One year into its large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has launched another intensive military attack on eastern Ukraine. As always in war and conflict, women and girls are affected in particular ways—something that our partner organisations in Ukraine are witnessing first-hand.
A year has passed since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th 2022. Intense fighting and demolition of infrastructure has caused lack of electricity, water and heat in large parts of the country. Cities lie in ruins; roads and bridges have been destroyed. Tens of thousands of civilians are estimated dead so far. As always in the context of war and conflict, women are affected in different ways than men. At the start of Russia’s expanded war of aggression, millions of people fled across the border and into Europe. Women and children make up around 90 percent of the Ukrainian refugees.
From the beginning of the full-scale invasion, a major concern has been the possible exploitation and trafficking of women and unaccompanied children fleeing Ukraine. One year on, around eight million people have fled to Europe—and just as many are internally displaced. The number of Ukrainian women in the European sex industry has also increased dramatically. However, Ukraine was already one of the largest countries of origin in Europe for prostitution and trafficking, and there is little evidence of refugees being forced into the sex industry.
In April last year, horrifying reports from the liberated town of Bucha, outside Kyiv, reached the outside world. Russian armed forces had been tormenting the civilian population; women and girls had been held as prisoners and raped for days. Women and children had been forced to watch as their husbands and fathers were beaten and killed. Russian soldiers had specifically sought out women married to Ukrainian soldiers and subjected them to serious sexual violence.
With more areas—mainly in eastern and southern Ukraine—having been liberated from Russian occupation, further reports of violence against women have poured in. This includes horrifying testimonies about a four-year-old child being forced into oral sex and 80-year-old women being raped.
Thousands of women are said to have been taken to Russia against their will. In some regions, there are numerous reports of teenage girls being pregnant after having been raped. On paper, abortion is legal in Ukraine—but getting access to abortion services has proven difficult as hospitals are stretched thin on resources. In some cases, parents have also denied their daughters abortions. Ukrainian women who have fled to Poland, some of them pregnant after having been raped, cannot get an abortion there either due to the country’s strict anti-abortion laws.
LGBTQI persons, too, are particularly vulnerable during war and conflict. Same-sex marriage is not formally recognised in Ukraine and discrimination is still widespread, especially in the occupied areas. This creates serious risks and obstacles for same-sex couples, for example when one of them suffers war-related injuries. As a partner, it may be forbidden to visit a hospital or continue living in a shared home. Similar issues can arise when it comes to same-sex couples’ children—given the death of one parent, rights can be denied to the surviving parent.
For trans and gender non-conforming people, the situation has become extremely difficult. As the gender marker on their passport or ID documents may not correspond to their gender, they can face problems when trying to leave the country. Many are afraid to even leave the house due to not looking like they do in their passport photo.
Ukraine has begun investigations into war crimes, but there is neither time nor resources to document everything amid a raging war. The number of unreported cases is likely high, and few women and girls are talking about what they have been through. This is a familiar pattern to women’s rights organisations operating in contexts of war and conflict.
It is unclear to what extent Russian commanders and soldiers will be held accountable for sexual abuse and other war crimes, but the fact that Ukraine is cooperating with the International Criminal Court and a number of European countries on the charges makes the chances of prosecutions and convictions still better than in many other conflict areas.
Even cases of abuse by aid workers and border guards have been reported—another familiar pattern. Moreover, as often the case in war-torn countries, the overall levels of violence in society have increased. Traumatised soldiers returning from the frontlines sometimes expose their families to violence. The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s partner organisation Women’s Perspectives, based in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, has shared the story of a woman who was threatened with a knife by her husband. When the police arrived at the scene, they did not provide protection—but instead urged her to help her husband. Since men between the ages of 18 and 60 are currently not allowed to leave Ukraine, some women are prevented from leaving by their husbands who feel they should stay behind out of solidarity.
As often the case during war, women have been assigned new roles and tasks. The Ukrainian defence has an unusually high percentage of women—between 20,000 and 50,000 serve in the armed forces. Women are also the ones keeping civil society up and running; in charge of everything from the service industry, care and education to media services. Moreover, women often act as mediators within their local communities when tensions arise—for example between internally displaced persons and permanent residents.
Ukrainian women are also the ones remaining in war zones to take care of elderly or sick relatives who are unable or unwilling to leave. The significant vulnerability of elderly and disabled women is an issue that continues to be underreported.
Russia started the war against Ukraine in 2014, invading and occupying parts of the easternmost provinces and the Crimean Peninsula. In subsequent years, women’s rights defenders have tried to promote peacebuilding and mediation. This proved difficult even back then. After Russia’s large-scale invasion in February 2022, however, it has become completely impossible.
Women human rights defenders in Ukraine are faced with a difficult, yet extremely important, task. Many of them have turned to humanitarian work in order to address the most urgent needs. All emergency shelters are full, often due to the large number of internally displaced people. Some organisations have had to adapt their work as a result, including Kvinna till Kvinna’s partner organisation Slavic Heart, based in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Having previously worked against sexual violence, they now provide humanitarian protection to women and girls instead. But as many of our partners say: there will be an enormous need for providing support to traumatised women and girls going forward—at the latest, the day the war finally ends.
Kvinna till Kvinna has supported women’s rights in Ukraine since 2014. In 2022, we activated our emergency fund to provide urgent support to women’s rights organisations and individual women human rights defenders in and from Ukraine in their work to help women exposed to violence, displaced women and families in need of immediate support. Learn more about our work in Ukraine »