#minorsextrafficking | We Are Failing Ukrainian Women and Girls When They Need Us Most

As Russian missiles drop on Ukrainian cities and the foreign policy establishment debates providing new missiles to stop them, it is worth taking a moment to consider the accumulating human impacts of this war, especially on women and children.

These televised scenes of violence show it is not just those fighting on the front lines who are suffering, though many women are fighting there as well. Before the start of the war, women made up 22.8 percent of the Ukrainian military and since the February invasion, thousands more have taken up arms and joined the service as volunteers. Over 10,000 women are in direct combat roles.

In the earlier phases of the war, as Russian soldiers invaded cities and villages, sexual violence became a way to assert power over the enemy. Gender dynamics become weapons of war and heighten the risk of sexual and physical violence, rape and other forms of abuse for many Ukrainian women and girls.

There were many examples of these deplorable acts by the hands of Russian soldiers. Lesia Vasylenko, a Ukrainian member of the Parliament, has publicly claimed that Russian troops have raped and abused civilian Ukrainian women, in some cases branding them with swastika-shaped burns before killing them. While all Ukrainians currently have reason to fear for their safety, women and girls face greater risk due to their gender.

Off the battlefield, Ukrainian women also play an essential role in the outcome of the war. Women at home are often the sole caretaker for their families, and due to the conflict, must navigate increasing food and housing instability. Many of these women may not see their husbands, brothers, or sons again as lives are lost in this destructive invasion. These women will have to find sources of income as they are forced to provide for their children alone.

As Ukraine has been in a consistent state of conflict for nine months and counting, violence at home is on the rise as well. A UNFPA study reflects that the percentage of Ukrainian women who report being victims of domestic violence doubles when their partner has directly experienced conflict. Among domestic violence victims, 32 percent say that some of their experiences were related to heightened conflict outside the home. This percentage jumps 7 points when asked about the circumstances surrounding the most serious incidents—in other words, 4 in 10 women experience their most serious instances of domestic violence in times of conflict.

The influx of weapons during the war also elevates the potential risk associated with domestic violence cases. As Pavel Maraev, a volunteer for the Ukraine regional police, explained to me, “Weapons like guns and grenades were not common prior to the invasion,” however, they are easily accessible today. Abusers often obtain weapons that have either been left by Russian invaders or have gotten into the country by other means. This is another way that the war quite literally makes its way into the home, and the outcome for women and children in these situations is often deadly.

A woman sits alone on an evacuation bus after arriving at an evacuation point for people fleeing the Azovstal plant, Mariupol, Melitopol and the surrounding towns under Russian control on May 3, 2022, in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

In the face of such danger, women and children are leaving their homes and seeking refugee status in record numbers. However, there is no promise of safety even if they make it out of the country.

Women and children travel alone through dangerous areas as men must stay in Ukraine to fight. According to the U.S. Department of State, more than 4 million people fled Ukraine in the first five weeks of the invasion alone and millions more were displaced. An estimated 90 percent of these people are women and children. Lack of necessary documents and money, emotional and psychological trauma, and physical exhaustion leave many Ukrainian women and girls with few options.

Even for those not displaced, the war heightens individuals’ risk of violence and trafficking. People living in these conflict zones are especially vulnerable to human trafficking. The traffickers prey on the vulnerable and all too often, they promise a woman who’s desperate that they’ll provide food, shelter, a job, most of all, safety. In fact, the woman may end up sex trafficked in a faraway country.

The world stands with the Ukrainian people as they suffer at the hands of Russia’s invasion and continued attacks. We must also stand with Ukrainian women and girls as the war compounds the gender-based violence and trauma that they face. Even after the war with Russia ends, millions of women and children will remain refugees and susceptible to exploitation, and those at home will grapple with depleted resources and the trauma of a war-torn country. It is imperative that we shed light on this humanitarian crisis and let Ukrainian women and girls know we see them and are here to help.

Mitzi Perdue has led a long and successful career as a businesswoman, author, and activist. With degrees from Harvard University and George Washington University, her experience in advocacy includes serving as president of American Agri-Women, attending the United Nations Conference on Women in Nairobi as a U.S. delegate.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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