Two women embrace each other outside a residential building damaged during Russian drone attacks in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Two women embrace each other outside a residential building damaged during Russian drone attacks in Kyiv, Ukraine. © Roman Pilipey/Getty Images

Women Support Women

How survivors of sexual violence are working to gather testimony for future justice processes.

Tuesday, 16 April, 2024

In 2014, Iryna Dovgan was detained and tortured by separatists in Donetsk for her pro-Ukraine activism. Five years later, she founded the Ukrainian chapter of the global SEMA network – a global initiative by the Mukweghi Foundation to support survivors of wartime sexual violence.  Dovgan told IWPR’s Olga Golivina how SEMA Ukraine now also works to gather testimonies from women for use in justice processes. 

IWPR: How have the organisation's goals and work methods changed over the last two years?

Iryna Dovgan: Before the full-scale invasion, the world did not particularly pay attention to us. Afterwards, the organisation grew from 15 to 50 women and the situation in general has changed, it has become much scarier. Realizing that we cannot reach everyone who needs help is very painful. 

Already, is not very easy to help and support 50 women who have just suffered and who need medical, psychological, and social assistance. 

The uniqueness of our organisation is that victims help other victims. No one understands a woman who has survived sexual abuse like a woman who has experienced the same thing. In many cases it works. Now we are supported by international donors. 

Iryna Dovgan was featured in the documentary trilogy Unbroken from 2020. It tells the story of female Ukrainian former prisoners-of-war who were held captive in the country’s east by paramilitary groups.

One of your tasks is to assist in documenting the testimony of victims of sexual and gender-based violence. What efforts are you making to bring perpetrators to justice? 

Documenting war crimes is a difficult topic. We interview only those women who agree to testify. This data is completely encrypted, each victim has her own code, it is impossible to see the woman's face. This is confidential information. The data are being structured and may be transferred to the International Criminal Court; we also work with the Lemkin Center. 

Most of the women in SEMA Ukraine gave evidence to the prosecutor general's office. Our women are involved in the 275 proceedings for crimes of sexual violence that are currently open. 

If you compare our cooperation with the prosecutor general's office until February 24, 2022 and now, then this is a great achievement. Investigators are listening to the victims. The structure of evidence collection has completely changed. Injured women feel more confident when investigators come to them, the women are already more knowledgeable and we work to ensure that they know their rights. The situation has changed radically. This is a great achievement by European and international structures, which conducted many trainings with the prosecutor general’s office and persistently taught them how to treat victims of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) properly. 

Our efforts to bring criminals to justice are focused on testimony, as well as cooperation with national law enforcement agencies and international human rights organizations. We speak at international conferences, give interviews to foreign journalists working on this topic. Those women who are morally and psychologically ready for this struggle understand and testify publicly so that these crimes do not remain hidden. We are seeing big shifts. 

How do you grow your networks, and what are the greatest challenges that you face? 

The search for new victims and their involvement in SEMA began after the de-occupation of the Kyiv region. I went to one of the districts immediately after the liberation of Kyiv oblast with a Polish journalist. At that time, I did not intend to identify new victims and get them to join the organisation. I was volunteering - delivering international humanitarian aid to civilians in the liberated territories. We were in de-occupied villages, talking to people, asking what they needed, distributing what we had. Those were terrible days. In every village, people reported rape. And these were not isolated cases. Neighbors told in detail and it was very scary. I passed this data on to the Mukweghi Foundation, and with their help, eight women received emergency aid of 1,200 euros.  

Then we started receiving grants and we were able to provide assistance to the victims directly – like dental care, for which the state does not have funds. Why dental? Because women's teeth were often knocked out during rape. When I am asked about psychological help, I don't know how to politely say - what psychologist can help a woman whose teeth were knocked out in the face by a machine gun? At every meal, she remembers why it is so difficult for her to eat. 

Now we work in Kherson and the region. We established many contacts in the de-occupied villages with community heads, school directors and paramedics. Sometimes it seems that everyone has already been helped - and then, we receive a message that another woman finally found the strength to speak about it. This will continue and over time, more victims will be revealed. It is difficult to imagine how many of them there will be in those territories that are still under occupation. Some women will never speakabout it. 

Quite often, women living in villages are afraid to talk about it, they don't want people to condemn them or be the source of gossip. But when a woman sees that a neighbour testified and is receiving help, which gives her the strength to survive the trauma, then she dares to report the violence she experienced. We see such a trend. It encourages women who were initially hiding to speak up. 

How can the senior leadership of the Russian Federation be brought to justice at the international level for crimes of sexual violence? 

I experienced violence in 2014, when I was a prisoner in Donetsk. Ten years have passed since then. In the early years, I hoped that the criminals would be brought to justice. These Russian mercenaries who did this to me did not hide, their faces were on the internet. At international conferences, I said that I knew the faces and some of the names of criminals at whose hands I suffered and said, “If you want to help, hold them accountable”. Ten years have passed, no one has been brought to justice, nothing has changed. But there is hope. I can support other victims and we are doing everything we can to bring these crimes to light and to document them. 

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