UN Says Sexual Violence Is Pervasive In War-Torn Ukraine

Since the war started in Ukraine, the United Nations (UN) has repeatedly voiced its concerns over reports of sexual violence and rape, mainly against women and girls. Now, as Ukraine enters week 16 of the war, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has received 124 reports of alleged acts of conflict-related sexual violence across Ukraine. Verification of these cases is still ongoing, but so far contains reports of rape, gang rape, pregnancy following rape, attempted rape, threats of rape, coercion to watch an act of sexual violence committed against a partner or a child, and forced nudity. In particular, there are reports of sexual violence coming from Kyiv, with the most disturbing being a report from Ukrainian human rights ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova that approximately 25 girls and women aged 14 to 24 have been systematically raped during the occupation in the basement of one house in Bucha. It is reported that 9 of these victims are now pregnant. 

In a Security Council meeting last week, Under-Secretary-General Special Representative on Sexual Conflict Pramila Patten reiterated the UN’s commitment to preventing and prosecuting the perpetrators of sexual violence in Ukraine and told the council that “there is a gap between its resolutions aimed at preventing rape and other sexual attacks during conflicts and the reality on the ground for the most vulnerable, women and children”. Within this meeting, Patten reminded the council of the recently signed framework of cooperation between the Government of Ukraine and the Office of Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence. The framework, signed on the 3rd of May, aims to enhance protection and response to conflict-related sexual violence in the context of military operations by Russian Forces in Ukraine. So far Russia has condemned all allegations of sexual violence. Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, stressed that Russian soldiers are subject to strict rules prohibiting violence against civilians and accused Ukraine and Western members of the Council of ramping up accusations without evidence. 

It is not just the UN who are vocal about the situation in Ukraine, across the globe, protests have erupted in response to the news of sexual violence being perpetrated against Ukrainian women. Last month women’s activists staged a protest outside the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C, covering themselves in red and urging the international community to do more to help victims of sexual violence in Ukraine. In Ukraine itself, many women’s charities and organizations are equally as concerned and attempting to support victims. 

Conflict generates sexual violence of a scale and severity hardly ever seen in times of peace, as it can be used systematically and deliberately as a tactic during war to terrorize the population, dominate women, destroy communities and in some cases ethnically cleanse a population. The international community is no stranger to sexual violence in conflict.  From the use of rape as a tool of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war during the Rwandan genocide, and more recently in Ethiopia, where rape is being perpetrated against civilians in the civil war. Although the amount and severity of sexual violence differ from conflict to conflict, a resounding parallel is that it nearly always goes unpunished. 

We must look into the past in order to prevent the situation in Ukraine from becoming another prominent example of widespread sexual violence during war. If we do not protect victims, punish perpetrators and rehabilitate survivors, it is extremely detrimental to social stability and sustainable post-conflict peace. This is due to the long-lasting and detrimental effects that sexual violence has on the survivors. Wartime sexual violence is a highly traumatic experience and leads to the victim’s experiencing PTSD, depression, and anxiety. The psychological effect of sexual violence during conflict can have a knock-on effect, leading to financial problems, social exclusion, inadequate housing, and unemployment for the victim, creating deep issues in the social fabric of a country, thus preventing sustainable post-conflict peace.  

The international community has failed in preventing the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, they must not now fail its victims facing sexual violence.