A recent cease-fire seems to be holding in eastern Ukraine, promising relative relief in the region from the incessant, percussive beat of heavy artillery from Howitzers, tanks and rocket launchers with a backbeat provided by Kalashnikov AK-74s. Fighting in Ukraine’s civil war has kept people in the embattled zones on a razor’s edge since the year began.
As the situation deteriorated, threats to the security of women increased, but it’s not at all clear whether sexual violence, such as rape or slavery, has been inflicted on residents, and if it has, to what extent. In the rebel-held areas, the conditions are too lethal for outside, independent parties to investigate allegations.
Zainab Hawa Bangura, the United Nations special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, said that her office had not researched incidences of sexual violence occurring in the Ukrainian conflict zones and suggested that local nongovernment organizations would know about such cases. Numerous UN human-rights reports have noted that sexual violence is happening in the conflict region, but the information provided is minimal.
Indeed, concrete information, let alone details, on instances of sexual violence being used against women in the rebel-held territory, including in Luhansk and Donetsk, is not readily available to people either in the region or in the Ukraine capital of Kiev. Moreover, several local civil-society organizations and many UN branches, including the UN Women office for Europe and Central Asia, did not respond to queries requesting interviews on the subject.
“We don’t have too much information on the occupied territory,” said Svitlana Zalishchuk, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, during a visit to New York. “Violence of human rights of women and children in occupied territory” is being telegraphed without specifics, she added. “We do not have exact information, no one has it.”
Zalishchuk added: “We are not able to get to the territory to understand. We know that women and children are raped and punished by terrorists, but it’s only the words from the volunteers. People are afraid to talk about this because they will be killed.”
A Crimean expert based in New York concurred, saying, “Nowadays, since the invasion particularly, people are more living more in fear.” This invasion, added Ayla Bakkali, an expert on human rights and democratic governance, “has really taken women in several steps backwards.”
According to Bakkali, who is the American representative of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis at the UN, the majority of internally displaced people are civilians who have been fleeing the direct line of fire, a fact confirmed in UN reports. Among the civilians are ethnic minorities such as Crimean Tartars, who have faced generations of persecution by the Russians, and others like journalists, lawyers and religious leaders who have run afoul of the strictures of the Russian-backed rebels.
As the conflict peaked this winter, women, especially those who have been displaced from their homes, have had to step outside traditionally cast roles. Whether leading their children and the elderly away from rocket fire, dwelling in a rebel-governed area with no pensions and little government services or supporting troops with logistics, food and transportation, women have found themselves in positions that undermine their safety.
With such lack of structure and security, these women have been facing an increased exposure to not only sexual violence but also trafficking for sex work as well as resorting to prostitution to counter economic hardships.
Of the known internally displaced people, two-thirds are adults, and two-thirds of those are women. Domestic and sexual violence are two of the greatest threats to the displaced women, with both threats used as effective strategies to seize power and disrupt society.
Zalishchuk of the Ukraine Parliament said that calling people “IDPs” (internally displaced people) is not always accurate “because people have been living in basements,” where “children are bitten by rats, shot at by terrorists; we have children who are wounded that will never walk again.”
Since the war began a year ago between Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists, the civilian death toll has steadily climbed. This month, the UN announced an estimated death toll exceeding 6,000, since April 2014. The number of displaced people, which more than doubled from October through December, exceeds one million.
Ukraine, Bakkali said, has a strongly patriarchal society, where pride runs deep. These conditions may prevent women from reporting violence against them, including in the home. On paper, Ukraine has one of the lowest rates of domestic violence reported in Europe, partly because of its patriarchal culture, which views domestic violence as a family matter and not something that should be shared or reported outside the home.
Reports of rapes have been documented by the Human Rights Watch Russian program director, Tanya Lokshina. However, systemic and strategic sexual violence as a weapon of warfare has not been reported and verified — despite extensive monitoring and reporting by the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), Amnesty International and journalists who are covering the conflict.
“We’ve looked,” said Sabra Ayers, who has covered the civil war for Al Jazeera and The Daily Beast. “Everywhere you go, [you] hear claims of rape, rebels against Ukrainians and Ukrainians against rebels, but you never get even a consistent secondhand account.”
Allegations of atrocities and systemic sexual violence run across social media. Ukrainians and rebels have used horrific stories of sexual violence as propaganda and tools of engagement as part of a campaign to further capture support.
As for spreading stories about sexual abuse in eastern Ukraine, Dr. Lada Roslycky, an independent consultant who specializes in international security, reports this “soft power” campaign is not a new tactic for Russia — the attempt to persuade sentiment through cultural or economic influences: a propaganda campaign for hearts and minds.
“As far back as 2011, you saw Russia using soft power to undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine in Crimea and eastern Ukraine,” Dr. Roslycky said by Skype from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. “The Russian Federation has selected sociopolitical problems in democracy to exploit.”
Several people interviewed, including Dr. Roslycky and Ayers, reported that the threat of sexual violence is being used partly to differentiate Russian culture from Western culture and values that Ukraine has been leaning toward. These are among the threats to security, as the UN documents in the ninth report on human rights in Ukraine released March 2, affecting women who are still in the areas of fighting as well as those who have left.
The report highlights situations where threats are heightened, such as young men and women being pulled from buses leaving rebel-held territory, that “require further investigation.”
Additional direct threats to women, as identified by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, come from those who have sustained trauma and psychological damage from fighting or remaining in the conflict zone. Ukrainian troops returning from the zone pose a threat as well, as little social or psychological services are provided to them. The same cultural mores that prohibit reporting domestic violence may prohibit the troops from seeking these services.
The latest UN human-rights report shows that the organization La Strada, which runs domestic and sexual violence hotlines, reported an increase in the number of domestic violence calls in Ukraine, but not sexual violence calls, in the period from December 15 to February 15.
Ukraine has no specialized centers for care of survivors of sexual violence, and only three shelters for those wishing to escape sexual and domestic violence exist — in the whole country.
Andrii Dziubenko, the national program coordinator of the European monitoring group, responding via email from Kiev, was positive in the steps that Ukraine has made to promote a more equal society. The country has launched campaigns to promote gender equality and zero tolerance toward domestic violence and trained 2,500 state and nongovernment specialists to work with victims of gender violence.
Moreover, three “interactive training rooms to teach police officers [how to] handle domestic violence incidents [were] established in [Kiev], Dnipropetrovsk and Lviv,” Dziubenko wrote.
Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.