- The full-scale invasion has been having a detrimental effect on women’s mental, physical and sexual and reproductive health
- Concerns raised over sexual and gender-based violence
- Women must have proactive role in decision-making processes
As Russia’s full-scale invasion against Ukraine enters its second year, women in the country face grave risks, an increased burden of caring responsibilities and immense stress and hardships when living in war zones, Amnesty International said today, as the world marks International Women’s Day.
“Time and time again, women bear the brunt of war’s brutality. They are consistently on the frontlines of conflict – as soldiers and fighters, doctors and nurses, volunteers, peace activists, carers for their communities and families, internally displaced people, refugees, and too often as victims and survivors,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
“Russia’s full-scale invasion in Ukraine is no different. Women confront increased sexual and gender-based violence and perilous health conditions, while being forced to make life and death survival decisions for their families. At the same time, women are often excluded from the decision-making processes and their rights and needs remain unprotected and unmet.”
Amnesty International urges the international community to support and stand in solidarity with the women suffering human rights violations amid Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. Ensuring the safety and security of civilians, in particular those caught up in the war zones, as well as access to financial aid and services including healthcare, is of crucial importance during times of war. Simultaneously, the perpetrators of crimes under international law must be held to account.
Amnesty International has been documenting war crimes and likely crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine and has gathered harrowing testimony from women in Ukraine detailing the impact of the invasion on their safety, health and well-being.
‘There is no one to take care of them but me’
While many women in Ukraine have joined the resistance to Russian aggression, very often caregiving responsibilities for children and family members fall disproportionately on women. Managing these caregiving responsibilities is especially difficult in the perilous conditions of the conflict.
Tamara*, a woman living in the conflict zone in Donetsk Oblast, told Amnesty International how the invasion has impacted her as a mother and caregiver for her parents: “All changed for the worse. Men [from the family] are at war, women are left alone, many with small children on their backs without any income. There is no help — no physical help, no financial aid.”
Forced to choose between abandoning her parents and keeping her children safe, Tamara faced an impossible decision.
“I came back to the danger zone with my kids. Maybe I did wrong. But I need to take care of my kids and my older parents [were] left at home — this is my duty. There is no one to take care of them but me. I have no choice,” she said.
For many women, travelling to safety can carry a devastating emotional and physical toll. Maryna*, an internally displaced person who fled Russia’s occupation of Donetsk Oblast with her children, told Amnesty International:
“It is very hard. I am alone, and I have three children. Nobody believed that war would come. It was a shock, and it was terrifying. There was heavy fighting around, and we heard all of that. Russian military aircraft were flying so low that we could see the eyes of the pilots — it affected children a lot.
“Since that day, we lived in a basement for almost a month because the children were really scared. My daughter could no longer sleep in the house. My kids are facing severe mental and emotional distress. Generally, there is no place you can feel safe, because of the shelling and air raid alerts,” she said.
Invasion has been having a detrimental effect on women’s mental, physical and sexual and reproductive health
Russia’s sustained attacks on critical civilian infrastructure, which amount to war crimes, have gravely undermined access to healthcare for those living in Ukraine.
Kateryna*, an internally displaced woman who was nine weeks pregnant and living in Donetsk Oblast when the invasion began, told Amnesty International: “I did not know what would happen to us. There were rumours about evacuation and doctors leaving. I could not do the ultrasound and all the tests. There simply was no access. That was adding to the anxiety and emotional tension.”
After fleeing to Dnipro, Kateryna was faced with ongoing difficulties in trying to cope with a newborn baby while working in a conflict zone: “[The] front-line is moving closer to our city. Uncertainty is the most terrifying aspect. Where will you be tomorrow? Will you be able to come home? I lack psychological help and because of a small child, I do not have enough time to talk with a psychologist, even by phone. But I feel that I need it.”
For menstruating women and girls, limited supplies and increased prices for menstruation management products are forcing them to choose between food and sanitary products.
“There are pads and tampons for sale, but because of the troubles with finances, I need to choose whether I buy food or pads. After the start of the full-scale invasion, I use improvised means,” Tamara said.
Yulia*, whose home was destroyed by Russian air strikes, told Amnesty International that she was able to a collect menstrual products for her and her daughter at a support centre for internally displaced people.
Increase in sexual and gender-based violence
Gender-based violence is aggravated and intensified for those living in the conflict-affected regions for many reasons. These include the lack of security, the absence or erosion of the rule of law, the pervasiveness of impunity for the perpetrators, and lack of trust in the occupying authorities, as well as the stigma attached to disclosing experiences of sexual and gender-based violence.
Maryna*, a humanitarian worker, told Amnesty International: “Sexual abuse is a huge problem for women. I participated in training, and we were told that there were cases when children, [also], after the evacuation showed signs of having experienced sexual abuse.”
While working at an assembly point for internally displaced people, Maryna witnessed escalations of domestic violence: “There were 60 people living in a gym. I was working on this issue before but even without my experience, [signs of violence] can be seen with the naked eye. I saw a lot of it there.”
Kateryna told Amnesty International: “I feel more vulnerable now. There are more conflicts at home. My husband’s aggression spilled out on me and my elder child. I cannot leave my children with my husband because of the uncertainty throughout the day. He lost his job and now my husband is overwhelmed with emotion and nerves.”
For Tamara these reports of sexual and gender-based violence are very concerning as a mother: “I constantly hear about violence, and it scares me. I have daughters, it is really terrifying. I sent my older children to study in a safe zone but I still worry about them.
Include women in decision-making processes
Women must be able to proactively participate in decision-making processes at all levels to ensure their specific needs and perspectives are reflected and met in laws, policies, and practices.
As this full-scale invasion enters its second year, children are spending their formative years growing up amid a brutal invasion, while women are forced to endure difficult and dangerous journeys to safety, while simultaneously managing an increased burden of care.
Amnesty International is calling for a concerted effort by the international community to ensure women’s meaningful participation in decision-making processes, from international deliberations on financial support, reparations, and reconstruction efforts to the provision of humanitarian aid and justice processes for victims and survivors of Russia’s full-scale war of aggression. Only through inclusion of women at all levels can we ensure women’s needs are met, sustained and prioritized, and women’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.
*Names changed to protect identity.