In the words of Larysa Denysenko, Ukrainian legal expert: “Sexual violence is a tactic of intimidation, torture and humiliation” – Ukraine

Larysa Denysenko is a journalist, attorney, human rights activist and co-founder of the Association of Women’s Lawyers of Ukraine “JurFem”. Before the war, Denysenko and JurFem mainly advocated for women’s leadership in legal professions, provided mentorship and supported strategic court cases related to domestic violence and gender-based discrimination. Now, this has extended to representing the interests of those who have survived conflict-related sexual violence allegedly perpetrated by the Russian military in Ukraine.

During the first days of the invasion, we were providing legal advice to refugees and internally displaced people, in terms of the procedures, necessary documents, etc. At the beginning of March, the nature of the cases changed significantly. Both women and men – but mostly, women – were calling the hotline to report sexual violence that they, or their closed ones, had been subjected to in the context of the war.

Any violence – including conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) – is about power relations and dominance. Perpetrators want to demonstrate their power; they want to prevail. That is why sexual violence is so common during wars and armed conflicts. The root of this aggression and impunity lies in domestic violence. The ratification of the Istanbul Convention is therefore crucial in this context today. The violence against women and girls that denies a woman’s agency cannot be neglected as something unimportant.

It is also crucial for the media, public officials and activists to adhere to the standards of gender-sensitive reporting, so as not to cause any additional harm to those who’ve suffered CRSV – both in terms of retraumatization and protecting their personal identity, which has life-saving importance in the context of active war.

Any war is a very masculine thing. Women must be included in the negotiating delegations to ensure the progress and sustainability of efforts. Commitments of good faith behaviour towards civilians and the prohibition of sexual violence (and the threat thereof) towards women and men prisoners of war must be officially recorded in relevant documents. Sexual violence, threats and blackmail against women, men and children who are evacuating or remain in temporarily occupied territories are absolutely unacceptable.

I welcome that both the President of Ukraine and the Minister of Defence often refer to their “women and men defenders”. This is an important message that recognizes the equal contribution of women and men in defence efforts. Women’s voices sound louder today but we must not stop supporting them. There is still a lot to be done to ensure women’s meaningful participation.

It is very important that we preserve our successes in the gender equality achieved as of today. We need to keep the balance and leave no one behind. Women work as volunteers and doctors. They support local businesses, educate and care for children and elderly family members in Ukraine and abroad. Women are defending our country in the army on equal terms with their fellow men. We also need not forget about women’s contribution to diplomatic efforts and those working in information, cultural and other fronts.”

UN Women partnered with the JurFem NGO to launch the initiative “JurFem: Support” to assist survivors of CRSV in Ukraine, and to ensure justice and accountability as key factors to prevent these crimes. The initiative includes free legal advice and further legal support as well as psychological aid for CRSV survivors.

This material was created under the media partnership with Wonderzine Ukraine media as part of a series of publications under the UN Women Ukraine project “Transformational approaches to achieving gender equality in Ukraine”, funded by the Government of Sweden.