Helping Ukraine’s sex-crime survivors

The growing numbers of Ukrainian women recovering from sexual violence at the hands of Russian forces need support, protection and legal aid, writes Hrystyna Kit.

The World Today
3 minute READ

Hrystyna Kit

Chair, Board of Women Lawyers of Ukraine (JurFem)

The scale of sexual violence used by Russian forces in Ukraine has slowly been emerging. Alongside it has been a steep legal learning curve in how to respond to the survivors of these crimes.

Using sexual violence as a weapon of war has been a hallmark of Russian forces when they take over any Ukrainian village, town or city. It doesn’t matter how long they occupy these territories. Once these places have been liberated, we hear of repeated cases of rape, sexual torture, forced nudity, sexual threats and the like.

After the liberation of Kherson, the General Prosecutor’s Office recorded 64 cases of conflict-related sexual violence in that city, as of December 2022. While 154 cases of this type of sexual violence have been officially identified, the actual figures will be substantially higher.

My organization, the Association of Women Lawyers of Ukraine or JurFem, is one of the local groups of experts investigating these crimes and assisting victims. We have had to quickly pivot from working in a national context to working in an international one.

Legal assistance hotline

JurFem launched a legal assistance hotline called ‘JurFem Support’ through which we have been hearing from victims of rape, forced exposure, or people forced to watch their relatives being raped – which is sexual torture – or the subject of threats of sexual violence. Many do not feel ready to act by testifying, seeking legal assistance or reporting their cases to police. 

One of the challenges facing the legal community, the state and public organizations today is developing, at scale, the conditions needed for an environment of trust and confidence. For victims this means being able to access safe and reliable services such as medical and psychological care, social care, economic support and legal assistance.

Without support, survivors face substantial impacts such as psychological trauma and physical injuries that could be long-lasting, such as to their reproductive system. The knock-on effects could lead to isolation, disruption to personal relationships and the loss of livelihood or access to education.

Four regional Survivor Rescue Centres for anyone fleeing a war zone were opened in Kyiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia and Lviv. These centres provide comprehensive services in one place – from counselling to free legal aid, as well as helping gain access to medical care and safe shelter for victims of conflict-related violence.

The ‘do no harm’ principle of assistance

Those experts providing help adhere to the do-no-harm principle to avoid adding to the victim’s trauma. The confidentiality principle is also upheld when providing assistance and when investigating these crimes.

Sexual violence in a conflict context can be classified as a war crime, a crime against humanity and a crime of genocide. When investigating these crimes committed by Russian military personnel in the territory of Ukraine we must, at all times, document how they contain characteristics of a crime against humanity and genocide. To this end, it is absolutely essential to meticulously collect each piece of evidence permissible from the standpoint of law.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, we faced the challenge of quickly updating our knowledge of international humanitarian, criminal and human rights law and frameworks. Since then, one of JurFem’s main priorities has been, and continues to be, responding to conflict-related sexual violence, as well as ensuring proper investigations are undertaken and that legal assistance is provided to victims.

From investigative toolkits to legal amendments

One of our departments, JurFem: Education, provides educational programming, engaging with international and national experts through a joint working group under the General Prosecutor’s Office. We develop toolkits and guidance on investigating all forms of conflict-related sexual violence as well as writing amendments to legislation to ensure victims have access to justice. At the same time our JurFem Analytical Centre carries out research and submits proposals for amendments to the law.

The war in Ukraine demonstrates why internationally adopted frameworks are crucial in ensuring victims get access to justice. This work is an outcome of cooperation between the Ukraine government and the United Nations on preventing and combating sexual violence, signed in May 2022. Its implementation includes training, developing legislative amendments, as well as developing mechanisms to pay compensation to victims.

Victims of sexual violence in war can seek assistance at any time – there is no statute of limitations 

In June 2022, Ukraine ratified the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and counteracting domestic violence and related crimes. Under this, Ukraine undertook to implement effective mechanisms to protect victims of sexual violence.

Last year, working with our partners, we focused on developing policies and legal mechanisms. Now our attention has turned to ensuring the public is informed about conflict-related sexual violence via public interest campaigns and the media.

In a country under attack, everyone needs to know that sexual violence as a weapon is a crime and the various forms it can take. People often think it is limited to rape, so it is important to provide clear information and for people to understand that there is no statute of limitations for this kind of crime, and that victims can seek assistance at any time.

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People also need to know that they have a right to confidentiality during investigations and to what support they are entitled. Well-crafted public communications will also help overcome the stigmatization of victims. Sadly, we have observed a need for this.

Guarantees of ‘non-recurrence’

To secure justice for victims, it is necessary to pay compensation, conduct rehabilitation programmes and extend guarantees of non-recurrence. In one Ukrainian study on reparation for survivors, one victim said: ‘The non-repetition factor – this is very important for me. Because of my psychological … fears or unhealed wounds my brain tells me that if you think that nothing like this will happen, then you are very naïve.’

The best way to guarantee non-recurrence of sexual violence is by bringing the Russian criminals to justice, punishing Russia’s military leadership and implementing effective international mechanisms to prevent war crimes. This is ultimately a task for the international community.