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Putin’s war on Ukrainian women

Ionela Ciolan

Date: 08/03/2022
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is also a war on Ukrainian women, with high repercussions for the future. The EU must keep Ukrainian women’s needs in mind and place gender-responsive measures at the heart of its emergency assistance.

The brave women of Ukraine

Women in Ukraine represent peace and sovereignty. Two of the most famous Ukrainian memorials in Kyiv depict female characters. The Independence Monument in Maidan Nezalezhnosti symbolises Ukraine’s national identity and European aspirations. The Motherland Monument, a 102-meter-high, Soviet-made figure of a woman with a sword and shield, became Berehynia (or ‘Protectress’) in 2014, representing Ukraine’s defiance against Russian aggressions.  

Beyond symbolism, women are also an important component of the Ukrainian democratic state-building process. For the past eight years, women have been part of the vanguard of Ukraine’s modern history-making. During the Euromaidan anti-government, pro-EU protests, thousands of women played a pivotal role.

Since the start of the Donbas War in 2014, women have played a crucial role in Ukraine’s armed forces, too. Starting civilian volunteer battalions, they have filled in for infantry soldiers, military medics and snipers. They contribute substantially to the war effort with non-combat jobs and by providing equipment and supplies to the battlegrounds. So far, around 7,000 Ukrainian female soldiers have fought in Donbas.   

A war on women, too

The Kremlin’s war on Ukraine is also a war on its women. For eight years, the intermittent fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions resulted in over 1 million women and children internally displaced, hundreds killed, and thousands wounded. Civilian and military gender-based violence against women in Donbas has worsened since 2014.

Putin’s ongoing hybrid warfare took a catastrophic turn on 24 February when Moscow launched a large-scale conventional invasion of Ukraine. 1.5 million Ukrainians (mostly women and children) fled the country in the first 10 days. At this rate, it might become Europe’s greatest refugee crisis of the 21st century.

A humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine

While the number of refugees is growing, most of Ukraine’s 40 million people are still in the country. A massive internal displacement is also underway, growing the risks of gender-based violence. Last week, Russian troops used airstrikes, multiple launch rocket systems, and heavy shelling on numerous civilian targets around Ukraine.

To foster chaos and panic, the Kremlin is committing war crimes by killing innocent civilians and bombing preschools, apartment buildings, hospitals and maternity wards. According to Ukrainian government sources, around 2,000 civilians lost their lives due to Russian attacks on residential areas. Numerous women and children are among the victims, and this seems to be just the beginning of human suffering from this atrocious invasion.

Reports and images show parts of Ukrainian cities in ruin, women giving birth in cellars, medical personnel working around the clock, and large numbers of casualties requiring emergency care. Medical supplies are shortening, as are fuel, water and food.

Moreover, in violation of international humanitarian law, the Kremlin used cluster bombs in Kharkiv and broke the agreement of two evacuation corridors from Mariupol and Volnovakha, respectively. This put the lives of hundreds of thousands at risk and hindered humanitarian trucks from providing essential help to vulnerable people blocked in war-torn cities.

Putin’s disrespect for human rights and Ukrainian lives will only exacerbate the unravelling human tragedy. The shelling at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, which culminated in a fire, is an example of Russia’s reckless behaviour disregarding the dangers of even a nuclear accident, not to mention the unimaginable costs it would have on human life.  

Victims as well as fighters

Violence, armed conflicts and war severely affect all men and women. Yet women and girls are affected by and experience conflict differently from men. During conflicts, violence against women and girls, including sexual attacks and exploitation, increases two to three times. Random killings, sexual violence, torture and forced marriage are some of the devastating consequences women suffer in warfare. Throughout history, rape and sexual violence are often employed as tactics of war.

What is more, the disruption and/or destruction of social services and essential needs (i.e. food, water, heating, electricity, transportation, medical care, education) adds another layer of unequal impact on girls’ and women’s lives. In war and post-war states, maternal mortality becomes 2.5 times higher than the average rate. Will Putin’s war on Ukraine be another instance of blatant violation of women’s and girls’ rights?

But women are not just victims of warfare. Their participation in conflicts is complex. Willingly, women become active combat fighters, aid their fighting partners with battleground support, and become ‘breadwinners’. In conflict and post-conflict situations, women are also agents of change, being a key element in conflict prevention, reconstruction and peace-building processes.

The brave resistance of Ukraine’s men is mirrored by the courage of its women. From taking arms to defend their nation to making Molotov cocktails, from feeding the fighters to taking care of children and the elderly, from reporting from the battleground to combating the Russian disinformation ‘infowar’, Ukrainian women are present on all the frontlines.

Global echoes and the European response

The international society responded firmly by condemning the unlawful invasion of Ukraine, sanctioning Putin’s regime, and sending financial and humanitarian aid and military support. 141 states voted in favour of the UN resolution reiterating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and urging Russian armed forces to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw” from the country.

As one of Ukraine’s most important partners, the EU announced €590 million for humanitarian support. While the pressure to respond urgently and sufficiently is huge, the EU should not lose sight of Ukrainian women and girls when developing its emergency assistance and actions. Urgent measures are needed to:

  1. support gender-responsive humanitarian action. The EU decision-making process and humanitarian assistance coordination should include the views of Ukrainian feminist civil society organisations on the ground and their current needs.
  2. halt impunity on sexual violence against women and push for rapes to be judged as war crimes. The EU should stand at the forefront of protecting Ukrainian women and girls from any sexual violence that the war might bring.
  3. provide knowledge and institutional support to protect Ukrainian refugees against human trafficking and exploitation. As women represent most of the refugees, the EU agencies should work in close contact with the local authorities and border forces of not only Ukraine but also neighbouring EU member states to raise awareness about the dangers of human trafficking and protect women.
  4. create and enforce mechanisms that monitor the protection of Ukrainian women’s fundamental rights in conflict and post-conflict settings. Gender-based violence must not be tolerated, and the EU should push for arbitrations for violations of said rights.
  5. support the creation of safe evacuation and humanitarian corridors. European leaders should push the Kremlin to respect the safe passage of inhabitants and humanitarian trucks and demand retribution for those who violate these agreements.
  6. support women’s inclusion in peace negotiations, future planning and the implementation of post-conflict resolution and peace-building strategies in the medium and long terms. Female engagement in peace processes brings more security, safety and prosperity.

8 March is International Women’s Day. But for Ukrainian women and girls, today is not the time for celebration. Putin’s brutal war on their country is only causing suffering. Ukrainian women are currently facing sexual violence, human trafficking, lack of basic needs and constant fear for their lives.

In order to avoid a dreadful violation of women’s rights, the EU must place Ukrainian women’s views, safety and needs at the heart of its support for the country. In other words, Europe must adopt a gender-responsive approach to humanitarian and emergency aid for Ukraine.

Ionela Maria Ciolan is a Research Fellow in the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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