Seeking justice for survivors of sexual violence in Ukraine

A woman stands among the debris of a house destroyed by a Russian air strike in Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, November 2022. (AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko)

A Geneva-based initiative is working with the Ukrainian government to set up an urgent interim reparations programme to help survivors of sexual violence during the war.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year, reports have emerged of women, men and children being subjected to sexual violence by Russian soldiers.

Russia has been accused of systematically using sexual violence as a weapon to terrorise the Ukrainian population. A report released by the UN in October documented what it described as “patterns” of rape and sexual violence inflicted on Ukrainians by Russia’s soldiers since the start of the conflict.

The UN commission of inquiry on Ukraine said victims of alleged attacks ranged in age from four to over 80 years old, and detailed a series of harrowing cases, including women being gang-raped and family members being forced to witness their loved ones being sexually abused.

Ukraine’s leadership have consistently accused Russia of using rape as a weapon of war since the invasion began. Addressing an international conference on preventing sexual violence during conflict in London earlier this month, Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska said sexual violence was being perpetrated “systematically and openly” by Russian soldiers.

“Sexual violence is the most cruel, most animalistic way to prove mastership over someone. And for victims of this kind of violence, it is difficult to testify in war times because nobody feels safe,” she said.

“This is another instrument that they (Russian forces) are using as their weaponry. This is another weapon in their arsenal in this war and conflict.”

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s office has said Moscow’s war on Ukraine “is aimed at exterminating the Ukrainian people” and that Russia’s use of sexual violence intends “to spread a state of terror, [and] cause suffering and fear”.

Moscow, which claims it is conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine, has denied allegations of sexual violence by the Russian military.

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The true scale of the sexual violence perpetrated against Ukrainians is not yet known, and will likely not be fully understood until long after the conflict has ended. In its report, the UN noted that cases can be challenging to investigate due to the current security situation in the country and victims being forcibly displaced, making it harder for them to access health and support services.

Survivors also often take years to speak about what has happened to them due to the trauma, and fear of being ostracised by their families and communities. It has taken many years for survivors of sexual assault during Russia’s earlier invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 to begin coming forward.

However, the difficulties in documenting the violations in Ukraine has not stopped organisations seeking justice for survivors.

The road to reparations

The Geneva-based Global Survivors Fund (GSF) has been working with the Ukrainian government to set up an urgent interim reparations programme for survivors. The initiative will allow survivors access to reparation while the conflict is ongoing, alongside ensuring access to medical assistance, psychological support and social services.

Together with its partner, the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation, GSF visited Kyiv in October to move forward with a memorandum of understanding signed by Ukraine’s government which will give survivors access to urgent reparations to help them rebuild their lives now, rather than be forced to wait until the conflict is over.

GSF’s director of programmes Clara Sandoval, who took part in the visit, said the initiative being rolled out in Ukraine is a “world-first” for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.

“These urgent reparations will be a first worldwide,” she told Geneva Solutions. “Often reparations come 20 or 30 years down the line. Imagine what that means for a victim that is in urgent need. But by having the Ukrainian government move ahead and set up a special fund and interim reparations programmes for urgent harms, we are taking multiple steps forward in the right direction to help victims. This has never happened before.”

GSF has been providing technical support alongside national organisations on the ground and the SEMA network, the Global Network of Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence. This includes running consultations with survivors in Ukraine to assess what form of reparation is most important to them.

The government has also agreed to ensure survivors have access to holistic care, including health and psychological support, both urgently and as part of the broader long-term interim reparation programme.

Sandoval said Ukraine’s readiness to address the harms caused by sexual violence while the conflict is ongoing is a “breakthrough”, as is the government’s openness at talking about such violations, which are often overlooked both during conflicts and reparation programmes.

“This is the first time that you see a country that is going through an occupation or a conflict that is openly speaking about conflict-related sexual violence and taking measures to deal with it in real time, and I think this is remarkable and is in a way a breakthrough in relation to how this has been handled in the past,” said Sandoval.

“Because often, people deny that conflict-related sexual violence is happening. Here, that is not the case. And that allows you to take faster action, so a willing government is key to prevent and to combat conflict-related sexual violence.”

Why are reparations so important?

Founded in 2019 by Nobel Peace Prize laureates Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, a survivor herself, GSF’s mission is to improve access to reparations for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence around the world.

The organisation steps in and helps to provide support in situations where states or other parties are unable or unwilling to do so. At the core of its work is the belief that survivors should be able to decide for themselves what reparations mean.

GSF has been working with survivors in Ukraine since 2020. A study released in June covering conflict-related sexual violence from 2014 to present found that survivors needed urgent medical, psychological and economic support to be able to start rebuilding their lives.

Survivors also emphasised that justice could not be achieved without reparation. This could take the form of compensation, rehabilitation, housing assistance, guarantees of non-recurrence and the public acknowledgment of what had been done to them.

Although Ukrainian authorities were already making efforts to acknowledge what had happened to survivors since 2014, Russia’s invasion in February this year has prompted a renewed push towards reparations.

“Survivors not only need humanitarian assistance to respond to their most urgent needs, but they are entitled to reparation. That is their right, and it’s a right that neither the government of Ukraine nor the Russian government has yet fulfilled,” said Sandoval.

“So it’s a massive achievement that the Ukrainian government is saying that this is not only about humanitarian assistance, but that we need more sustainable measures and we need to recognise the rights of those that have suffered and recognise their right to reparation.”

Sandoval said an approach that prioritises both urgent holistic care and urgent reparation was essential to help reduce the harms caused by the violations survivors had experienced.

“Not having access to reparation is to be dead in life, because you are not dealing with the harms that were caused to you wrongly,” said Sandoval. “If you have reparation, that is the window of opportunity for you to regain your life. It's as simple as that.”

She gives the example of a woman who has been raped by a Russian soldier multiple times in her own home. Alongside needing urgent physical and psychological support, some form of compensation or rehabilitation would be essential for the woman to rebuild her life.

“The victim will not want to go back to their house because it brings back all the memories of what they have had to go through,” she said. “So we need to be able to respond to the urgent harm through reparation to provide, for example, victims with the means and the livelihood they need to be able to try and deal with what is going on.”

“By providing reparation, you are enabling access – access to the use and enjoyment of different rights, access to society, access to the family, and holistic care,” she added.

A major challenge facing organisations working to support survivors of sexual violence in Ukraine are the difficulties documenting cases and reaching victims while the conflict is ongoing. Sandoval said survivors’ reluctance to come forward due to traumatisation or stigma means the number of cases that have been documented so far are likely to be “just the tip of the iceberg”.

“Most survivors that have just suffered won’t speak about it. That's what we know by working with them. They take some time,” she said. “You need to provide them with the right spaces and people that they trust to be able to come forward and speak.”

Sexual violence as a ‘weapon of war’

Rape is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, while systematic sexual violence can amount to a crime against humanity. And yet there are widespread reports of sexual violence being used in conflicts around the world today, including Afghanistan, Syria, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Following a recent visit to Ukraine, GSF’s executive director, Esther Dingemans, said the government was setting a “formidable precedent for other countries to follow” by showing “a strong desire to address the harms caused by conflict-related sexual violence in real time.”

Through her work with survivors in countries torn by conflict, Sandoval has witnessed first hand the life-changing impact of reparations.

“We've already seen the work and the impact of reparation for victims when it’s done properly,” she said.

“If you hear from survivors who have been given the opportunity to access redress, to gain a voice, to regain their agency, to feel dignified, to begin that experience to transform that terrible moment they lived into something that gives them a new opportunity, you really see the future. You see life. But when you talk to a victim who has not had that, you see a person that is dead in life.”