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Sexual violence as a war crime of the occupiers

We discuss sexual violence as a war crime with Khrystyna Kit, a lawyer, human rights activist, co-founder, and chairwoman of the Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association Jurfem.

Sexual violence as a war crime of the occupiers
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Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

Sexual violence as a «weapon» of the Russians

Khrystyna Kit: The experience of armed conflicts in other countries shows that survivors of sexual violence often begin discussing it many years later—10, 15, even 20 years afterward. This delay is attributed to the trauma these individuals have endured. They are not always immediately prepared to testify about the violence they have experienced.

Russians employ sexual violence as a «weapon.» Officially, such facts and patterns are documented by law enforcement agencies, including the Office of the Prosecutor General and the National Police. On March 26, 2024, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, which detailed the use of sexual violence against civilians and Ukrainian prisoners of war unlawfully detained by Russia. Typically, this entails torture of a sexualized nature, such as the use of electric shocks, the application of electric current to the genitals, or other forms of sexualized violence.

These crimes are perpetrated against both women and men. The intention behind their use is to assert dominance, humiliate, and intimidate. Sexual violence is employed to exert influence not only on the individuals targeted by these acts but also on those who are compelled to witness or hear about such instances of torture. In doing so, perpetrators aim to showcase their power in the occupied territories.

If we analyze the reports of international organizations, we find evidence of sexualized torture and sexual violence against the wives, daughters, and husbands of Ukrainian servicemen and women. This constitutes a clear act of revenge.

Among the victims we represent are volunteers. Additionally, there are women who were discovered with literature on the history of Ukraine or any pro-Ukrainian literature. These individuals were subjected to torture and sexual assault specifically due to their pro-Ukrainian stance.


Read also: How to release journalists-hostages of the Putin regime?


Why Russians use sexual violence?

Khrystyna Kit: The fact that Russians use sexual violence as a weapon doesn’t excuse their despicable actions. They deliberately choose this method of warfare, which is utterly destructive to civilization. It’s not about satisfying sexual desires or attractions; it’s about the complete destruction of an individual, both externally and internally. Moreover, it’s not just about harming a specific individual who has been subjected to this crime. It’s about destabilizing the entire community, eroding societal bonds and connections within Ukrainian society.

Survivors of sexual violence perpetrated by Russian military personnel frequently endure severe consequences for their mental and physical health. However, the most prevalent effects are often self-isolation and alienation from society.

We’ve encountered situations where Russians perpetrated widespread sexual violence in the formerly occupied territories. Specifically, there were instances where they resided in the homes of Ukrainian women for extended periods and subjected these women to rape, coercing them into providing care. Following the de-occupation, these women were left to fend for themselves, as the community completely isolated them. People stopped communicating with them and ceased to trust them.

We cannot afford to isolate the survivors of these crimes from our society. On the contrary, we should support these individuals and help them integrate. The fact that they survived this crime was not their choice. They were not given the opportunity to refuse or defend themselves. Their choice was between life and death.

Sexual violence is a deliberate tactic employed by Russians. It serves to instill fear and intimidation within the local community, fostering a climate of distrust among its members. Ultimately, it aims to completely dismantle our society.


Read also: How the Moscow Mechanism will help release illegally detained civilians


Sexual violence as a crime of genocide

Khrystyna Kit: Sexual violence as a crime of genocide can manifest in various forms. For instance, it may involve the use of measures or actions intended to prevent Ukrainians from having children. For example, Russian military personnel might administer specific medications to ensure that Ukrainian women are unable to conceive. This constitutes deliberate harm to an individual’s reproductive function with the aim of preventing the birth of more Ukrainians.

From a legal standpoint, one form of sexual violence and criminal genocide is forced pregnancy, wherein women are impregnated with the intention of bearing children of a different ethnicity or DNA makeup. This act aims to alter the ethnic composition of a population.

Sexual violence as a form of genocide can indeed occur, but proving it can be a highly complex and time-consuming process.

When discussing the temporary detention centers where civilians illegally imprisoned by the Russians were held, it’s evident that genital mutilation was indeed employed. In the investigation of these crimes, if reproductive disorders are confirmed and it can be demonstrated that these are not isolated incidents but rather part of a systematic approach by the Russians, then we would certainly have grounds to discuss the crime of genocide.


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The least identified forms of sexual violence

Khrystyna Kit: We provide legal assistance not only to women but also to men who have experienced sexual violence at the hands of Russian military personnel. Among our 30 cases, approximately 10 involve male survivors.

These crimes mainly involve the application of electric shocks to the genitals, which constitutes a sexualized form of torture. Victims often endure such torture without immediately recognizing its sexualized nature.

Threats of sexual violence are considered a form of sexual violence too. When an individual is threatened with rape or torture of a sexualized nature, it constitutes a crime, and it’s crucial to recognize this fact.

The least recognized form of sexual violence is forced nudity. Individuals often struggle to identify it as such. For instance, they may recount being coerced to strip naked or perform physical exercises like squats or push-ups. Although they may not label it as rape or torture, it is indeed sexualized violence. Every person who has experienced this has the right to be protected and to receive the necessary assistance.


Read also: Why illegally detained civilians are left without social protection from the state


The taboo nature of the topic

Khrystyna Kit: In most cases, individuals do not proactively approach law enforcement agencies or NGOs to report instances of sexual violence.

The majority of men who have experienced sexual violence have been held in captivity, whether in temporary detention centers or other places of confinement. When they come forward to testify, they often describe their experiences in terms of torture rather than sexual violence. However, through conversations with them, we can discern the sexualized nature of the crimes they endured.

When discussing women who have experienced conflict-related sexual violence perpetrated by Russian military personnel, these are typically women who were not in captivity. Instead, they were forcibly removed from their homes or subjected to rape in various settings, such as forests or checkpoints. Some were assaulted when military personnel purportedly came to their homes under the guise of searching or verifying information.

That is, they were not held captive or in places of detention and were not tortured. These women immediately begin to talk about sexual violence, and they do not want to testify about it on their own initiative to law enforcement agencies. They can start talking about it only after a long period of work with a psychotherapist, psychologist or when they have a trusting relationship with NGOs.

Indeed, it’s often easier for people to discuss torture than to openly address sexual violence. The latter can be more emotionally challenging and may carry greater stigma and shame for survivors. As a result, discussing sexual violence in its purest form can be more difficult for individuals.

Currently, efforts are underway to streamline the process for victims of sexual violence, minimizing their need to interact with multiple specialists or visit various offices for assistance. The aim is to establish a single entry point, a centralized window, where individuals can access comprehensive help and support. This approach ensures that survivors receive the full range of assistance they require from a single source.


Read also: For them, people are a propaganda tool: the story of a civilian hostage Oleh Bohdanov


In times of war, the program «Free our relatives» tells the stories of people, cities, villages, and entire regions that have been captured by Russian invaders. We discuss the war crimes committed by the Kremlin and its troops against the Ukrainian people.

The program is hosted by Ihor Kotelyanets and Anastasia Bagalika.


This publication is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the framework of the Human Rights in Action Program implemented by Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. Opinions, conclusions and recommendations presented in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government. The contents are the responsibility of the authors.

USAID is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID’s work demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience, and advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity. USAID has partnered with Ukraine since 1992, providing more than $9 billion in assistance. USAID’s current strategic priorities include strengthening democracy and good governance, promoting economic development and energy security, improving health care systems, and mitigating the effects of the conflict in the east.

For additional information about USAID in Ukraine, please call USAID’s Development Outreach and Communications Office at: +38 (044) 521-5753. You may also visit our website: http://www.usaid.gov/ukraine or our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/USAIDUkraine.

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