Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has sparked uncertainty, instability, geopolitical risks, and humanitarian concerns. Amidst the vulnerable population, women have been burdened with increased care-giving responsibilities, maternal health issues, reproductive health difficulties, and sexual assault creating a two-front war for them. Furthermore, the conflict’s disproportionate impact on women in Ukraine and official statistics on wartime atrocities against women has yet to be clearly documented. Additionally, despite their dual roles and repercussions, they are not even represented on all decision-making platforms.
This paper will look into the impact of the war on Ukrainian women. It will also look on the additional roles and responsibilities undertaken by women during the war and analyse the representation of women in decision-making processes. Towards the end, the paper would also analyse the existing laws that protect the dignity of women.
Impact on women
The war has disproportionate and severe impact on the lives of women. Women face extra care-giving responsibilities, the brunt of displacements, sexual violence, lack of health-care services, education, food, water and sanitation; and worsened existing gender equalities.
Sexual Violence and Rape
Historically, women have been symbols of a country’s ability to retain its culture and future growth potential. As a result, they are frequently the victims of sexual aggression, abuse, rape, and torture as a weapon of war. Lesia Vasylenk, a Ukrainian MP, has gone ahead and stated that Russian forces raped women and burned their bodies with swastika shapes. These allegations have not yet been verified, but if they are true, these photographs can be used as evidence to establish a case against Russia for war crimes. Furthermore, rumours have surfaced that Russian soldier assaulted Ukrainian women and minor girls as young as 10 years old. There have also been allegations that Russian forces were in possession of Viagra, indicating how rape has been utilised as a weapon in combat.
Moreover, school-aged girls are more likely to be forced to drop out in order to marry for dowry or bride-price income for destitute families, contributing to an increase in gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and trafficking, transactional sex for food and survival, and child marriage.
The migratory problem is certain to worsen as a result of the war, with women and children amongst the first to be uprooted, increasing the potential of double or triple displacement. According to UN Population Fund assessment, at least 660,000 individuals, the bulk of whom are women, have fled Ukraine in the five days after Russia’s invasion. The Ukrainian government’s order prohibiting males from 18 to 60 years old from leaving the country, ordering them to stay and resist the Russian offensive has made things even more difficult for these women. When gender-based violence is on the rise, displaced Ukrainian women are left on their own to seek protection for themselves and their children. Furthermore, dislocation pushes women to engage in negative coping techniques such as child marriage and survival sex, which can eventually lead to exploitation and abuse.
Additionally, the safety of these women is not assured while they are in transit as they exit the nation.
Lack of Access to Services
Another major source of worry is the lack of access to gender-specific health-care services. To begin, traditionally, Ukrainian women’s access to health-care and justice has been limited by deeply established gender norms and patriarchal culture.
With the conflict, the few existing protective structures and support networks has been demolished, which has constrained routine health services and created further hurdles to women’s access to even basic health services such as sexual and reproductive care. According to projections, over 80,000 Ukrainian women had to give birth during March to May, 2022. However, if these expecting mothers continue to be refused essential maternal health treatments, their birthing experience might be deadly, inflicting harm to both mother and child. In the midst of Russian shelling and bombing, photos and videos of women giving birth in metro stations have surfaced on social media. The death of a pregnant lady on a stretcher with a large pregnant belly emphasises the fragility of people who need pre-natal care.
These pregnant women who had to remain in Ukraine encountered special challenges, such as hospital bombings. By 11 March, 26 hospitals and health institutions had been bombed, according to the World Health Organization. On March 9, a maternity facility in Mariupol was bombed, killing at least one pregnant lady and her baby.
Additionally, there is inconsistency in access to suitable menstruation products and scarcity of food that fits the dietary demands of pregnant and nursing women. Scarcity of providers, as well as hurdles to getting reproductive, maternity, and pre-natal health care, have been identified as prevalent issues. Those with physical limitations and limited mobility are particularly susceptible.
Then there are women who are pregnant as a result of rape by Russian soldiers, who are further hampered by their lack of access to healthcare. Women who have fled across borders, primarily to Poland, suffer additional healthcare challenges as a result of the refugee overcrowding. Further, most nations, including Poland, have severe anti-abortion legislation, marginalising women’s positions. These women are at a significant risk of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, and internal physical injury to their reproductive systems, all of which require specialised medical care that may not be accessible in a conflict or refugee setting.
Additional Care-giving responsibilities
Women have long been seen as the sole care-providers in Ukraine, with the primary task of caring their children, families, and the elderly. However, with the Ukrainian government’s recent decree ordering males aged 18-40 to stay behind and fight for the country during the Russian invasion, Ukrainian women are suddenly confronted with new and demanding caregiving obligations.
Ukrainian women are left with little cash to feed and care for their families since their family unit has been fractured. Business closures and infrastructural losses also make it difficult for women to find jobs. Due to a lack of paid jobs, many people have turned to unpaid labour both within and outside the house. These growing parental responsibilities may exceed women’s capacity to manage, leaving them with mental health disorders including anxiety, trauma, and despair.
These care-giving obligations also contributes to a wider worldwide gender disparity in food-security. Many women have even reduced their own food consumption in order to provide food for other members of their families.
Rising energy prices have also prompted homes to use less clean fuels and technologies, exposing women and girls to home air pollution, which already claims the lives of 3.2 million people each year, the great majority of whom are women and children.
Role of women
Despite the double-brunt of war, Ukrainian women also has played a significant part in the conflict. Women in Ukraine now have the same legal status as men in the armed forces, and there are no restrictions on women working in any of Ukraine’s 450 professions. Various women have joined territorial defence forces and have contributed in various ways to the military. However, since the Russian invasion, the number of women willingly joining the Ukrainian military has increased. According to Ukrainian military authorities, around 50,000 women serve in Ukraine’s armed forces as both combat and non-combat roles. Before the invasion, just 32,000 women served in the military. According to the Ukrainian government, the military service by women might be made compulsory against the prevalent voluntary service.
Women have also formed a major element outside of the military. They have volunteered, raised funds, drove transport cars from other European nations for Ukrainian militaries, and operated companies, especially since that males aged 18 to 60 are barred from leaving their country. The efforts of these women are undeniable, from the Ukrainian lady who purportedly shot down a Russian drone from her balcony with a jar of tomatoes (Jankowicz, 2022) to the women throwing Molotov Cocktails, filling soldiers’ baggage, and producing camouflage nettings for troops. Some Ukrainian women also used Tinder to connect with Russian men in order to gather information about Russian military locations (NY Post, 2022). Women have also participated in conflict zones and in reporting, which has resulted in the deaths of several television news producers such as Oleksandra Kuvshynova and Oksana Baulina, as well as the near-death of journalists Anastasia Stanko and Anastasia Volkova.
Nonetheless, women are typically expected to continue in their traditional care-taker roles. Footage showing women cooking, sewing, and delivering help to soldiers on the frontlines has become common.
Despite the importance of roles and responsibilities women have played in the conflict, men are the principal decision-makers and the bulk of armed-personals. And women are just viewed as victims in the fight which has also diminished their agency and contributions.
Representation of women
The vast majority of those fighting in the war are males, and they are the only ones who have participated and sat at the negotiating table to work out the details of a future peace agreement. Only two women participated in the 2014 Minsk 1 and 2 accords, one as a Ukrainian humanitarian ambassador and the other as a negotiating expert for Ukraine. Participation in these negotiations was also prohibited for non-governmental organisations for women and other local community leaders.
The current Russia-Ukraine peace talks began mere days after the Russian incursion in February, but have been repeatedly postponed. While the resumption of peace talks is questionable, the absence of women is conspicuous.
In addition, Ukraine only has one female cabinet minister: Maryna Lazebna, Minister of Social Policy.
Many barriers prevent women from fully participating in peace processes, including a lack of official government policy or laws to ensure their participation.
Laws and Policies
Both the Russian Federation and Ukraine have signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), as well as other significant international human rights documents that apply in both war and peace. According to the law, civilians and civilian installations must be protected by all participants to any conflict, whether State or non-State. It also includes a commitment to protect women and girls from discrimination and abuse, as well as to provide access to life-saving resources in times of crisis, such as sexual and reproductive health services and commodities.
Ukraine is also signatory of Resolution 1325 which codified women’s equal participation, full involvement and increased role in decision-making in matters of peace and security. However, it must be noted that these conventions are non-binding.
On June 20, the Ukrainian Parliament also enacted a bill ratifying the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic abuse. The convention is the most comprehensive international treaty aimed at establishing legally enforceable standards for European countries in the prevention, protection, and punishment of gender-based violence. It, like all human rights accords, applies throughout times of armed conflict.
In response to concerns about violence against women and girls during the conflict, the treaty commits the government to provide justice to victims of sexual and other gender-based violence, including rape. Importantly, it establishes defined criteria for a victim-centered approach, which alleviates stress and suffering for survivors of abuse. It also has a significant impact on domestic violence, which usually intensifies during or after armed conflict as physical, emotional, and economic difficulties rise and social support networks dissolve. Ukraine already had laws on domestic violence but the punishment was very meagre. Since 2003, domestic violence has become an administrative offence in Ukraine, punishable by a fine, up to 60 hours of community service, or up to 15 days in prison. Then, in 2019, systemic domestic violence was criminalised, which meant that criminal charges would only be filed if the abuser committed three offences in a year. The Istanbul Convention, on the other hand, imposes harsher punishment on offenders of gender violence, which encourages victims to seek justice.
The International Criminal Court’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) is already actively looking into crimes committed during the Ukraine-Russian War that fall under its purview. According to the Rome Statute, sexual assault constitutes a crime against humanity and a war crime (Article 8(2)(b)(xxii) and Article 7(1)(g) respectively). The ICC must look into and pursue these crimes because of how widespread and severe they are. Now that this strategy has been established, the ICC and OTP may use it to hold Russian soldiers accountable for raping Ukrainian women.
The gendered component of war-crimes must be highlighted in any prosecution, and conviction and sentencing must reflect this. Furthermore, the long-term physical and mental health effects of rape on victims should be considered an aggravating factor in rape punishment and compensation. Additionally, women should also be represented in peace negotiations for better peace processes.
To conclude, we can say that with the war, women face different consequences and increased roles and responsibility. But despite these additional roles and responsibilities and double-brunt of war, women are not represented in negotiating table. The international laws for the protection and representation of women are also non-binding which further diminishes the importance of women’s agency.
Therefore, the need of the hour is to apply a gender-lens to see how this conflict affects women and girls and to work together to find solutions through negotiations and peaceful means and by involving women at peace tables, and at the same time include expert investigations to punish those involved in gender-based violence.
[Photo by UN Women/Aurel Obreja]
Liza Gupta is a second year Master’s student in international relations at O.P. Jindal Global University, India. Her research area includes Gender studies, Kashmir issue and Pakistan. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.