Ukraine, one year on: as the scale of sexual violence continues, war crime units work to deliver justice.
“We have to win in both battles — in the fight for our territory and in the fight for justice,” says Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin.
Warning: the following post contains graphic content and sexual violence
‘No one expected that this war would be so cruel. Animalistically cruel. War is always terrible but this war is staggeringly cruel,’ said Olena Zelenska earlier this week. A year on from the invasion of Ukraine, today marks a moment of reflection and pause for the lives lost and enduring scale of sexual violence against women and children carried out in the region.
Since the start of the war Russian soldiers have gang-raped women, castrated men and sexually abused children, according to the United Nations. In December 2022, the UN reported that between February 24 and October 21, it had documented 86 cases of sexual violence, most by Russian forces, including rape, gang rape, forced nudity, and forced public stripping in various regions of Ukraine and in one POW facility in Russia.
Such is the scale and prolonged campaign of sexual violence in Ukraine throughout the war that people have been actively working at pace to document Russian sexual violence to build cases to prosecute perpetrators and deliver justice to victims.
In the wake of the discoveries of massacres in such places as Bucha, the need for specialist war crime units was set up to collate and investigate reports. Ukraine had 8,000 prosecutors but had none with any war crimes experience. So far regional authorities have registered more than 65,000 Russian war crimes since the invasion began nearly a year ago, a staggering number. Iryna Didenko, who leads the prosecutor's department investigating such crimes, has already opened 154 cases of conflict-related sexual violence, according to the Office of the Prosecutor General, but experts believe the actual figures will be substantially higher.
The determination to hold Russian the invaders to account is lead by President Volodymyr Zelensky who has made justice for the victims of war crimes one of his conditions for eventual peace with Russia. The issue is as important for Ukraine as defeating the Russians militarily if Russia is to be deterred forever from attacking Ukraine.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, has vowed to investigate all cases and to bring to trial all those in which enough evidence is gathered.
“We have to win in both battles — in the fight for our territory and in the fight for justice,”
Kostin said yesterday addressing the UN General Assembly in an effort to create a special tribunal on Russian war crimes.
The role of technology has brought forth new means to document war crimes from the videos shared on social media by Russian and Ukrainian soldiers to satellite footage that reveals patterns of deliberate attacks on civilian targets.
Erik Mose, the chairman of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry, set up by the United Nations to probe the conduct of the war commission, said the commission has documented cases in which children have been "raped, tortured and unlawfully confined."
Rape has historically been used in conflict as a weapon of war against women so it should have come as no surprise that history would repeat itself early on into the conflict. Aid agencies have faced expensive and time consuming bureaucratic routes to source contraception for victims in urgent need amidst the early months of the invasion. Strict control of the medication in countries on Ukraine’s border was reported in April 2022 as making “the procurement of the pills more expensive, challenging and time consuming”, said IPPF (International Planned Parenthood Federation).
Women in Ukraine have more recently been reported as being increasingly vulnerable to sexual violence since the start of the Russian invasion, with reports of abuse on the rise, according to a leading humanitarian organisation in the country. Marysia Zapasnik, the Ukraine country director for the International Rescue Committee said:
“We are noticing higher levels of gender-based violence, that is related to displacement,”
“So support networks are not there and levels of stress among all members of the community, unfortunately, sometimes manifests itself in gender-based violence. So in collective shelters we’re noticing higher levels of that, as well as having cases referred to us.”
Zapasnik said sexual violence and domestic abuse were increasing. “High levels of stress tend to increase levels domestic violence as well,” she said. “It’s a very sensitive topic and it’s something that that wasn’t discussed in Ukraine before the war so it is hard to discuss openly. We need to make sure that we do everything we can to protect women, including those that we’re working with.”
The increasing burden of childcare placed on woman who stayed in the country is also reported to being a major issue for women. The long-term psychological impact on women “holding it together” for their families could be devastating, she added.
“In the bomb shelters when the sirens are going off, it’s mothers playing with their children trying to make it a fun experience, bringing their favourite toys. The women, the mothers of Ukraine are incredibly brave and resilient – but they are struggling a lot,” she said.
For women who have suffered sexual violence in the year the conflict has unfolded, investigators like Iryna Didenko give women hope and belief that they will be heard and be able to hold their perpetrators to account.
International teams of legal advisers working on the ground with local prosecutors in Ukraine may well face a daunting scale of a task before them, the number of recorded crimes running into tens of thousands and war in region already makes this work difficult and dangerous. However, for the women of Ukraine who have endured and survived a year of suffering amidst the invasion, there is hope and belief not in justice to defeat their Russian invaders but determination to see them held accountable for the crimes atrocities that they have committed.
If you enjoyed this article let me know in the comments! If you would like to support women in Ukraine please donate what you can HERE
Please do leave a ❤️ on this post and SUBSCRIBE + SHARE! Do check out my other articles! I'm keen to interact with my community and look forward to suggestions of topics you'd like to see me cover.
Whilst I’m not making a paid subscription available yet, I am welcoming if you’d like to tip and support my work to help let me know that you value my writing and would like to see more!
I did not know that their were reports of soldiers sexually abusing children! Thank you for bringing this to light. That is pure evil. What are they even fighting for? There's no reason or excuse for this war, except the need to extend their power.