We must help victims of sexual violence in Ukraine

We must help victims of sexual violence in Ukraine

Nine months since the war in Ukraine began, we are increasingly reading reports of alleged war crimes, including sexual violence against women and girls. Sadly, history is repeating itself. Rape and other forms of sexual violence committed by combatants during armed conflict are as old as war itself.

We thus mark this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on a somber note. But the tremendous assistance offered by many of our member-states to millions of forcibly displaced people also gives us hope. The outpouring of support from national and local authorities and individuals is heartening. Out of more than 7 million refugees so far, 90% are women, girls and children, who are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and human trafficking. For those who have already suffered from such crimes, we must redouble our efforts to improve the assistance they are offered. And we should be prepared for future assistance.

Victims face horrible humiliation and a wide range of risks, from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections to psychological and physical trauma. Hospitals and medical doctors need to be equipped to respond to rape as part of a coordinated multi-agency response, and medical and forensic examinations and immediate and longer-term trauma care must be ensured. Refugee survivors of gender-based violence need access to this type of support and counseling in a language they feel comfortable in and understand.

As seen from prior conflicts, specialized counseling will be needed to address enduring trauma to reduce stigma and secondary victimization that can develop over time. Indeed, sexual violence in conflict zones entails both immediate and long-term consequences, as evidenced for example in reports published this month by GREVIO, the Council of Europe’s independent expert body responsible for monitoring implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention.

Victims face horrible humiliation and a wide range of risks, from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections to psychological and physical trauma

According to the UNHCR, women, girls and children are facing the risks of human trafficking, as acknowledged via information obtained from NGOs working with refugees on the ground. In the reports of her fact-finding visits to countries most affected by the massive influx of people from Ukraine, my special representative on migration and refugees has emphasized the need to identify persons in vulnerable situations, especially women and children who have been victims of sexual violence. She also advocated for the need to step up efforts to support refugee victims of sexual violence, in particular by setting up dedicated referral centers offering medical care and trauma support counseling delivered by trained professionals. Following up on the reports, she is currently organizing activities to support member-states in addressing these challenges.

Finally, we must punish perpetrators. The Report of the High-Level Reflection Group of the Council of Europe published last month includes a recommendation to address human rights in areas of conflict by establishing an office to keep the organization up to date with human rights issues. This may include information on cases of sexual violence committed against women and girls resulting from the Russian aggression against Ukraine. In this context, I commend the step taken by the Ukrainian authorities to ratify the Istanbul Convention despite extremely difficult circumstances. This demonstrates their commitment not only to ensure protection and support for victims, but also to ensure much-needed accountability for perpetrators.

That sexual violence in conflict zones is a global challenge is illustrated in contemporary reports of rape threats against female protesters in Iran, for example. Open to countries worldwide, the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention recognizes this violence as a violation of essential human rights, as well as a form of discrimination against women. By providing guidelines to protect victims and punish perpetrators, including in wartime, the Istanbul Convention has become more important than ever, and I encourage countries worldwide to join it.

Marija Pejcinovic Buric is the Council of Europe’s secretary-general.

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