Listening to Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ukraine

No-one knows how many war crimes have been committed in Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February, or how many were committed since Russia’s 2014 invasion of the eastern part of the country, and the annexation of Crimea.

By Brian Dooley

No one knows how many war crimes have been committed in Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February, or how many were committed since Russia’s 2014 invasion of the eastern part of the country, and the annexation of Crimea.

Among the types of conflict-related crime least likely to be reported is sexual violence. Survivors are often reluctant to, or prevented from, reporting such crimes, and their experiences and views are not always listened to responsibly or sensitively.

Pramila Patten, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, said after a visit to Ukraine this year that too often “the needs of women and girls in conflict settings [have] been side-lined and treated as an afterthought.”

Natalia Karbowska, Co-Founder and Director of Strategic Development for the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, described sexual violence as “the most hidden crime,” and suggested that for every person who is willing to tell their story, there are many others who will be silent for years.

Little international attention has been focused on the needs of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), or even on asking survivors for their views.

A new report addresses some of these issues. Produced by the Global Survivor Fund (co-founded by Nobel Peace prize winners Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad) with local Ukraine NGOs Truth Hounds, Blue Bird and the Eastern-Ukrainian Center for Civic Initiatives, the in-depth report asked survivors of CRSV in Ukraine since 2014 about their priorities.

The study is based on the people-centered, survivor-focused methodology, which is all too rare in international studies of human rights, and commendably doesn’t jump to conclusions about what’s best for others.

It found – based on consultations with survivors, and with other local experts – that survivors’ perspectives “are not being sufficiently represented in policy and legal discussions taking place prior to 2022, with an impact on their rights and interests. Survivors lacked opportunities to present their views about their priorities, needs, and expectations. This contributes to a feeling of exclusion and frustration among survivors and leads to interventions that do not adequately correspond to survivors’ views, visions, and needs.”

The study found that “the most prominent needs reported by survivors were medical assistance, psychological support, and social services.”

Medical needs include affordable, high quality medical and dental care, especially those resulting from CRSV and being held in detention, and affordable access to medications.

They also emphasized the importance of affordable, accessible, and good quality psychological and psychiatric professionals, and the availability of psychological support during court processes.

The study highlighted the need for long-term psychological assistance, for both the survivors and their families, as short-term is often not enough.

As for social services, “survivors mostly reported the need for housing assistance, whether through financial assistance for paying rent and other housing costs, or by providing housing in a lending program.”

Some also suggested a mechanism be established to recognize “victim status” so that survivors and their rights can be more readily acknowledged. “One survivor described a victim status as necessary to protect her from stigma, and another survivor saw this status as an acknowledgement by the government of the harms that survivors suffered.” Another survivor said, “granting such a status and raising awareness about survivors’ activities are vital for their children so that they could see the motivations, sacrifice, and heroism of their parents.”

As for the prosecutions of perpetrators, the study noted that “Impunity continues for CRSV, with limited investigations and prosecutions of CRSV incidents committed between 2014-2021 at the domestic and international levels.”

While prosecuting those guilty of war crimes, including CRSV, has been high on the agenda of some international actors, prosecutions at the International Criminal Court or elsewhere could be years away, and are notoriously difficult to press.

Although not among their most common priorities, survivors interviewed for the study mentioned that successful prosecutions could provide some satisfaction and a possible guarantee of non-recurrence.

Among the report’s recommendations are that the Ukrainian authorities “carry out effective, thorough, and impartial investigations and prosecutions of CRSV committed by all parties to the conflict since 2014 in a trauma-informed, gender-sensitive manner,” and that “CRSV investigations and prosecutions contribute to the work of administrative reparation programmes and other transitional justice mechanisms in the futu]re, for example by including key documentation of harm suffered by CRSV survivors and registering victims.”

For those outside of Ukraine hoping to help, the report recommends that they “provide victims and survivors with a platform to engage on policy and legal initiatives wherever their rights and interests are affected,” and that they “support, fund, and provide technical assistance to victim and survivors groups, associations, and activists, as well as to civil society engaged in supporting them.”

This study is a valuable starting point for the U.S., other policymakers, and anyone else hoping to support survivors of CRSV in Ukraine.


Published on August 29, 2021


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