A woman holds her dog while being evacuated from her home due to Russian invasion on March 06, 2023 in Kupiansk, Ukraine.
A woman holds her dog while being evacuated from her home due to Russian invasion on March 06, 2023 in Kupiansk, Ukraine. © John Moore/Getty Images

Ukraine: Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War

Police, prosecutors and civil society groups are developing dedicated protocols to deal with an expected surge of cases.

Tuesday, 7 March, 2023

When the Russians occupied Victoria’s village of Berestyanka in the Kyiv region at the beginning of March, the 41-year-old was reluctant to leave her home.

"We hoped that they would not touch us. We are all civilians,” she said.

Russian forces began searching house-to-house for food and equipment. On March 9, three soldiers came to Victoria’s home and ordered her to go with them. They took her to her neighbours’ house, where they shot the man in front of his wife. Both women were then taken to an empty house and raped.

"I was just afraid that he would kill me,” she said, recalling her attacker. “He probably doesn't even remember my face… I was scared. I cried night and day, I couldn't eat or drink to somehow forget it.”

Ukrainian investigators are recording sexual crimes in every region of the country occupied by the Russian forces. To deal with an expected influx of prosecutions – as well as the impact of such widespread abuses on the survivors – Ukrainian police, prosecutors and civil society groups are developing dedicated protocols to deal with sexual violence.

“There are no gender and age restrictions for war criminals: women, men, elderly people and children have been affected - from four to 82 years old," said Iryna Didenko, a prosecutor with the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine who deals with sexual violence cases. Male victims mostly experienced such abuse as part of torture, Didenko said. “They were subjected to a form of sexual violence such as electric shocks to the genitals."

To date, law enforcement officers have recorded 156 cases of sexual violence committed by the Russian military, but have no doubt that the scale of such crimes is much larger.

The prosecutor general's office created a dedicated department in September 2022 to ensure investigations were conducted with the appropriate sensitivity.

"We exclusively investigate this category of crimes,” Didenko said. “Our advantage is extensive experience in working with criminal proceedings of domestic violence and gender-based violence.”

As part of these new measures, investigators and prosecutors can anonymise victims’ names in the texts of the announced suspicions, as well as other personal information that might identify them. Often people do not want even family members to know about their experiences.

Didenko said that their work focused on personal consent, with the primary aim of supporting survivors of sexual violence rather than simply collecting evidence of a crime and presenting charges in court. As part of this holistic approach, a pilot project with mobile investigative teams is currently operating in the liberated settlements of the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. Each group is made up of ten specialists, including police officers, investigators, prosecutors and psychologists.

"There is a problem - there is no comprehensive, state support for victims and witnesses at the level of legislation,” Didenko explained. “While we work out changes in the legislation and our internal documents… NGOs help us a lot. Such cooperation should take place not only at the Kyiv central level, but also in the regions.”

The Assisto public organisation, for instance, dispatched a mobile team that includes psychologists and gynecologists to travel through the liberated villages of Kyiv region.

Iryna Andreeva, the initiator of the project, said that in almost every settlement there were women who had experienced terrible abuse.

"The theme of violence goes hand in hand with the theme of shame,” she said. “It is often very humiliating for victims to talk about it."

Other organisations have been working on this issue for a number of years. Kateryna Borozdina, vice-president of the La Strada human rights organisation, said that sexual violence had been a consistent feature of the Russian occupation.

“I would like to point out that we started receiving such calls after 2014, after the start of the war in eastern Ukraine. Crimes such as sexual violence have been committed by the Russian military since the beginning of the war in 2014.”

She said that since the start of the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, La Strada had received 32 calls to their hotline regarding war-related sexual violence. This number, she continued, did not reflect the real state of affairs.

“We receive the largest number of war-related sexual violence reports after de-occupation,” Borozdina continued. “After the Kyiv region, there was a certain surge [in reporting]. And now from the Kherson region as well. There are also calls from Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and Donetsk regions.”

Many survivors of sexual violence feel unable to report their experience, even keeping it a secret from those close to them. To ensure such abuses were nonetheless recorded, La Strada and the prosecutor general's office launched a Telegram chatbot comprising an anonymous online form for documenting cases of war-related sexual violence.

“It is very important to record every war crime committed by the Russians on the territory of Ukraine,” Borozdina said, adding, “Even if the victim does not give [their] name or location, but simply describes the crime, this is also important. This is what today can push people to talk about it, to declare so that after victory we have a sufficient evidence base in international courts to punish war criminals. This is a separate weapon that is part of the genocide of the Ukrainian people.”

Part of La Strada’s work is to raise awareness of what may constitute sexual violence.  Borozdina explained that sometimes the victims themselves did not recognise what they had experienced as sexual violence. Being forced to strip, or watch other being abused, were also instances of sexual violence.

As part of its distribution of humanitarian aid, La Strada workers put information booklets on sexual violence into its care packages.

“Last autumn, with the help of the Council of Europe, we made business cards, cards of three types - what is sexual violence related to war. It is briefly written that these are our hotline telephones where to contact. Volunteers can simply hand them to someone or out them in their pocket.”

Didenko said that most survivors described the feeling that they had been “destroyed”. Nonetheless, she continued, the majority of those who reported the crimes against them were also ready to testify in international courts.

"We explain to them: the offender should not decide your fate for tomorrow, if you can become his sentence today,” the prosecutor said. “It is not necessary to postpone all this for the future, but it is easier to speak, record and punish the guilty.”

 hat was Victoria’s experience. After the Russians left Berestyanka, she called a hotline for psychological help. After completing a rehabilitation course, including counselling and art therapy, she said that she was ready to talk about her experiences.

"I wish women to be strong, not to be silent about their pain, because it is pain that lasts for a lifetime,” she said. “It's a pain I will have for the rest of my life.”

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