The Gendered Dimensions of the Ukraine-Russia War

By Sonal Nain, 13 Apr 2022

Dr Yuliya Zdorova-Sporysh was in Irpin, a tiny suburb right next to the capital Kyiv, when Russia launched its first attack there on February 24. The Russian offensive’s target was the Antonov Airport, less than 10 kilometers from the Ukrainian capital. 

Founder of the NGO Divchata (Girls), which is an implementing partner of the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Dr Yuliya, was packing her clothes and preparing to flee to Poland along with her four children when she heard military planes zoom by and witnessed large-scale artillery drop in the horizon of her vision. Close to 2 million Ukrainians have sought refuge in Poland.

With the government banning Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, women like Dr Yuliya were forced to leave their husbands behind in the massive exodus to Poland. 

This has left thousands of women alone, struggling to evacuate their children and families, including elderly people and newborns, “They walk alone for hours to the borders and provide everything to the family.”

Women have a long history of being subjected to grave injustice due to war. Amrita Pritam, an Indian novelist, in her work ‘Pinjar’ has shown how conflicts could wreak havoc on women. She depicted the dreadful nature of women’s assaults during the partition of India and Pakistan, where women were abducted, raped and killed.

These atrocities continue to occur in Ukraine today, where women are grappling with the threat of violence and rape. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 54% of women require assistance as a result of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Dr Yuliya has been working on psychological support for women in Ukraine who have faced sexual assault, rape and exploitation by the Russian military, “There are 3000 officially registered women rape victims in Ukraine, but the real number is much, much higher.” She has been critical in her demand of providing psychological help for these victims. Additionally, they have delivered targeted financial help to 80 families from the Bucha and Irpin regions.

Another NGO based out of Ukraine, The Women’s League, took to Instagram to share testimonies of women who have been sexually assaulted by Russian troops, “He told me to take off my clothes. Then both of them raped me in turns. They didn’t care that my son was crying in the boiler room. They told me to close him there and get back.” 

Solomia Fedoreyko, a sociology student at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, believes that Ukrainian women are standing strong against Russian invaders as much as men. Although men make up the vast majority of Ukraine’s military, 32,000 women served in the country’s armed forces before Russia invaded, and they have continued to fight since then.

Dr Yuliya, on the other hand, noted that for women volunteering on the ground, even their physical safety is jeopardized, “It is very difficult to work on the ground because it’s extremely dangerous with the kind of mental and physical catastrophe happening in the country.”

According to the head of Ukraine’s parliamentary human rights committee, Dmytro Lubinets, when Prisoners of Wars (POWs) from both Ukraine and Russia returned to their countries after they were detained during the fighting, the heads of 15 women POWs who were freed were shaved.

Mojo Story spoke to university students who were stranded in bunkers before they managed to flee the country. They had highlighted the awful condition of women in bunkers due to a lack of hygiene products and clean water at the start of the war, which is still a problem in the country, “Even now, some women do not have access to these basic essentials, and it becomes even worse for pregnant women or those who are menstruating.”

Solomia mentioned that people do not have access to what’s actually happening in most parts of Ukraine. After Kyiv got liberated, they cut access to what actually happened there; there were found piles of bodies of Ukrainians, most of those were women, including little girls, who showed signs of being sexually assaulted.

The harrowing images of these women in Bucha add to growing evidence that rape and torture have been used against women in Russian-controlled areas. A Ukrainian member of parliament has claimed that Russian soldiers raped, tortured and killed a woman, burning a swastika in her body.

“Just because most women aren’t at the frontlines, doesn’t mean they are not suffering or getting affected,” Solomia said that it is a sad reality that Russians are using rape as a weapon in war.