As Ukraine's women speak up on sexual violence, we must not ignore those affected by conflict

A new campaign is challenging taboos over speaking about sexual violence in Ukraine, but we need to include survivors of conflict violence too.

Danielle Johnson
25 July 2016


June 2016: Donetsk Airport. (c) Igor Maslov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

This month, an online campaign using the hashtag ##ЯНеБоюсьСказати (”I am not afraid to speak” in Ukrainian) brought domestic and international attention to the problem of sexual harassment and gender-based violence in Ukraine, Russia and other post-Soviet countries. Thousands of women opted to post their intensely personal stories in the very public setting of social media. In the process, they found widespread support and solidarity, and sparked quite a few ugly comments in the process. 

As I read through hundreds of Facebook posts, I came to a startling realisation: there was rarely any mention of sexual trauma related to the war in eastern Ukraine. One woman notes the irony of fleeing violence in the Donbas, only to find herself sexually assaulted on the streets of Kyiv. Another points out the shamefulness of a Kyiv court’s recent decision to suspend a 24-year-old man’s sentence for brutally raping a 16-year-old girl, based on the “extenuating circumstance” of his military service in Donbas. But these posts are the exceptions. 

This does not mean that more such stories do not exist. Since the conflict began in 2014, there have been documented cases — as well as many unconfirmed reports — of rapes, sexual slavery and torture of women in detention in the conflict zone.

Missing stories 

As recently as June, a new report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found several cases of conflict-related sexual violence, as well as threats of sexual violence towards female relatives of male detainees. When people are taken prisoner amid the fighting in eastern Ukraine, they are made to believe that their female relatives will be raped or sexually assaulted if they do not confess to crimes or give up their property. It is likely that a general culture of violence against women in the country helps make such threats credible. 

In addition, various groups have pointed to gender discrimination against female soldiers and a spike in domestic violence among IDPs and the families of demobilised soldiers. 

Although we lack specifics about the vast majority of these cases, there are clearly many different ways that the war in eastern Ukraine is negatively impacting on women. This impact is not limited to women living in the occupied areas or along the contact line. Instead, it extends across the country and even to refugees who have moved abroad. 

These women’s experiences are surely rooted, at least in part, in the same culture of violence against women that gave rise to the international social media campaign. As such, they should be part of the broader conversation the campaign has fostered. How can we explain the gap between truth-telling about gender violence on social media and the silence about its relationship to the war? 

When the campaign’s leader Anastasiya Melnychenko expressed concern that the online action could re-traumatise survivors, she was reminded that “people don’t share stories in social media unless they are ready to talk.” 

For some, perhaps the experiences of the war are still too raw to bring to light in such a public setting as Facebook — especially given that many social media posts have encountered skepticism and blame. Or perhaps some women need to deal with more basic humanitarian priorities first, such as finding shelter or medical care for themselves and their families, helping to rebuild infrastructure in their communities, searching for jobs or burying their dead. 

Why truth is necessary to overcome trauma 

But it is also possible that conflict-related violence against women has activated and reinforced some of the most disheartening lessons from history in post-Soviet countries. 

In a recent editorial at oDR, Natalia Antonova invoked the idea of collective PTSD from the violence of the past to explain why women have been so disrespected in these societies. This concept is not new to Ukrainian citizens or Ukraine-observers — some have argued that Ukraine is post-genocidal, while others have linked identity issues, corruption and the current war to the trauma of its totalitarian past.

There is much more to Ukraine than just the suffering of its past. But it is important to recognise that truth-telling is central to processing this kind of trauma and integrating it into the lives of individuals and communities in post-conflict settings. And yet for the war in eastern Ukraine, there is no “post-conflict” in sight — the bloodshed continues, humanitarian needs go unmet and ceasefires are ignored. This creates a sense of powerlessness and distrust, which can only be compounded by memories of past traumas that have not been addressed.

Just as truth was obscured in the Soviet period, just as many promises of post-Soviet life have not been fulfilled, now there are not even straight answers about what to call the current conflict (an anti-terrorist operation? A civil war? A Russian military operation? A frozen conflict?), who the combatants are (Russian troops? Pro-Russian rebels? Ukrainian volunteers or official armed units?), or what the end game really is (is Russia trying to take back the Donbas or undermine the entire country? Will Ukraine give autonomy to the occupied areas, or is it possible to reintegrate them?) Given all this, what meaning can women give to their traumas, endured in the name of such a war? Why can they expect change from the painful exercise of truth-telling? 

Through sexual violence, which is both a weapon and a consequence of this war, the violence in the east will touch everyone in the country. As women who have been affected carry their traumas with them across the territory, into their families and communities — as IDPs, as returning combatants, as battered wives or sisters or daughters — the war will begin to seep through the social fabric of the country in more insidious ways. If they feel they cannot speak, if they feel that it would be pointless to tell their stories amid so much obfuscation, Ukraine as a whole will be pulled down by this new collective trauma.

It is disappointing that we still know so little about how the war is impacting women. Consistently unconfirmed anecdotes about sexual violence should be a call to action, and yet report after report brings only more vague acknowledgment that bad things are happening to women. 

More time and attention needs to be given to investigating and documenting exactly how women are being affected, so that they know their experiences will be taken seriously if and when they choose to come forward. This will also signal that they are not viewed simply as victims, but as survivors whose testimonies will play an important role in conflict resolution and peace-building.

Granted, it is extremely challenging for human rights monitors and others to gain access to the occupied territories. Nevertheless, the momentum and the faith in collective action that the campaign has created must be used as a platform to ask questions and demand answers about what has happened to women as a result of the war. 

It should also be used to encourage men to share their feelings openly and honestly, without being shamed for it. Alona Zubchenko of La Strada Ukraine, an NGO that operates hotlines for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, told me that 2016 has brought their highest-ever number of calls from men. 

Many of them are IDPs or demobilised soldiers and they tend to call at night, perhaps because they are “scared or shy”. This pattern suggests that it is only after darkness falls, when men are alone and unlikely to be overheard, that they feel safe enough to confront their own traumas. The origins of their fears must be an important part of the national discussion brought on by the flash mob. 

In her seminal work on trauma and recovery after violence, Judith Herman argues that women who have endured sexual violence need recognition and restitution from their communities in order to move on. The campaign has created a powerful opportunity to do just this for women who have been impacted by the war. 

Now that people in Ukraine are talking about discrimination, harassment, abuse, and exploitation against women, let us also encourage the voices of women who have become casualties of conflict because of their gender. They need to be heard, now and for posterity, if Ukraine is to overcome its collective trauma and build a sustainable peace for all its citizens.

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