Six Key Takeaways as Ukraine Marks Two Years of War

By Brian Dooley and Maya Fernandez-Powell

February 24th marks the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. While Human Rights First has been working with human rights defenders (HRDs) in Ukraine since 2014, we have made a dozen research visits to the eastern Ukrainian region of Kharkiv to support local HRDs since the February 2022 invasion.

1.Human Rights Defenders adapted dramatically and quickly

We visited HRDs in Ukraine in August 2021. When we returned in March 2022, just weeks after the full-scale invasion began, HRDs who had been working on issues of environmental protection, or primarily engaged in advocacy and lobbying, had suddenly and impressively adjusted to help those being bombed. They were organizing humanitarian aid, and risking their lives to provide medical treatment. Many are still engaged in this frontline work.

2. Gender-based violence (GBV) skyrocketed

The scale of GBV in Ukraine increased dramatically since the full-scale Russian invasion. Local HRDs say stress, economic hardship, unemployment, and conflict-related trauma are fueling this increase, and the vast majority of victims of GBV are women. Our reporting on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) includes a guide published in 2022 for journalists created by Ukrainian media and legal experts on How to Responsibly Report War-Related Sexual Violence and an article in December 2023 on GBV in Ukraine during the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.

3. Ukraine faces a psychological emergency

Our most recent report, “Hidden harm: Ukraine confronts psychological cost of war” details the widespread need for large-scale provisions of psychological services in Ukraine. Experts estimate that 90% of Ukrainians have at least one of the symptoms of an anxiety disorder, and 57% are at risk of developing mental disorders. HRDs assist Ukraine’s most vulnerable communities, including orphans, survivors of domestic abuse and war-related sexual violence, the LGBTQ community, the elderly, and those living at the battlefront, but the need for services far outweighs the resources available to address the widespread psychological issues compounded by war.

4. Activists continue to battle corruption

Corruption undermines Ukraine’s war efforts. Most Ukrainians see corruption as widespread throughout the country, and more people believe it has increased since the Russian invasion. Our work on corruption in Ukraine dates back to 2017, and in July 2023 we produced a report with the Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center on irregularities in local reconstruction contracts in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region.

5. LGBTQ+ groups face new challenges

We have been working with LGBTQ+ HRDs in Ukraine for a decade, but since February 2022 the pressures they face have changed. In Kharkiv, they are offering shelter for those bombed out of their houses, and providing humanitarian aid and psychological help. Public attitudes are changing positively towards LGBTQ+ rights too, including support for same-sex civil partnerships.

6. Women HRDs face distinct pressures

In February 2022, the Ukrainian government introduced severe travel restrictions that prevent nearly all men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country. As a result, the responsibility for international advocacy on Ukrainian human rights issues has fallen disproportionately, almost exclusively, on women HRDs. Many women HRDs spent much of the last two years on exhausting journeys to cities including Brussels, Geneva, London, Paris, New York, Washington, and Tokyo, where they make the case for increased support for civil society in Ukraine.



  • Brian Dooley
  • Maya Fernandez-Powell

Published on February 23, 2024


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