Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ukraine: An Opportunity for Gender-Sensitive Policymaking?

Meaningful change is needed in Ukraine’s response to the conflict-related sexual violence, which affects both women and men.

Expert comment Published 18 August 2020 Updated 27 August 2021 3 minute READ

Kateryna Busol

Former Academy Associate, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Ukrainian feminists and human rights activists carry posters at an International Women's Day protest in Kyiv, Ukraine on 8 March 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

Ukrainian feminists and human rights activists carry posters at an International Women’s Day protest in Kyiv, Ukraine on 8 March 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

The virus of violence

According to the UN (para. 7) and the International Criminal Court (ICC, para. 279), conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) is quite prevalent in hostilities-affected eastern Ukraine. Both sexes are subjected to sexualized torture, rape, forced nudity, prolonged detention in unsanitary conditions with members of the other sex and threats of sexual violence towards detainees or their relatives to force confessions. Men are castrated. Women additionally suffer from sexual slavery, enforced and survival prostitution, and other forms of sexual abuse. Women are more exposed to CRSV: in the hostilities-affected area, every third woman has experienced or witnessed CRSV as opposed to every fourth man.

COVID-19 has redirected funding priorities, affecting the availability of medical and psychological help for CRSV survivors worldwide. In Ukraine, the very reporting of such violence, stigmatized even before the pandemic, has been further undermined by the country-wide quarantine-induced restrictions on movement and the closure of checkpoints between the government-controlled and temporarily uncontrolled areas.

Addressing CRSV in Ukraine

The stigma of CRSV, the patchy domestic legislation, and the unpreparedness of the criminal justice system to deal with such cases prevent the authorities from properly helping those harmed in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine armed conflict.

CRSV is equally traumatizing yet different in nuance for men and women. Female victims often choose not to report the violence. Women avoid protracted proceedings likely to cause re-traumatization and the disclosure of their experience, which could be particularly excruciating in small communities where everybody knows everyone.

Men also struggle to provide their accounts of CRSV. Their suppressed pain and shame of genital mutilation and other CRSV result in sexual and other health disfunctions. Combined with the post-conflict mental health struggles, this has been shown to lead to increased domestic violence and even suicide.

The very investigation of CRSV in Ukraine is challenging. Certain tests and examinations need to be done straight after an assault, which in the context of detention and grey zones of hostilities is often impossible. Specialized medical and psychological support is lacking. Investigators and prosecutors are hardly trained to deal with CRSV to the point that they do not ask questions about it during the interviews. Burdened by trauma and stigma, survivors are inclined to report torture or inhuman treatment, but not the sexualized aspects thereof.

Seven years into the conflict, the state still has not criminalized the full spectrum of CRSV in its domestic law. Ukraine’s Criminal Code contains a brief list of the violations of the rules and customs of warfare in article 438. It prohibits the inhuman treatment of civilians and POWs but does not list any types of CRSV.

The article has an open-ended reference to Ukraine’s ratified international treaties, from which the responsibility for other armed conflict violations may be derived. For the more detailed norms on CRSV, Ukraine should refer at least to Geneva Convention IV protecting civilians and two additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions, to which it is a party.

However, the novelty of the war context for Ukrainian investigators, prosecutors and judges and their overcautiousness about the direct application of international conventions mean that in practice, observing the treaty or jurisprudential instruction on CRSV has been slow.

Use of the Criminal Code’s articles on sexual violence not related to an armed conflict is not viable. Such provisions fail to reflect the horrible variety and complexity of CRSV committed in hostilities. They also envisage lesser punishment than a war crime of sexual violence would entail. Cumulatively, this fails to account for the intention of a perpetrator, the gravity of the crime and the trauma of its victims.

The lack of public debate and state action on CRSV understates its magnitude. Ukraine should break its silence about CRSV in Donbas and make addressing this violence part of its actionable agenda - in law and in implementation.

Ukraine should incorporate all war crimes and crimes against humanity of CRSV in its domestic legislation; ensure a more gendered psychological and medical support for both sexes; establish rehabilitation and compensation programmes for CRSV survivors; create special victims and witness protection schemes; consider the different stigmatizing effects of CRSV on men and women in criminal proceedings and engage the professionals of the same sex as the victim; map CRSV in the bigger picture of other crimes in Donbas to better understand the motives of the perpetrators; submit more information about CRSV to the ICC and educate the public to destigmatize the CRSV survivors.

The drafters of Ukraine’s transitional justice roadmap should ensure that it highlights CRSV, adopts a gendered approach to it and endorses female participation as a crucial component of reconciliation and broader policymaking.

Embracive policymaking

Although ‘the discriminatory line almost inevitably hurts women,’ ‘every gender discrimination is a two-edged sword’, Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously argued before the US Supreme Court. This could not be more relevant for Ukraine. The conflict - and lockdown-related violence has reverberated deeper within Ukrainian society, raising fundamental questions about the roles of both sexes and gender equality.

The failure to address CRSV and its different stigmas for both sexes mirrors the general lack of sustainable gender lenses in Ukraine’s policymaking. It is no coincidence that a June 2020 proposal for gender parity in political parties coincided with another spike of sexist remarks by top officials. While women get access to more positions in the army, sexual harassment in the military is investigated slowly. Despite all the impressive female professionals, no woman made it to the first four-member consultative civic group in the Minsk process. Such lack of diversity sends an unfortunate message that women are not important for Ukraine’s peace process.

Ginsburg said, ‘women belong in all places where decisions are being made.’ CRSV against either sex won’t be addressed properly until both sexes contribute with their talents and their grievances to all pillars of Ukraine’s state governance and strategy. Ukraine should look to engage professional women - and there are plenty - to join its public service not just in numbers, but as the indispensable equal voices of a powerful choir.