such cases are not uncommon, for example, in Germany and the Netherlands.
Kelly Joseph from Voice Amplified says she knows about several cases of human trafficking at the border: “There are cases where men appear in refugee shelters to take away children and pregnant women. There are groups on Facebook where women are offered to become egg donors. Unfortunately, this type of exploitation has been widespread before. And the refugee crisis and the emergence of a large number of vulnerable people only confirms that this is our reality.”
Not only organized criminal networks, but also individual people engage in exploitation. For example, testimonies (although unverified) have been published from women who were invited to Germany and the UK by fake volunteers. There, passports were taken from refugees, they were coerced into sex, and made to do domestic work (one such case is described by the BBC). Special groups are even created on social networks to recruit Ukrainian women to such places.
Interpol has been tackling the issue of preventing human trafficking together with the National Police of Ukraine since March 2022. Official agencies and non-governmental organizations from Austria, Bulgaria, Spain, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary have joined its program.
The National Police of Ukraine asserts that at the time of creating this program, no cases of Ukrainian involvement in human trafficking on the territory of the EU had been identified. However, by mid-March, when the number of refugees from Ukraine exceeded three million people, non-governmental organizations began to speak out more actively on the issue. The UN Refugee Agency distributed information flyers at border crossings on how to protect oneself from being involved in sexual slavery. Similar brochures are also distributed by private NGOs (such as Fem Podmoga).
In May, GRETA released a Guidance Note – a comprehensive guide for European countries on preventing trafficking. The authors claim to be aware of confirmed cases of human trafficking from Ukraine – and they are currently under investigation.
The instructions emphasize that it is necessary to register all people who receive and provide assistance. This should be done continuously – both in transit countries and in destination countries. It is mentioned separately that it is necessary to increase the number of female border guards – as well as the number of female specialists working with refugees.
Ukrainian women continue to fight for their rights, although it has become harder to do so
Writer Olga Kotrus tells the story of a Ukrainian girl she learned about through Facebook. At the beginning of the war, this girl was left alone at home with her brother. He was beating her, but calling the police was impossible – the police just don’t have time for that now. As a result, the girl was liberated from the apartment by arriving volunteers.
Gender expert Marta Chumalo from the Women’s Perspectives center, which has been monitoring the situation with domestic violence since 1998, confirms that with the beginning of the war, the problem has indeed escalated.
She explains that the police in occupied territories cannot help women who have suffered from violence. But she also notes that the war has allowed many of the center’s clients to open a “window of opportunity”: “Some have left the country, some have fled from their abusers, because now, to cross the border with a child, you don’t need the permission of the other parent. Those who managed to escape to Europe from the aggressor feel like free people.”
However, not everyone has access to such a “window of opportunity”. Therefore, at the beginning of the war, “Women’s Perspectives” established several additional shelters in Ukraine for those who have experienced violence and for refugees with children. “There are many women now who have been living in schools without showers, in terrible conditions for several months. We provide these women with more comfortable conditions: we have showers, toilets, and a kitchen so that they can cook for themselves. We meet their basic needs,” says Marta.
Experts acknowledge that not only the war itself, but also the militarization of society accompanying it, hinders progress in the field of women’s rights. Marta Chumalo explains it this way: “Masculinity is now being celebrated. A woman is such a caretaker, and a man is such a protector. I understand why this discourse is necessary, but in the long run, it is against women’s rights. We already had a bill to ban abortions [in Ukraine], and now it is back in the Verkhovna Rada – it has been reintroduced after the start of the war. Because ‘many people are dying and we need to give birth’.” The bill to ban abortions, which was discussed in 2017, was again attempted to be pushed through the Rada on March 17, 2022.
Currently, the priority is physical survival, so the issue of women’s rights has taken a back seat, summarizes Chiara Condi. “During such crises, we tend to think more narrowly and worry less about building the future. Attention is focused on what is happening right now – saving oneself and one’s children. As for gender issues: when events like this happen, they draw universal attention, so there is less room for talk about other things, no matter how important they may be,” she explains.
In this regard, Olga Kotrus looks to the future with optimism and expects positive changes in the field of women’s rights advocacy – when the war finally ends: “Many women express disappointment about militarization, but I do not agree with this, because military actions in Ukraine have been ongoing since 2014. We have long been focused on our army. This is a full-fledged part of the life of a whole country, which coexists perfectly with the holding of women’s marches, pride events, and open advocacy for women’s rights. I believe that this issue will become so clear after the end of the war that it will be simply impossible for Ukraine to turn away from it and not adopt the same Istanbul Convention [on combating violence against women]. I and others like me expect some positive developments in this regard. Which, of course, cannot be said about Russia. Everything will only get worse there.”
Kelly Joseph is annoyed by the common opinion that women have some special endurance.
“Women are so resilient because they damn well have to be. Do we have a choice? Of course we have this resilience, but it’s a forced, necessary quality. Resilience doesn’t arise because women themselves have decided to suffer, go through war and become even stronger. They simply have no other way out,” she says.
I ask Olga Kotrus what she has learned about Ukrainian women during the war. She responds: “Ukrainian women are people of incredible strength. With the beginning of the war, an inhuman and fierce resource was released to hope, work, help others, not fall into hysteria, not suffocate from depression. Our women can do absolutely everything. And as much as I would never want to know how strong we are.”