Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Women in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Written by and

In April 2022, it was reported that Ukrainian law enforcement intercepted a phone call between a Russian soldier and his wife. In the phone call, they joked about the soldier raping Ukrainian women. His wife told him, “Yes, I allow it. Just wear protection”. The shockingly cavalier attitude of these two young Russian people towards rape emanates from the traditionally gendered nature of war and a history of Russian soldiers carrying out the rape of women with impunity.

Wars are inherently gendered and have been since time immemorial. War’s traditional structure is that men go to fight, while women stay at home and take care of the family. In addition, the battlefield itself is gendered: whilst men are killed, women’s bodies are the spoils of war. ‘History has repeatedly shown that the outbreak of conflict and war increases the exposure of women and girls to war crimes, especially all forms of gender-based violence, arbitrary killings, rape and trafficking.’ Sadly, as this post demonstrates, the conflict in Ukraine is no exception to this traditional gendered structure of war.

The post begins by explaining the link between war and sexual/gendered violence and then reminds the reader of the use of sexual violence by Russian forces for the past 70 years. It then focuses on the types of gendered violence against women observed in the conflict in Ukraine before reiterating the importance and urgency of closing the impunity gap on sexual and gender-based crimes.

Peacetime, War and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Since Brownmiller’s book Against our Will, which retraced the history of rape in armed conflicts and propounded the idea of the almost inevitability of sexual violence perpetrated by men against women in armed conflict, masculinity has emerged in academic scholarship as a category of analysis to understand soldiers’ behaviour. 

Many armed forces around the world and throughout history are and have been predominantly comprised of men. Despite the important role played by Soviet women in World War II, as of March 2020 only 41,000 women (i.e., 4%) were serving in the Russian armed forces. The Russian forces are thus essentially male. Most importantly, ‘Russian women are not permitted in frontline combat roles’, notably because of an unspoken gentleman’s rule in the military system to protect women. Indeed, although women serve in units alongside men, they are viewed differently in the armed forces. For example, the Russian Defence Ministry organises beauty contests for female soldiers and ‘[f]emale competency for military duty is routinely questioned in public discourse’ on the basis that they are unsuitable for some roles.

This attitude towards women in the armed forces, compounded by demands for group conformity, dictates of loyalty and strong hierarchical structure within armed forces inevitably facilitates collective action that is not reprimanded (here). It produces a culture of militarised masculinities and fosters ‘toxic masculinity’, defined as an extreme form of male behaviour leading to contests between men aimed at proving their masculinity to themselves and others within the group. Putin on horseback or practising judo or arm-wrestling epitomises such idealised forms of masculinity. Toxic masculinity is undoubtedly closely related to a culture of exclusion: women are perceived as fundamentally different.

The culture within the Russian forces is profoundly violent. The Russian military is a hybrid format combining a traditional conscript and a professional, contract (‘kontrakniki’) system. For decades, the culture of the hazing (or persistent bullying) of young conscripts in Russia (‘dedovshchina’ – the rule of the grandfathers) has blighted the forces (here, here and here, para 77) as senior conscripts are encouraged to beat, brutalise or even rape new recruits. Violence is normalised and the soldiers become morally disengaged. Further, the European Court of Human Rights pointed out that such behaviour was ‘bringing about lawlessness and gross abuse of human rights’ (para. 99). In other words, not only violence but also impunity is rampant in the Russian forces. The lack of organisational culture that holds commanders accountable for their actions and those of their subordinates is known to be an important factor in the commission of war crimes.

A link between violence against women in peacetime and wartime has been established: ‘[w]here cultures of violence and discrimination against women and girls exist prior to conflict, they will be exacerbated during conflict’ (para. 6). In fact, violence against women is to be understood ‘as a social rather than an individual problem’ (para. 9). Unfortunately, domestic violence is rife in Russia, a problem already highlighted in 2004 and that featured in many State recommendations in Russia’s 2018 Report of the Working Group on the universal periodic review. In 2017 some forms of domestic violence were decriminalised and administrative penalties introduced instead. These reforms, unequivocally condemned by the CEDAW Committee in 2021 (para. 25), have led to a weakened State response to such violence criticised by the European Court of Human Rights (para. 100). More fundamentally, the change in the law led to the revitalisation and normalisation of misconceptions and stereotypes about violence against women (see here and here, paras 22-23). This certainly affects the way Russian soldiers view women in Ukraine.

Russian Soldiers and Sexual Violence through History

As Russian soldiers enter into Ukrainian villages and towns, having been subjected to a culture of violence and impunity bolstered up by their skewed view of masculinity and their gendered conception of society, a sad history of violence against women in World War II and in the conflict in Chechnya accompanies them.

Several books (e.g., Beevor, Gebhardt, Werth, Brownmiller, A Woman in Berlin) depict the numerous rapes perpetrated by Soviet soldiers as they swept across Germany (and entered Berlin) in 1945. Beevor estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 German women were raped. According to Stalin, the soldiers were ‘having fun’. Whilst there is some debate as to whether it was a deliberate (official) Soviet strategy, it can at the very least be argued that it was masculine strategy. ‘Neither nationality nor politics were critical — only the fact that the victims were female.’ Yet, reports and testimonies show that the rapes were not only a display of masculine power over other women but also reinforced the bonds between Soviet soldiers, and sent a signal to German men, unable to protect women (here and here). This occurred in the background of Stalin’s reaffirmation at the domestic level of the gendered roles of men, as soldiers, and women, as potential mothers, and a war cast as a heroic fight against Nazism. Further, these rapes were acts of revenge, too often enabled by lacking (enforcement of) discipline.

In more recent times, Russian soldiers have been accused of rape in wartime too. In 2000 allegations of rape perpetrated by contract soldiers in Chechnya surfaced in various NGOs reports (here, here and here). Women were not the only targets; to extract confessions sexual assault was (threatened to be) used against alleged male fighters held in filtration camps. The exact extent of the use of sexual violence in Chechnya is unknown because of the stigma attached to reporting it (here and here) and a culture of impunity (paras 76-77).

Gender-Based Violence against Women in Ukraine

Rape

Many women (and children) have fled Ukraine, as refugees, to neighbouring states. However, a significant number remain in Ukraine, particularly older women. For those women who remain, the risk of rape by Russian soldiers is high. Reports of rape were not immediate, but they were expected, given the wartime history of Russian soldiers. Women have been targeted for rape by Russian soldiers, some repeatedly raped. For example, there have been reports of 25 teenage girls kept in a basement in Bucha and gang raped, nine of whom became pregnant from the rapes; and the rape of children and elderly women. Women have been raped after the execution of their husbands. Rape has been carried out in front of family members – a deliberate tactic to tear apart the social fabric of the Ukrainian family, demonstrate their power and humiliate Ukrainian women. The rape is also a message to Ukrainian men under the masculine construct: they cannot protect their women.

Many women arriving in bordering countries as refugees are reporting being raped by Russian soldiers. Whether rape survivors remain in Ukraine or flee the country, their access to appropriate healthcare is limited, and health risks are significant for rape victims. They have high risk of sexually transmitted infections, HIV, pregnancy, and internal physical injuries to their reproductive organs, all of which require specialised medical assistance, which may not be available in the conflict or refugee context.

However, for those girls and women who have crossed borders, safety is not guaranteed. Women are first at high risk of rape and sexual exploitation in the transit process as they flee conflict. With millions of refugees seeking shelter and safety, the risk of being trafficked is high, as women look for help for themselves and their children. Traffickers offer transport, work or accommodation to try to lure women to leave with them. Sexual exploitation also occurs in these situations, when women are forced to trade sex for shelter, transport and/or safety. The risk of rape is also high; rape in refugee populations is not uncommon, as safety and security is difficult to assure in such large, desperate populations. The risk also exists of sexual assault by aid workers, or those posing as aid workers.

Pregnancy Challenges

There are multiple layers to pregnancy challenges for Ukrainian women. Women who were already pregnant and have had to remain in Ukraine have faced specific challenges, including the bombing of hospitals. The World Health Organisation verified already by 11 March that 26 hospitals and health facilities had been attacked. On 9 March, a maternity hospital in Mariupol was bombed, resulting in the death of at least one pregnant woman and her baby. Lack of access to healthcare has become a serious problem for those remaining in Ukraine, with medical supplies diminishing as the conflict continues, meaning pre- and post-natal care is insufficient, increasing the risk to life of the women and babies.

Then there are the women who are pregnant, including from rape by Russian soldiers. Those remaining in Ukraine face the challenge of limited access to medicine and healthcare. Those who have fled across borders face an overloaded healthcare system in whichever country they arrive in, an inevitable outcome of thousands or millions of refugees arriving in a very short period of time. The stress of war and limited access to healthcare leads to ‘pregnancy complications, premature births, and still births’.

The majority of Ukrainian refugees have fled into Poland (over 3.5 million of the 6.7 million Ukrainian refugees at time of writing). Poland has very strict anti-abortion laws, so Ukrainian women pregnant from Russian rape risk imprisonment if they access abortion measures — as do the healthcare professionals who assist them. Abortions are permitted in cases of rape, however only if the rape has been officially confirmed by prosecutors — a logistical impossibility in the current situation. Anti-abortion groups are already trying to source information about recent abortions performed, clearly seeking to ascertain if any abortions are taking place contrary to the law. Doctors are also trying to distribute the morning-after pill to rape survivors, but access to the medicine is limited. Doctors and other healthcare workers risk punishment when they distribute the morning-after pill without a prescription.

Prosecutions Must Close the Impunity Gap on Sexual and Gender-Based Crimes

The Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the ICC is already deep into investigations into crimes under its jurisdiction committed in the Ukraine-Russia conflict. The Rome Statute contains provisions for sexual violence as war crimes (Art. 8(2)(b)(xxii)) and crimes against humanity (Art. 7(1)(g)).

Given their ubiquity and seriousness, these crimes must be investigated and prosecuted by the ICC. The OTP ‘has committed to integrating a gender perspective and analysis into all of its work’, recognising ‘that sexual and gender-based crimes are amongst the gravest under the Statute’, seeking to close ‘the impunity gap’ when it comes to these crimes, which have traditionally been under-prosecuted. The OTP and the ICC more broadly can now implement this policy and ensure accountability for the rape of Ukrainian women by Russian soldiers.

Any trial must emphasise the gendered component of these crimes, and this must be taken into account in conviction and sentencing. Gender is an aggravating circumstance in sentencing, as recognised most recently in the Ongwen Sentencing Trial Judgment. Such consideration of the gendered nature of these crimes should be implemented in rape convictions, highlighting the targeting of women, but also for any crimes specifically committed against men, which are outside the scope of this blog post to discuss. If persons are prosecuted for the bombing of the maternity hospital (Art. 8(2)(b)(ix)), this too should have the gendered context of the crime emphasised. In addition, for rape convictions, the long-term physical and mental health impacts of the rape on victims should be considered an aggravating factor in sentencing and reparations.

Any domestic prosecutions, including in Ukraine, must also emphasise the gendered nature of these crimes. Past impunity for sexual and gender-based crimes by Russians, in conflict and peacetime, has created a culture of acceptance for violence against women. Whether in international or domestic jurisdictions, ensuring accountability for sexual and gender-based crimes committed in Ukraine will help change culture. Accountability will act as a deterrent for these crimes in the Ukraine-Russia conflict as well as other conflicts around the world, and hopefully also be conducive to a decrease in violence against women in peacetime Russia.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Comment

Your comment will be revised by the site if needed.

Comments

Nikolaos Sitaropoulos says

June 8, 2022

Very useful note. It is important to note the most challenging issue for the victims arising out of war time sexual violence -  «full reparation » which is not always provided by criminal proceedings. Serious shortcomings in state practice in this area require more attention and debate. See CEDAW Views in SH/BiH, 2020 where the respondent state is directed towards ensuring « that the author receives full reparation, including material and moral damages, for the harm she suffered and restitution, rehabilitation and satisfaction, including the restoration of her dignity and reputation, which includes free legal assistance and financial reparation proportionate to the physical, psychological and material damage suffered by her and with the gravity of the violations of her rights » https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2020/08/un-committee-calls-bosnia-and-herzegovina-recognise-sexual-violence

Sangeeta Taak says

June 8, 2022

Very well written blog. Accountability is must. The question is whether ICC is willing or competent to takre Russia ukraine case under it's jurisdiction

ATUJUNE says

June 9, 2022

I agree with the authors.
It is one thing to deal experience conflict-related sexual violence and it is worse to deal with the consequences.

In Uganda, abortions are socially frowned upon and are prohibited under the law.

As such, women refugees who experienced sexual violence during armed conflict are having to face the traumatic realities of raising their children born of rape.

Here is a link to Refugee Law Project's short film on the work we are doing to address this. It is titled, "Bringing Up Our Enemies' Children". https://youtu.be/qMCHhWEBpuE

Tomas says

June 11, 2022

Very interesting study!