22 November 2022
By Mavic Cabrera-Balleza*
A hand to hold: Survivors of rape in the war in Ukraine need accompaniment and support
Tetiana Semikop is a retired police colonel from Odesa city. In her 25 years on the police force, she investigated robbery, murder, domestic violence, sexual exploitation and human trafficking cases. Her investigations led to many convictions that sent perpetrators to jail. When she retired in 2011, she founded the Public Movement for Faith, Hope, and Love, a non-governmental organization (NGO) providing support services to women and girls victims of human trafficking and sexual and gender-based violence.
Then, on 24 February 2022, the Russian invasion began. Since the invasion, 120,000 people forcibly displaced from neighboring oblasts (regions) flocked to the Odeska region. The number of cases brought to Tetiana’s organization, particularly rape and other conflict-related sexual violence, is overwhelming. There is also a new and significant task to document the cases and preserve the data so victims can access justice after the war.
While working in their NGO, Tetiana met Olga, a company manager from Kherson city. Olga was captured by Russian soldiers while trying to escape from the occupied Kherson region. In captivity, Olga served as the Russian soldiers’ maid during the day. She cooked for them, washed their clothes, and cleaned their quarters. In the evening, she was their sex slave. She was raped repeatedly by different soldiers.
On 15 November 2022, Tetiana traveled to Krakow, Poland, to attend the training on Accompaniment and Support to Victims and Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and other War Crimes organized by the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) and the Democracy Development Center-Ukraine (DDC). The participants were Ukrainian women peacebuilders, local and national government authorities, and journalists. Civil society representatives from Georgia and Moldova also participated in the training.
The workshop aimed to fill the gap in easily accessible, flexible and sustained support to women survivors of rape, other conflict-related sexual violence and other war crimes against women in Ukraine. The training included sessions on international and national laws, norms, standards and mechanisms for documenting war crimes. It is a trauma-informed approach to establishing multi-disciplinary, community-based victim and survivor-centered support in war crimes documentation.
The training also featured a session on sustained advocacy for the ethical and systematic gathering of survivor testimonies and on access to justice. The Ukrainian women peacebuilders and other participants learned about the Murad Code, a voluntary Global Code of Conduct for Gathering and Using Information about Systematic and Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. They also discussed the groundbreaking Sepur Zarco Case, wherein the Guatemalan court convicted two former military members of sexual violence, sexual slavery and domestic slavery committed against Maya Q’eqchi’ women in and near a military rest outpost in Sepur Zarco during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala.
Following the training, GNWP and its partners like Tetiana will produce a mapping of support services that survivors in local communities need, such as medical and psychosocial counseling services and legal assistance. The mapping will also identify if and where such services exist and how they may be accessed. GNWP and its local civil society partners will also provide humanitarian relief to families of victims and survivors.
Representatives of Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Social Policy, responsible for coordinating the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, participated in the training. This ensures the coordination of efforts in the documentation of war crimes and establishment of a support system for women survivors who wish to testify about the crimes committed against them. The training also guarantees alignment with the Ukrainian Government’s efforts to implement the UN Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security.
UN Women, experts on international criminal law and sexual and gender-based violence as well as feminist researchers on sexual violence crimes during the Bosnian war shared their expertise during the training.
GNWP and its Ukrainian civil society partners will develop and roll out a sustained advocacy strategy for the ethical and systematic gathering of survivor testimonies and access to justice after the training.
Addressing disinformation and fake news in Ukraine, providing factual and timely information to victims and survivors
Cognizant of the widespread problem of disinformation and digital insecurity during the ongoing war in Ukraine, GNWP and DDC also organized a training on Crisis Communications and Digital Security alongside the Accompaniment and Support to Victims and Survivors training.
It equipped the participants with skills to detect and prevent the spread of disinformation and fake news and promote digital security. They also learned skills on how to produce and disseminate timely and factual information on the war in Ukraine and where to access humanitarian support and assistance during the war. At the end of the workshop, the participants developed viable and sustainable local Crisis Communication Strategies that combine online and offline media and platforms.
Tetiana attended the trainings in Krakow to gain more knowledge and improve her organization’s support for women survivors of rape and other war crimes. She thought a lot about Olga while in Krakow. She wanted to be on Olga’s side and to give her a hand to hold.
The Austrian Development Agency and the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation support GNWP’s work on the Accompaniment and Support to Victims and Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and other War Crimes and Crisis Communications and Digital Security.
* Mavic Cabrera-Balleza is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders.