March 8, 2022

Suddenly, images of Ukrainian women are all over the internet. Most of them are mothers, fleeing Russian convoys, carrying their children across borders. Many of them are leaving husbands and brothers behind to fight. But these heart-wrenching photographs, published by the mainstream media, are only part of the story. Ukrainian women will suffer in myriad ways before this war is over.

Pornhub has a new category: “Ukrainian girls and war rape videos”; it is dominated by Russian soldiers documenting disgustingly brutal crimes. Domestic violence and street harassment have already spiked. Female refugees are falling victim to pimps and traffickers; official channels — the police, hospitals, legal systems — won’t help them.

Where women are concerned, “the foreign coverage of the war is concentrated mostly on women fleeing with children”, Maria Dmytrieva tells me. The Ukrainian feminist activist — a key member of the Global Network of Women Peacekeepers — believes this coverage misrepresents the reality of war for women, and the ways in which women specifically become targets for attack.

We speak via Zoom, and as night falls, she sits in darkness, so as not to be spotted by saboteurs. Although the Russians had not yet arrived in her small town, a few miles outside Kyiv, like everybody else in Ukraine she is in a perilous position.

Maria has been involved in the campaign to end male violence in Ukraine for more than two decades. I have visited her in Ukraine on several occasions and have seen her make powerful men in senior government positions quake when she rails against injustices towards women and girls.

One study from 2019 found that 75% of women in Ukraine reported experiencing some form of violence since the age of 15, and one in three reported experiencing physical or sexual violence. According to a recent statement by the United Nations, crisis and displacement has recently put women in Ukraine at increased risk of sexual and physical violence and abuse. There are no figures as of yet to show the levels of violence experienced by women and girls since the Russian invasion, but plenty of evidence is being amassed by women’s NGOs.

In many ways, the experiences of women in Ukraine echo the plight of women in wars throughout history: we face reduced protections from violence and often an increase of domestic abuse. The situation is exacerbated, though, by the fact that Ukraine is being invaded by a country which effectively decriminalised domestic violence in 2017. It is well-documented that, post-conflict, when traumatised men return home, levels of violence against women increase. But if Russia wins, the right of Ukrainian men to beat their wives will be enshrined in the law of the land.

“So far we have felt as a nation, united around this common threat”, Dmytrieva told me. “But we are pretty much bound to have the growth of cases of domestic violence, of male violence against women, both during and after the war is over”.

Domestic violence is not the only threat to women in war. There is a “new wave of sexual violence”, with 11 reports from different women that they were raped by Russian soldiers in Kershon, confirmed by a local gynaecologist. Of those 11, only five survived. Other reports of sexual violation by troops are being picked up by the UK media, but, according to Dmytrieva, little is being done to help.

Rape victims will suffer consequences long after the conflict has ended — especially those whose violation is circulated on the internet. The existence of this sick revenge porn ensures that the women brutalised in it will never be able to return to a normal life. Even if they escape the conflict, it then ends, and they make it home, they are likely to be shunned by their families.

The videos are perfect ammunition for pimps and traffickers to use to control women and force them into prostitution. Displaced women and girls are often without any food, shelter or income, with many caring for children. Traffickers seize the opportunity to coerce women into selling sex, and soon they are trapped and held captive. “It is really terrifying how capitalism and imperialism are going hand in hand to exploit those who cannot defend themselves right now”, Dmytrieva tells me. “And it is truly terrifying to see that amongst all this surge in humanity in caring for other people, there are those who want to exploit this weakness and make money out of it. It is very disheartening”.

“Organised gangs [are] trying to abduct young women on the Ukrainian Polish border and we already have several cases in Germany where the girls have been abducted by pimps in the refugee camps”, Dmytrieva explains. Punters in Germany are delighted; feminist colleagues have seen screenshots of them “talking online with each other about how happy they are to have young fresh Ukrainian women crossing the German border”. With no home, no money, no job, no resources, and a very limited legal framework protecting them, these displaced women are among the most vulnerable in the world.

Women are vulnerable to pimps within Ukraine as well. In the East, even before tensions with Russia escalated into a full-scale invasion, the local economy was on its knees. Previously high-tech industries had been stripped; machines and other valuable assets were carted, wholesale, back to Russia. Few options for employment were left. As a result, the number of women in prostitution in Ukraine before the war was around 80,000. That figure does not include children.

For now, the police have their hands too full “going around looking for saboteurs” to investigate or prosecute crimes against women. Dmytrieva understands the urgency. Terrorists are “placing bombs, explosive devices and shells in the basements … they are turning our country into a minefield”. But she is hopeful that the Russian invasion will be repelled, making space for better policy to protect women.

While authorities are too busy to consider the impacts of the conflict on women, those who do an international trade in children are taking full advantage of the situation. “Ukrainian surrogacy clinics are now advertising women through Facebook, even during the occupation”, Dmytrieva told me. The press in Ireland and elsewhere have reported on babies “rescued” from war-torn Ukraine by their surrogate parents, and on surrogate parents “in limbo”, because “their” children are stuck in the now inaccessible country. No word of the plight of the women who carried those children, postpartum and vulnerable in a war-torn country, sometimes literally “holding the baby” that they had made no plans to care for, as the Russians invade.

Ukrainian women are under siege, with profound threats on every front, whether they flee or stay. Of course, men are in danger too. Ukraine does not allow men between 18 and 60 to leave the country. This rule is, Dmytrieva told me, “reasonable”. But the women suffer a different and ongoing kind of violence.

Nevertheless, it is not only the ways in which women are victimised that is newsworthy. “There are a lot of women who have stayed, who picked up arms, who secure the logistics for our army. There have hundreds and thousands of women doing this work that makes it possible for the army to fully function”.

Nearly 17% of the Ukrainian army is female, one of the highest percentages in Europe. Dmytrieva is a pacifist, but I could hear the admiration in her voice talking about the women who have taken up arms. In the face of a foreign invasion, she is aware that “we cannot afford a weak army, because that is what brought us into this situation … with having Russia for a neighbour, we need a very strong army.”

She is furious with the British feminists who campaigned to stop Johnson sending weapons to Ukraine to avoid “escalating” the conflict. “Maybe they are not aware that if Russia takes us over, there will be no women’s rights whatsoever”. She does understand these women’s desire for peace but thinks that it is “heavily misplaced”. When I asked her what feminists in Britain can do to support Ukraine, she replied, without missing a beat, “send aircrafts, lots of them!”

I can’t send Dmytrieva the fighter jets that Ukraine so desperately needs, to repel Russian air raids and artillery. But she speaks for me when she says: “As a feminist, I cannot turn a blind eye to the peril that women are facing in Ukraine, both on the front lines of armed conflict and when they come back home”. Local, national and international women’s organisations must confront the horrors faced by Ukrainian women; only then can they work out how best to respond to the Russian invasion.

In the meantime, Dmytrieva points out, there are no women at the negotiation table. Maybe because compromise is not what is being sought. “There is not much space for negotiation. We want them gone and they want us dead”.

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