Many of these women were robbed, raped or exploited as they fled the conflict and for many, the danger does not stop once they escape the war. Countless Ukrainian women refugees are at risk of sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking, and exploitation as they head to places of refuge.
The University of Birmingham research was led by Dr Sandra Pertek with Dr Irina Kuznetsova – as part of the SEREDA Project, a research initiative which seeks to understand the incidence and nature of sexual and gender-based violence experienced by women, men and child refugees who have fled the conflict.
The report comes as the UN marks the beginning of its UNiTE campaign – 16 days of activism which aims to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls, raise awareness and engage people in global discussions. The campaign begins on Friday 25th November, which is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Researchers conducted 32 interviews with refugee and internally displaced women, and 14 with national and local service providers in Poland to examine the experiences and awareness of sexual and gender-based violence and trafficking in Poland and Ukraine.
As of October 2022, 6.5 million people have been displaced internally within Ukraine, with a further 7.2 million border crossings from Ukraine to Poland and 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees registered in Poland according to recent figures.
There are multiple systemic failures in the processes dealing with displaced people in both Poland and Ukraine - allowing people to exploit the system and further victimise and traumatise those who have already been through the most difficult of circumstances. Because of this, it is incredibly difficult for those who experience sexual and gender-based violence to report what happened, seek justice and access support.Dr Sandra Pertek, SEREDA Research Fellow
Dr Pertek said: “During our interviews with these women what became apparent was that every single one of them had been subjected to war violence. Some had experienced sexual and gender-based violence before the war, while others had been exposed to different forms of abuse which continued through the conflict, in transit and then once they reached refuge. This encompasses everything from physical, verbal, structural, to emotional and economic violence.”
One of the report’s key findings is the increased military presence in inhabited areas has led to a higher number of sexual and gender-based violence incidents, including conflict-related sexual violence. The rape of women and children by Russian army members was reported as a weapon of war and a tactic to humiliate the Ukrainian nation.
One respondent said: “…I've heard stories about raping of women, girls, and children by Russian servicemen...This is horrible because the Russians use rape as a method of war."
The study also highlights the unaccounted scale of perpetrators taking advantage of the plight of Ukrainian women to commit crimes against them. One woman interviewed for the study said: “A lot of people warned me that women began to disappear, that they began to be robbed, raped in Poland or on the way to Poland.”
Displaced women were sexually harassed and abused during their journey within Ukraine. Some young women were told at roadblocks and checkpoints: "We are not going to let you leave. Pretty women mustn't leave...” This led to a few respondents trying to cover their femininity by wearing loose clothes, and cutting and dying their hair, to try and avoid attracting the attention of male soldiers and civilians.
The groups of people most vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence were unaccompanied children, young women described as ‘beautiful’ or travelling alone, and women with dependents. This risk was exacerbated by social media discourse in which displaced Ukrainian women were objectified and branded as ‘submissive’. In both countries, Poland and Ukraine, some job offers disguised as vacancies within the hospitality sector turned out to be requests for sex services.
Dr Pertek continued: “For many displaced women in Ukraine the danger does not end when they escape the active conflict. From men masquerading as volunteers in order to exploit them, to the social and economic challenges they may face once they reach refuge, either in a different area of Ukraine or in Poland, there is an immense risk to those making the journey.
“There are multiple systemic failures in the processes dealing with displaced people in both Poland and Ukraine - allowing people to exploit the system and further victimise and traumatise those who have already been through the most difficult of circumstances. Because of this, it is incredibly difficult for those who experience sexual and gender-based violence to report what happened, seek justice and access support.”
One representative of an NGO in Poland who was interviewed for the study said: “In Poland we have a problem with underreporting, and Ukraine has a problem of underreporting. And imagine people from Ukraine being refugees in Poland, being further marginalised, further under tons of stress. I would just imagine that the underreporting in that area is going to be massive and we're going to hear just singular stories...”
The study calls for multiple improvements to be made to schemes and organisations which are responsible for protecting and supporting refugees, including gender and trauma sensitivity in the humanitarian, immigration, and asylum systems.
The report goes on to make a series of detailed multi-sectoral recommendations for the central government in Ukraine and Poland, as well as for NGOs, faith-based organisations, campaign and advocacy groups needing to respond to violence and exploitation.
Dr Irina Kuznetsova added: “While there are efforts from the government and international organisations to support the victims of war-related sexual violence, a nuanced approach is needed to tackle domestic violence and gender-based violence in spheres of employment and housing, especially among internally displaced people. The project’s next steps are to develop a step-by-step guideline for victims of GBV in Ukraine together with NGO Convictus.”
- Establishing an adequate and user-friendly registration, verification, and monitoring system to strengthen the protection of refugees. Including running background checks on volunteer drivers, private hosts, and helpers at reception points.
- Ensuring service providers are trained on war trauma and provide trauma-sensitive services for refugees and internally displaced people to reduce risks of re-traumatising victims.
- Developing a comprehensive counter-trafficking response in partnership with the authorities, international organisations and specialist NGOs, and adapt existing anti-trafficking programmes to war conditions and mass displacement.
Dr Pertek concludes: “The outpouring of support for the Ukrainian people in Poland, and indeed across the world, since Russia declared war in February has been incredible. Communities have come together to do what they can and support some of the most vulnerable people in need.
“However, the breadth of the problem of sexual and gender-based violence for those women and children fleeing conflict requires multiple and significant structural improvements. Without this, we will see an already traumatised people, continue to face exploitation and violence which will exacerbate the harm they have faced.”