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The conflict in eastern Ukraine, now in its 10th month, has taken a heavy toll on the country’s population. Wide-ranging violations of international humanitarian law have been documented on both sides of the conflict, following clashes between Russian-backed rebels and the Ukrainian government forces in the eastern regions of the country.
A woman walks by soldiers in Ukraine, where wide-ranging violations of international humanitarian law have been documented following clashes between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces in the eastern part of the country. (Steve Evans)
Yet with 610,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ukraine as of December 2014—and two-thirds of the adult IDPs being women—there is little to no information on how many of them are survivors of sexualized violence.
In its November 2014 report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine referred to a few unconfirmed cases of rape and sexual assault in the country. The Ukrainian media has written about women kept in sexual slavery by rebel forces in Luhansk and Donetsk, but omitted coverage of the extent of sexualized violence in the conflict. Only a few pieces have been written by the Western media.
Experts say that sexualized violence is—in part—being minimized in light of Ukraine’s other current military, political, and economic problems. In the meantime, any cases of rape being perpetrated by armed combatants during a declared armed conflict are potentially war crimes.
“When you have this many armed irregulars, you expect rape and sexual assault to be happening,” said Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director of Human Rights Watch who is investigating the conflict in Ukraine. “Yet the reason NGOs and government officials are so ill-prepared to deal with the problem of sexualized violence in the conflict is apparently that the victims are not willing to come forward.”
Survivors of rape often endure psychological and physical trauma and experience grave consequences, such as higher suicide rates, post-traumatic stress disorder, gynecological trauma, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, as well as depression and anxiety, according to the World Health Organization. And in a war zone, services are not often in place to treat these effects. With a lack of documentation and self-reporting obscuring the true picture of what is being perpetrated, survivors are being left without assistance.
The question is now: How many women are suffering, and what can be done to figure this out and help survivors?
Incidents of rape in detention
Mila, a 38-year-old woman from Donetsk (who asked that her real name not be used for safety reasons), told me her story after I met her family in a center for internally displaced persons in another part of Ukraine.
(From November through December 2014, I visited the cities of Sloviansk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kyiv, where I spoke with women in conflict zones and to numerous local and international organizations working with IDPs.)
She had been captured in late August 2014 by security forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and accused of cooperating with the Ukrainian army. She described being held for 43 days in the basement of the former Ukrainian security services building in Donetsk. (I was able to view a video of her interrogation in detention but am not linking to it in order to keep her identity private.)
The rape and sexual abuse started on the first night, she said. During an interrogation, she was severely beaten on her head, stomach, and legs. Her male interrogators threatened to pour acid on her genitalia and kicked her stomach, saying she did not deserve to have children. Mila said eventually a guard injected her with a substance that caused her to black out. When she regained consciousness, she realized that the clothes she was wearing had been ripped in several places. She said she also suffered from vaginal bleeding.
On another occasion during her first week in detention, Mila said she was taken by a male guard into an empty room, where she was forced to perform oral sex on him and was threatened with rape by up to 12 men if she did not comply.
Mila also spoke about her cellmate, Iryna (also a pseudonym), who she said was repeatedly gang raped by guards until she was so traumatized that they lost interest in her. Mila said Iryna was taken out of the prison, supposedly to a medical facility. But she couldn’t help but wonder if the guards murdered Iryna instead to protect themselves.
Mila also said some women prisoners were offered “protection” from being raped by prison guards. The protection was provided in exchange for sex with higher-ranking DNR officials.
Why victims are staying silent
At the center of the silence surrounding sexual violations in Ukraine appear to be the deeply entrenched cultural stigma and pervasive victim-blaming that exist around rape and sexualized violence in the country. Women do not come forward to report violence or seek assistance from NGOs and humanitarian aid organizations, thereby reinforcing the near-total absence of attention to this problem. HRW’s Lokshina pointed out that despite some positive changes in gender roles in recent years in post-Soviet countries like Ukraine and Russia, stereotypes around sexualized violence have remained ironclad.
Lokshina said that in Ukraine and Russia, sexualized violence is often seen as the fault of the victim, partly because there is not much of an open public debate on the issue. She said her organization had experienced similar difficulties in exposing sexualized violence in the Chechnya conflict.
“You do not talk about rape, is the main message,” Lokshina said. “Rape is seen as something that just brings shame to a woman. Therefore, a victim feels that if she speaks up, if she tells her story, she will be stigmatized and she will not have a normal life. So, out of concern for her security, her privacy, for her future life, she stays silent, especially if she has a husband or a boyfriend.”
A prime example of the unforgiving nature of stigma around rape in Ukraine is the aftermath of the 2012 rape of Oksana Makar, in which women saw firsthand the victim-blaming and hostility that follows the publicizing of a rape case. After 18-year-old Makar was raped by three men, strangled, burned, and left for dead at a construction site, she was discovered the next morning by a stranger, according to news reports. Fifty-five percent of her body had burns. She underwent surgery, but passed away three weeks later.
Makar’s story made international headlines after the perpetrators were freed due to allegedly having connections to the local government, according to reports. Despite the public outcry against official corruption, TV commentators and even social media users blamed her for the rape, accusing her of leading a promiscuous life and of being a prostitute. In a national poll conducted by Ukrainian station 24 TV, two-thirds of the participants believed Makar was in some way responsible for the rape, according to the Guardian.
Wider public dialogue missing
One of the most pervasive barriers that rape survivors face in Ukraine is the biased conduct of law enforcement officials, as I found during my research on women’s access to justice in Ukraine, particularly, access to legal protection and remedies. Advocates and survivors in regions across Ukraine repeatedly recounted how police often blame women for provoking the violence perpetuated against them. Many law enforcement officials, who view violence against women as an insufficiently grave issue, one undeserving of urgent attention, pressure women not to file complaints, legal experts and human rights activists told me. These discriminatory attitudes further reinforce women’s distrust of the authorities.
As Maria Berlinskaya, a member of Ukraine’s volunteer battalion Aidar, told me, “There is always going to be a lot of rape in war, but nobody will want to talk about it openly.”
A wider discussion on the full impact of rape and sexualized violence in the conflict would reveal cases perpetrated not just by Russian-backed rebels but also by those fighting for Ukraine, according to women I spoke to in IDP shelters. This is especially problematic in the heightened atmosphere of patriotism in which Ukrainian fighters are largely embraced as heroes and protectors. It also runs counter to the traditional patriarchal narrative of armed conflict that presents men as the dominant faces of war and leaving little room for testimonies of rape survivors.
In December 2014, in response to emerging information on violence against women in the Ukrainian conflict, the United Nations set up the cross-agency Sub-sector on Gender-Based Violence in Ukraine, with a focus on sexualized violence. The group aims to raise awareness of sexualized violence in Ukraine, evaluate services available to survivors, and train police on sexualized violence.
Nuzhat Ehsan, the sub-sector’s lead and the United Nations Population Fund’s representative in Ukraine, spoke to me about the challenges of taking the first steps. She pointed to the lack of information as the major hurdle, but said, “I have no doubt whatsoever that sexual violence is happening in the conflict areas.”
Ehsan added, “It is more difficult to grasp the highly entrenched gender inequality and pervasive stereotypes favoring male privilege.” She explained that this aspect of gender discrimination in Ukraine makes it challenging for international organizations working in conflict areas to identify the issue of sexualized violence as a priority, especially in the absence of officially documented cases.
Iuliia Pylypas, the violence against women coordinator of HealthRight International’s Ukraine Office, a Kiev-based organization, also spoke to me about the need to spread information among women about organizations they can contact to receive psychological or medical assistance. “Physicians, psychologists, and other medical personnel need to be trained on how to adequately respond to cases of sexual violence in the conflict,” she said.
Meanwhile, silence from local and international press merely serves to reinforce the notion that atrocities committed against women during war are insignificant—and allows the Ukrainian government to thwart its international obligations to prevent, protect, and prosecute cases of violence against women, in violation of a significant body of international humanitarian, human rights and criminal law.
Author: Antonina Vikhrest