One year after the war in Ukraine began, there is yet to be enough focus on the suffering of women and children. Sexual violence against women is a violation of human rights that is frequently used as a weapon of war. As of December 13, 2022, the office of the prosecutor general of Ukraine reported 154 documented incidents of sexual violence allegedly by perpetrators from the Russian armed forces. Many survivors are yet to come forward due to limited information and fear of stigma.
Olena Kochemyrovska, a gender-based violence technical adviser with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Ukraine, says, “Since the beginning of the war, millions of women have had to flee their homes to neighbouring countries. Often, circumstances are such that they leave without proper documentation leaving them at the mercy of traffickers.”
According to UNFPA, at least 1,800 women are reported to have died in childbirth as hospitals lack resources. Incidents of sexual violence against women that have increased with displacement require a scaled multi-sectoral response to meet the needs of survivors.
Agencies such as UNFPA have prioritised increasing local health care provider capacities and building a network of survivor-centred services. In Ukraine, UNFPA maps essential services, strengthens service provision, and educates providers to support survivors of sexual violence, children, family members, and witnesses affected by the war. The agency also helps incorporate international standards into policy legislation and accountability frameworks and has contributed to the Framework on Cooperation between the UN and the government of Ukraine to prevent and respond to sexual violence in times of conflict.
Women have, according to Olena Kochemyrovska, suffered severe psychological problems due to abuse and the absence of their husbands. Many have lost their jobs due to a lack of mobility.
UNFPA, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the UN Development Programme, the International Organization for Migration, UN Women, and the World Health Organization have co-designed a project proposal to be implemented in areas under the control of the government of Ukraine. The project aims to improve the system-wide response, provide comprehensive survivor-centred assistance, and foster national ownership and leadership for a sustainable response to violence.
The project has its task cut out for it. Due to trauma and stigma, survivors often only disclose their experiences after receiving psychosocial support. Accessible services will help increase the likelihood of disclosure. Attention should also be given to the needs of male survivors, as dedicated or specialised services are not always available for them even in peacetime.
The failure to protect survivors of conflict-related sexual violence can have consequences on their health and well-being. It can also perpetuate cycles of violence, create barriers to recovery and reintegration, and perpetuate stigma and discrimination.
To ensure long-term sustainability, the project should focus on building the capacity of national and community-based stakeholders to respond to and prevent sexual violence from occurring in the first place. The psychological toll of war is severe, and women have borne the brunt of this with many experiencing trauma, anxiety, and depression. It’s crucial to prioritise their protection and support in conflict and post-conflict settings. Preventing sexual violence is not just a moral imperative, but a strategic one, to create a safer and more stable world.
The views expressed are personal