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  • Writer's pictureSu Lee

The Rise of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in the Russia-Ukraine War

Natalya lived in a village just outside of Kyiv with her husband and four-year-old son when the war first broke out in February. Russian soldiers took control of the region, shot her husband, and repeatedly raped her while her son was crying in the boiler room. Human Rights Watch confirmed her story after receiving several photographs of the injuries she sustained during the assault. There are undoubtedly thousands of women and girls like her, who are in the blind spots of law during a brutal and relentless war. The Russian-Ukraine war has quickly escalated with reports of war crimes perpetrated by Russian forces. These crimes include acts such as willful killing, torture, inhumane detention, rape, and other forms of sexual violence. Dmitri S.Peskov, the press secretary for the Kremlin, has continued to deny any allegation of war crimes, calling reports –including Natalya’s story –a lie.

On March 13, Russian soldiers in the Kharkiv region entered a school that was being used as a shelter for Ukrainian refugees. One of the Russian soldiers forced 31-year-old Olha to come to an empty classroom and then proceeded to rape her. The young soldier told her that she reminded him of a girl he went to school with. When she refused to go back to the basement because she didn’t want her five-year-old daughter to see her, he cut her neck and raped her again.

Photo by Mikhail Palinchak of dead naked women (at least 4) under a blanket in Bucha, Ukraine. Evidence of rape in the recent Ukraine war.

The Kremlin’s continuous denial of these heinous war crimes is further discredited by the existing cases of sexual violence during Russia’s military operations in Ukraine since 2014. Gayde Rizaeva was part of a group delivering supplies to Ukrainian forces when the conflict first began in March 2014 in Ukraine’s Donbas region. During one of Rizaeva’s deliveries, a pro-Russian separatist group seized her and her coworkers. The group detained her and beat her so hard that she suffered a miscarriage, and although she was spared from further abuse, she witnessed the male captives being raped with batons. The 2017 Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found “The majority of cases documented by OHCHR illustrate that sexual violence has been used as a method of torture and ill-treatment in the context of detention related to the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, as well as in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.” Most frequent were cases of electrocution of genitals, forced nudity, threats of rape, and rape. In the same report, a woman who was detained on conflict-related charges recounts of her captors, “he told me that if I refused to write, they would bring my minor daughter in and will make me watch how they taken turns one after another to rape her. After that I filled in eight pages with the text which the man dictated to me.”

Russian forces have frequently used sexual violence as a tool of torture, but also as a method to embarrass, subjugate, and decrease Ukrainian's willingness to fight. In 2014, Iryana Dovhan was a beautician in Donetsk when she was accused and detained by Russian separatists on false charges of being a spy. She was repeatedly beaten and threatened to be raped. They even found images of her 15-year-old daughter and threatened to bring her in and gang-rape her. In this picture that went viral, Dovhan was tied to a pole with a Ukrainian flag draped around her. Multiple passersby kicked and abused her.

Image of Iryana Dovhan tied to a pole with a placard that reads, “I am a spy and a child killer.”

While some may say that these war crimes are perpetrated by individual soldiers, under article 28 of the Rome Statute, military commanders and superiors are responsible if they “either knew or should have known that the forces were committing or about to commit such crimes” and if they “failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress their commission.” Thus, under the principle of command responsibility, Russian superior officers are liable for the individual crimes of soldiers.

One reason for the concerning escalation of sexual violence in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied regions is the use of sexual violence as a bonding mechanism for soldiers who are often conscripted or foreign. As Ukrainian forces have been able to fend off Russian military assaults, the war has dragged on longer than the Kremlin had expected. The use of gang rape and sexual violence have often been used to help improve morale and create a “perverse means of socialization within combat units,” says Austin Doctor, the Director of Counterterrorism Research Initiatives at National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center (NCITE).

Ukraine’s previous reluctance to formally join the International Criminal Court has created gaps between the country’s national framework and international frameworks regarding sexual violence and war crimes. Although Russia is not a member of the ICC and therefore not bound to its laws, formally adopting ICC provisions and procedures will help Ukraine create more established mechanisms to investigate and enforce laws regarding sexual violence and update its severely outdated legislation about sexual violence. For example, Ukraine needs to update its definitions of rape. The criminal code deems rape as forced sexual intercourse between individuals of the opposite sex, which fails to consider the prevalence of male victims of sexual violence.

One of the main reasons Ukraine has had a hard time prosecuting sexual violence since the conflict began in 2014 is because of the extremely restrictive criteria for forensic evidence that is admissible in court. The immune-biological test must be conducted within 72 hours of the assault, and victims have to undergo a forensic examination to prove that the act was coerced. The strict restrictions on the types of evidence that can be used in court make it hard for victims to even stand in court. Considering that the incidents of conflict-related sexual violence occur in war zones that lack law enforcement and medical services, it is nearly impossible for victims to be able to meet the criteria to submit forensic evidence. Courts should consider evidence beyond such forensic examination and consider victim and witness testimonies, physical evidence, and psychiatric evaluations. In addition to the collection of forensic evidence, experts and investigators from all over the world must be sent to collect different types of evidence of war crimes.

The impunity for sexual violence since 2014 has led to a brutal and ongoing cycle of violence against vulnerable populations in the current Ukraine war. Sexual violence is a tool of torture to extract false testimonies, to subjugate and crush the wills of people fighting a tenuous war, and to instill fear in communities to prevent retaliation in Russian occupied territories. While it is truly difficult to investigate and prove war crimes, especially sexual violence in conflict, perhaps Ukraine, with its proximity to European courts and investigators, access to international NGOs, and brave victims who come forward and testify, may be able to collect enough evidence, arrest perpetrators, and end the culture of impunity for sexual violence that exists in the Russian armed forces.


La Strade Ukraine, an organization that helps victims of domestic violence, gender-based violence, and human trafficking in Ukraine.

Donate to organizations providing medical services such as SunFlowers of Peace

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