More than two million Ukrainians have left their country since Russia invaded. A steady stream of refugees cross the border in hopes of escaping the war. While men between the ages of 18 and 60 are no longer allowed to leave the country and are called to take up arms, many women and young girls are forced to cross the border alone. For them, in the midst of bombing and fighting, a more insidious risk creeps in: that of sexual assault.
On the occasion of International Women’s Rights Day, the NGO CARE warns about the dramatic situations of these women and the associated risks of exploitation and violence. Ninja Taprogge works for the NGO CARE. She spent three days on the border between Poland and Ukraine, then several days in refugee shelters. “We have seen many women with children and young girls who travel alone (or) women are very vulnerable in these situations,” emphasizes the spokesperson for the international association.
In the event of conflict, “women become even more vulnerable”
At the same time, Marija Pejcinovic Buric, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, called on Monday for greater attention to be paid to women and girls who, “as they try to escape conflict, become even more vulnerable, threatened by violence, assault and rape”. that unfortunately all conflicts have in common, but that in the Ukrainian situation where men are called to fight to defend their country is even greater.
“I visited a shelter with 2,000 beds. They were all huddled together, there was no safe place for women. They cannot go unnoticed,” explains Ninja Taprogge.
“A breeding ground for the exploiters of man”
Non-mixing, which protects women from attack, is rarely considered urgently. “Wars crystallize the reality we find in times of peace, protecting women is not the first thing that comes to mind,” emphasizes Elodie Jauneau, historian who specializes in issues related to war and gender equality.
In precarious and emergency situations, refugee women are also more vulnerable to attackers. “Gatherings of precarious populations are a breeding ground for the exploiters of people,” explains Elodie Jauneau, confirming that war is a “huge field of opportunities for the worst practices.” These places where “women’s disorder and emptiness are absolute” are “a playroom” for the wicked, the historian illustrates.
‘Getting in the car with a stranger entails risks’
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, many popular support initiatives have been taken. Donations, volunteer work, organization of collections, etc. “I see many good deeds, of solidarity”, explains Ninja Taprogge. This does not exclude the risks. Refugees entering Poland are welcomed and waiting for buses to go to a reception center. They then stay there for a few days and then wait for new buses to go to the major Polish cities.
In this regard, Ninja Taprogge reports that many anonymous people offer to drive refugees to cities for free. “Yesterday I spoke to two sisters in their twenties. They came from Kharkov and stood in front of the reception center where men with placards offered to take refugees to major cities. But getting in a car with a stranger entails risks,” she emphasizes.
The urgency to survive
“Most people are probably honest and benevolent, but some see it as an opportunity,” analyzes historian Elodie Jauneau, who is “certain” that attacks will occur. Rape and assault are “behaviours inherent in the practice of war,” she recalls. However, these phenomena are always analyzed with a delay. In times of peace, women often denounce the rapes they suffer long after, and in times of war this tendency is exacerbated. The urgency to survive, to protect your children, invades and crushes everything else.
The risks of rape and assault are also high for those who have remained in Ukraine. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said cases of rape by Russian soldiers have been reported in several cities in the country.
If these facts are not proven, wartime sex crimes are common. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we discover a massive phenomenon of army rape within three weeks or three months,” sighs Elodie Jauneau, citing historical examples, most notably the rapes of US soldiers on French women during Liberation of Human Trafficking in Libya.
“More and more support needed”
In anticipation of a phenomenon that will only speak its name in the long term, the associations are trying to set up prevention at the borders. “We need more communication, information at borders and in shelters so that women are aware of the situation. When you’re on the run from war, it’s not the first thing you think about and that’s normal,” said Ninja Taprogge.
The NGO CARE is working to convey these ideas to improve the reception of Ukrainian women. Especially as the violence of the conflict increases: “At the borders we see more and more haggard people, shocked by what they have seen, who will need more and more support in the coming days, weeks and months.”