Weapon of War in Europe? The Escalation of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Ukraine-Russia Conflict
Like all wars the Ukrainian crisis has distinct and devastating impacts on women and children. We must do more to foreground gender analysis at all stages of conflict, especially to prevent sexual and gender-based violence.
Much analysis of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has focused on great power politics, nuclear threats, NATO machinations, and the Tsar-like leadership of Vladimir Putin and his oligarchs. Yet as Tolstoy recognised in his novel on the Napoleonic wars, “kings and generals are the slaves of history.” It is ordinary people who are the protagonists. We have seen this every day over the last month.
In Ukraine, ordinary people are seeking security and defending their country despite its precarious status next to the military aggression of Russia. They are shaping the battles in cities and towns, and they will live with the outcomes of war and peace. Thus, if we want to understand the causes, dynamics, and possible ends to war, we need to pay attention to all people’s gendered experiences of war.
Gendered Nature of War
Gender and international relations scholars have long recognised that war makes men and women, just as they make war. The obligation for all Ukrainian men aged 18-60 years old to stay in Ukraine to fight has revitalised masculinities, although many courageous women have joined the fight too. Inter- and intra-state conflict frequently reduces the diversity of human identities to that of soldiers and mothers, warriors and victims. Many Ukrainian women and children have been forced to flee their homes to protect themselves, becoming IDPs (internally displaced persons) and refugees in other towns and neighbouring countries without their usual support systems. The trauma of leaving their fathers, brothers, and partners only makes things worse.
This displacement compelled by conflict has created a dire humanitarian situation. War involves not only armed combat among militaries and militia and drone missile strikes that attack civilians, but also an increase in crime and exploitation, including all forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Ukrainian men, women, and children’s quest for security has increased their vulnerability to being targeted for this violence and exploitation.
Increased Risk of Sexual Violence and Trafficking
Ordinary people suffer in war, as well as being agents of war and peace. As recognised in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security, conflict has a differential impact on women and men. As seen in Ukraine, “women and children are the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict, including as refugees and internally displaced persons.” A month ago, Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten stated that the “conflict is already severely impacting the safety and security of civilians, especially women and girls, who are at heightened risk of violence,” with the UN estimating 10 million Ukrainians are on the move.
Women and children are not only at grave risks of SGBV due to the conflict, they are already being trafficked for sex by criminal mafia networks exploiting their displaced situation. Border checkpoints, shelters, and train stations have become major sites for the sale and transit of women and children. Unaccompanied children crossing borders into Romania and Moldova as orphanages and other institutions empty out has greatly increased the risk of child trafficking.
We have seen these patterns before. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a huge recruitment of women – many forcibly smuggled from Eastern Europe for prostitution and sex work. In the 1990s, the International Organisation of Migration put the annual number smuggled at over 500,000, with more from Ukraine than any other former communist country. This time, people are more educated about the risks of trafficking. In Poland, women have created the Women Take the Wheel initiative for Ukrainian women refugees, providing them and their families with a “bubble of safety” for safe passage from the conflict. Ukrainian women civil society organisations continue to work to secure the safe passage of women and children voluntarily and in conflict zones.
Conflict Dynamics and SGBV Crimes
As well as recognising the high risks of SGBV as a result of conflict displacement, Resolution 1325 also highlights how “women and girls… are increasingly targeted by combatants and armed elements.” War tactics by state and non-state armed actors often use sexual violence to oppress individuals, remove them from their territory, and shame the enemy group. Even one such act can have a widespread and systematic impact on a community. We know from the emerging field of research on conflict-related sexual violence that SGBV crimes are common and unlikely to be reported during war situations. This is particularly true in the Ukraine, due to the sheer difficulty of reporting, especially in towns under Russian occupation. We also know that men too are at risk of this violence.
In Ukraine, the first rape case against Russian soldiers was lodged last week by the Office of the General Prosecutor in the Kyiv region. The case cites the killing of a husband and multiple rapes of his wife in front of their child, and further reports of similar incidents are emerging. Populations in the Donbas region of Ukraine have been subjected to conflict-related sexual violence since the Russian invasion in March 2014. There have been horrific accounts of sexual violence and sexual torture against men and women in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. These crimes were documented by the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, who were invited by the government of Ukraine to investigate human rights violations between 2014 and 2017.
Similar acts of abduction and detention, previously reported in 2014-2017, are occurring now. There is a strong correlation between sexual violence and abduction in conflict. The Ukraine Defence Ministry has attempted to differentiate its approach to fighting the war in its statement on Facebook that “Ukrainians, unlike Putin’s fascists, do not fight mothers and their captive children.”
In 2019, the Ukrainian government, in cooperation with UN Women Ukraine, UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, and civil society organisations, had developed technical guidance on addressing the prevention and response to conflict-related SGBV in the Ukraine. It is tragic the war has affected these important steps that women NGOs had been taking towards a more targeted approach to all forms of sexual violence.
The international community must play a vital role in supporting Ukraine’s conflict-related SGBV response as well as its documentation and investigation strategy and future Russian reparations. The Biden administration’s announcement on advancing accountability for war crimes in Ukraine, and the UK prior assistance to the Ukraine through its 2020 Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative, will be vital to ensure justice and safety for survivors.
Inclusive Participation in Peace Matters
As UNSCR 1325 and subsequent Security Council resolutions underscore, war not only fuels SGBV during war — SGBV undermines the prospects “for durable peace and reconciliation” (UNSCR 1325). Inclusive participation in war-to-peace transitions matters. The visible lack of women, in particular, at the high-level Ukraine-Russian peace talks is a concern to the extent that it reinforces the hypermasculine militarised environment. It may not be possible to address representation, and there remain serious doubt that Russia will adhere to any peace agreement.
Therefore, it is vital international donors support locally-led rapid gender analyses during the conflict and ensure Ukrainian women parliamentarians, civil society organisations, and women combatants —who make up more than 22.5 percent of the Ukrainian army — are supported in their contribution to the defence of Ukraine. Transitional justice addressing all forms of SGBV against civilians and supporting those who respond to survivors must be part of the humanitarian agenda right now. Sexual violence kills and maims just as tanks and missiles do.
Jacqui True is a Professor of Politics & International Relations and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at Monash University, Australia. She is also Director of the Monash Centre for Gender, Peace and Security. Jacqui is a Fellow of the AIIA.
Dr Sara Davies is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow and Professor at the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, Australia. Sara is the co-editor of the Australian Journal of International Affairs.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.