Ukraine conflict: How does the war impact women?
Written by Bethany Smith for GI UK
It is impossible to miss the crisis happening in Ukraine today. Over a million people forced to flee their homes for shelter and the number rises every day. Countless men dropping off their mothers, sisters, loved ones and their children at borders before heading back into the war zone to defend the place they call home, women choosing to stay behind despite the government allowing them to flee. As this situation develops every day, new faucets of pain and heartache are tapped into as Putin advances; rape and sexual violence being used as a tool of warfare, transgender women struggling to flee the conflict and there are undoubtedly more stories as of yet untold. Let’s begin this discussion with; how does this conflict impact women?
Sexual violence has been used against women and children during conflicts and wars for decades. In Liberia, during the rebel led movement against the government of the time which lasted for 14 years, the United Nations (UN) estimates 40,000 women were raped. During the genocide which took place in Rwanda, lasting three months, a staggering 100,000 to 250,000 women were raped, estimates the UN. Sexual violence was used as a tool for ethnic cleansing in the 1990’s former Yugoslavia, enemy troops would rape and impregnate women from the ethnic groups they had subjugated in an attempt to eradicate them from the region. It is also used as a type of biological warfare, the use of germs or toxins to harm or kill the person you perceive as the enemy, with HIV infected people being deliberately recruited in Rwanda for this. Not only is the act of being raped traumatising, scary, and invasive, but the implications can have a lifelong impact on the victim.
Today, with the conflict happening in Ukraine against Russian troops there are reports coming out of the area that these tactics are being used once again. During a conference organised by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba appeared via video conference to back those making calls for Vladimir Putin to face trail at the International Criminal Court (ICC), telling members there were ‘Russian soldiers raping women in Ukrainian cities’. Ukrainian woman, Svetlana Zorina, lives in the city of Kherson and in a discussion with a Talk Radio host she said, ‘They started to rape our women so now it’s very dangerous to go outside’. She didn’t go into detail, but she confessed that she knows of women who have reported this happening to them or their loved ones.
In fact, we had been warned of this eventuality by UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten who issued a statement which included her predication for an increase in sexual violence within Ukraine – “Unless the conflict ceases, thousands of additional families will be forcibly displaced, dramatically escalating the scale of the already dire humanitarian situation, and increasing the risk of sexual violence and exploitation,”. However, since the reports have been made there has yet to be any hard data to substantiate the claims of sexual violence and rape, that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening, it may just mean the victims are unable to come forward or feel too scared to. In an article for Insider by junior news reporter, Bethany Dawson, International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Humanitarian Director, Julie Taft said: “We often don't have hard data, we do know that women and girl will be experiencing increased violence and that will look like rape, in some instances.".
With martial law declared in Ukraine, men from 18 and above are being forced to stay in the country to join the military effort against Russian soldiers. This has caused huge problems for transgender women. When your passport says ‘male’, but you are a female who doesn’t want to stay behind, how do you escape? Laws in Ukraine around legally changing your gender and having it acknowledged on legal documents is a very invasive and dehumanising experience. They must spend between 30 to 45 days in a psychiatric facility, undergoing tests to prove they are the gender they say. This has resulted in many transgender people opting to keep the gender they were born as on their passport so as to avoid any additional invasion into their bodies and the trauma that follows along with that.
One woman’s story is particularly harrowing, she is now the only person left in her village, everybody has fled. Zi Faámelu spoke to Vice for a special report, completely in the dark and holding a knife, she told the reporter how she is scared for her life. As sounds of gun fire and bombs echo from outside, through the halls of her empty apartment block, arriving at her door – she never knows whether they’re coming for her or fighting each other on the streets outside. She told Vice, she fears going outside, if she is spotted and recognised as a transgender woman there could be fatal consequences for her. For now, Faámelu says it is safer for her to stay in the middle of a war zone than to attempt to make the crossing to one of the borders.
Transgender women who have ‘male’ on their passport are being advised to tell Ukrainian border authorities they have lost their passport, hide the document as best you can, and only provide it to authorities on the other side where it is safer to be who you are. This is because there’s been reports of aggression from border authorities, with some transgender women being forced to stay behind.
As the situation in Ukraine changes every day, there are sure to be more stories coming out of the area. In a world where being a woman leaves you open to violence, aggression and gaslighting, it is imperative we do our best to assist those suffering in Ukraine right now. Whilst this article covers a variety of nuances, it’s important to remember that there are still many voices who will not have been heard. If you would like to donate money or time, see the post labelled ‘Ways to help people fleeing Ukraine’, updated as often as possible, it is a list of charities and organisations accessible to those across the UK.