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Bodies and fields : Ukraine and the continuing story of war rapes

  • July 14, 2022





by Lana Van Langendonc*


In some sense, sexual violence is ‘what war is all about’” - Kerry F. Crawford.

The most recent headlines about the conflict in Ukraine have marked eyes and hearts alike. Whether it be the New York Times, the Guardian, or Le Monde (amongst others), news coming from the front lines are now shifting from classic security, strategy and policy dissection towards shocking narratives of Ukrainians - especially women - being raped by Russian soldiers. Some outlets were rather rapid in blaming the Russian army of “weaponizing rape”, which implies the widespread and systematic use of rape as a direct tactic of war, or as part of an official policy. Various actors of the international sphere have warned against the expeditious use of terms such as “weapon of war” and “war crimes”. Matilda Bogner, the head of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, said “no evidence of the systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war” has been found until now. Nevertheless, growing reports of sexual violence on Ukrainian territory are surfacing. What will happen with those charges ?

As developed in my previous editorial concerning the gendered aspects of the war in Ukraine, the governance of this contemporary conflict by national authorities reveals deeply rooted notions of what (binary) gender interpretation entails in warfare : men should be fighting, women should be caring. As underlined by Denis Mukwege, a prominent Congolese gynecologist and women’s rights advocate : “at every stage [of war], the politicians, strategists, commanders and soldiers are men”. 


What women bear

Women's experience of war and conflict is different. (...) [they]are hardly mentioned, except as collateral damage. - Denis Mukwege.

Conflicts have historically been marked by great amounts of sexual violence. The “comfort women” system implemented by Japanese forces before and during World War II or the mass abuses on German women performed by Russian forces in Berlin during the liberation campaign of 1945 are evidence of sexual abuse being instrumented for the purpose of wars.

Of course, the high-profile Bosnian and Rwandese cases are the most tragically famous ones. Both led to a shift into how rape and sexual brutality were perceived and aknowledged in conflict situations. They enabled the official recognition of “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence” in armed conflict as a “crime against humanity”, a “war crime”, or as a component of “genocide” according to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Let us assert one aspect of the very arduous way towards recognition of sexual horrors in conflict-affected environments : visibility for this issue is largely attributable to the work of women’s rights advocates. Women brought this issue to the table and continue to fight for its acknowledgement in conflict ecosystems.


But why do they rape?
Various attempts to explain this widespread and common use of rape in armed conflicts have been made. Some cite the goal of ethnic purification or total cultural destruction, notably through the forced impregnation of women. Others raise the interest in gaining control of agriculturally or economically attractive lands through the massive exodus of population following mass rapes, such as raw material mines. The ‘virilist’ lecture of the use of sexual intimidation in war understands “sexual possession [as] the very symbol of strength and the establishment of an

‘essential’ superiority”. In some cases, the understanding of rape as fundamental component of a political strategy takes precedence. This leads to the “weapon-of-war” frame quoted above.


And now ? What is the procedure for Ukrainian rapes ?

Caution : political and judicial time aren’t equivalent - Julian Fernandez.

The singularity of the Ukrainian case lies in the promptness of legal action.

Since the start of the war, Ukraine has mobilized the ‘justice narrative’ by showing great efforts to deploy national justice mechanisms. This “aggressive penal policy”, as quoted by Céline Bardet, prominent international jurist, should be regarded with caution : justice procedures need neutrality - and how is impartiality achieved in a state of active warfare ? 

Moreover, the promptness of the ICC is to be noted : Ukraine has asked help and granted direct territorial access for inquiry procedures. 

To date on June the 3rd, the UN Human Rights Office had received 124 alleged conflict-related sexual acts on the entire Ukrainian territory, including collective rape and forced witnessing of acts perpatrated on family members. But, there are great barriers to verifying reports of sexual violence in conflict-related contexts. Notably, as stated by Ukraine’s general prosecutor, Iryna Venediktova : women are afraid of speaking. Ioulia Sporych, founder of Divtchata organization, highlights the persistence of stereotypes surrounding sexual abuse and rape in Ukraine. As anticipated, “officials say they expect to hear about more cases once victims reach safety”. For now, women’s organizations on the ground (such as La Strada) are the first ones to provide psychological and medical assistance and start the documenting process.

An additional threat to women’s bodies in this case of war lies in the refugee paths towards security. Indeed, the biggest host of Ukrainian refugees, Poland, is a country that prohibits abortion. Ukrainian authorities are currently negotiating - with help from the UN - to reach an agreement that could sidestep national law and enable sexually assaulted pregnant victims to seek abortion and suitable healthcare.


Is the best case scenario for women a trap for Ukraine ? 

As stated above, with every conflict comes a great deal of pain inflicted on civilians, a segment of it through sexual abuse and rape. The Ukrainian case is not absolved of this logic.

Of course, the model unfolding following massive sexual brutality in warfare is total accountability and the condemnation of all responsible perpetrators. The work of national jurisdictions and the inquiry opened by the ICC could bring such an evolution. 

Problem is : the ICC indicts individuals, and “relies on states to bring suspects to court”. The issue is crystal clear : if the use of rape as a weapon of war is confirmed by the court, Russia will never surrender its responsible subjects. Instead, they might capitalize on indictments to reach a peace settlement with Ukraine. And once more, the bodies of civilians - especially women - will have been used and thrown for the purposes of wars “they rarely fight in (...), they almost never [instigate], but the cost [of which is] no less heavy (...)”.


This post is based on the op-ed published in May 2022 in La Libre Belgique : “Ukraine : une géopolitique conservatrice en matière de genre?”. It can be freely accessed here.


Lana Van Langendonck is a graduating student in international studies from the University of Montreal and project manager at the ODPC (Observatoire des Droits de la Personne du CÉRIUM). Her research focuses on the geopolitics of conflicts (specifically in the Maghreb and Mashriq regions), border management and migration (European region), and she endorses a feminist perspective of contemporary international relations.

Contact the author: @LanaLangendonck


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