Not Growing Weary in Our Efforts to Assist Survivors of CRSV

During a recent interview, Olena SUSLOVA, a prominent human rights activist, gender advocate, founder and senior researcher of the Women’s Information Consultative Center (WICC), emphasized the importance of not growing weary in our efforts to assist survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.

– “Civil society organizations were among the first to respond to the terrible issue of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV),” stated Olena Suslova. “Their proactive approach and mobility have been instrumental. It is evident that the efforts of non-governmental organisations in assisting survivors and enhancing the capacities of governmental agencies have undoubtedly produced positive outcomes.”

– What dynamics have you observed in this work over two years of full-scale Russian aggression?

– I’d like to talk about how the state’s response has evolved, as it directly impacts the work of civil society organisations, which are an integral component of the institutional framework of gender equality.

Indeed, there has been a noticeable shift in how we understand and address CRSV between 2022 and 2023. In 2022, we experienced confusion, limited awareness of the full scope and severity of the issue, disorganised actions, and various shortcomings and mistakes.

One notable shortcoming, particularly concerning civil society and international organisations, was the lack of coordination in documenting CRSV crimes committed by Russian aggressors. At WICC, we proposed various civil organizations that had expressed their intent to commence documentation, and collaborate to ensure a consistent approach. Regrettably, this collaboration did not happen, resulting in negative consequences.

Firstly, there were instances where documented records were duplicated for the same individuals, which only further traumatized the survivors. Furthermore, due to insufficient communication, by the third year of the large-scale Russian invasion into Ukraine, we still lack approximate numbers of CRSV survivors outside of those provided by the Prosecutor General’s Office, which only accounts for survivors who have given official testimonies.

2023 was more organised overall. The government and its collaboration with the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms Pramila Patten, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration and the Secretariat of the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy undoubtedly contributed significantly to this outcome. They have done a lot to enhance coordination in our CRSV action plan.

However, I’d like to emphasize once more the significance of civil society. Civil society organisations, including ours, initiated the revision of the National Action Plan 1325 at the beginning of the Russian invasion. During that period, the Women’s Information Consultative Center conducted monitoring, revealing the timeliness of these revisions.

Despite significant efforts taken in 2023 to address CRSV and mitigate its impact, there is a worrying trend of fatigue in assisting survivors, reflected in a decline in the identification of new CRSV cases. I hope this is a temporary phenomenon challenge, and we all will join efforts to overcome this fatigue.

– In your recent speech, you mentioned the innovative nature of your civil organization’s work. Could you elaborate on what makes it innovative and the outcomes it has achieved?

– Innovation emerges from a blend of theoretical insights, scientific advancements, practical experiences, and lessons learned from both successes and failures. In our work, we always strive to align our actions with globally recognized standards of gender equality while drawing from our own knowledge and expertise.

Take, for example, the Murad Code, the widely acknowledged code of conduct for interacting  with survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Understanding its potential importance for professionals in this field, we meticulously examined its contents. Due to its expansiveness, practitioners frequently face time constraints in fully exploring its contents, leading us to create a practical guide on the Murad Code. When Nobel Prize laureate Nadia Murad visited Ukraine, we had the privilege of presenting this commentary to her. Her positive response was incredibly rewarding.

This practical guide reflects the principles that our organisation has followed for nearly three decades, which we regularly discuss in our training sessions. It represents our extensive experience in assisting survivors and cooperating with government agencies, the security and defense sector to document war crimes.

We have many examples demonstrating our approach.

We encounter challenges when international organisations supporting Ukraine and survivors of aggression bring forth their ideas and practices. Sadly, our civil society organizations or government bodies often neglect to critically assess these proposals, even though some of them are ineffective or inefficient. They proceed with implementation, unaware that each non-constructive action could further complicate the already challenging situation for the survivors.

– You conduct many trainings on CRSV. Who is your target audience? What are the primary areas of focus in your work?

– It is nearly easier to say who we haven’t yet engaged as our audience. Since August 2022, we have engaged with survivors, the security and defense sector, government agencies, civil society organisations, and international organisations. Our audience is remarkably diverse.

We have compiled around 40 cases, which we use in our training sessions to illustrate a survivor-centered approach. Interestingly, while discussing theoretical topics regarding the Murad Code or other things, participants often suggest clear and precise actions. However, when we explore case studies, this clarity sometimes diminishes. This indicates that the challenges encountered in addressing CRSV survivors are inherent to the longstanding issues in supporting victims of traumatic events, including a rigid approach, understaffing, inadequate monitoring, and other overlooked factors, that demand immediate attention.

Our trainings have proven effective in addressing these challenges, inspiring us to strive for broad participation across various sectors.

– You collaborate with the National Academy of the Security Service of Ukraine. What influenced their decision to collaborate, and does this collaboration include addressing CRSV? What hands-on experience do they offer?

– We have been collaborating with the National Academy of the Security Service of Ukraine for nearly a decade, dating back to the onset of the war with Russia. Our partnership originated from our organisation’s focus on national security matters. Our research and advocacy concerning the threat to Ukraine’s national security posed by Russia have been centered around gender-related issues.

Indeed, our research in this area dates back to 2010. With the rise of anti-gender campaigns during Yanukovych’s presidency, the significance of our work gained importance. This attention caught the interest of individuals within the SSU Academy, leading to the establishment of a longstanding institutional partnership.

Following Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, our collaboration with the Security Service of Ukraine intensified, given their leading role in investigating war crimes. Our objective was to support SSU investigators in engaging with survivors and to reassure survivors about engaging with this institution, guiding them to take steps towards overcoming the repercussions of CRSV.

Through collaboration with SSU investigators, our civil organisation created the first Practical guidance leaflets, providing practical guidance for officials dealing with these issues. In partnership with the SSU, we also crafted methodological recommendations that were printed twice and distributed over 20,000 copies in total.

Upon revisiting these recommendations a year later, I found that they are still relevant and up to date. They still offer concise and highly useful advice for users.

– You have extensive experience working with an international audience. How do you communicate information about CRSV in Ukraine to foreign partners, and how do they perceive it? Does this influence their support for our country?

– I serve on the NATO Civil Society Advisory Panel, which was established by the North Atlantic Alliance to address gender-related issues, and I have been collaborating with them for quite some time.

Following the Russian invasion, NATO’s focus on Ukraine has notably increased, particularly under the guidance of Irene Fellin, the Special Representative of the NATO Secretary-General for Women, Peace, and Security, who oversees the Civil Society Advisory Panel. I am very grateful to her and her colleagues for organising special events on the gender implications of the Russian war against Ukraine and for their genuine support.

The extent of CRSV in Ukraine caught many countries by surprise, including NATO members. However, their unanimous perception and assessment of the phenomenon are clear: it is unacceptable and must be condemned alongside its root causes.

This shared position undoubtedly influences their support for Ukraine, which is further shaped by the actions of our government entities in the global arena, our diplomats, individual policymakers, parliamentarians, and even our grassroots diplomatic efforts. It is important that we stand together in our endeavors.

Recently, Ukraine has been a recurring topic during the annual meeting of the NATO Civil Society Advisory Panel, with discussions focusing on CRSV crimes perpetrated by Russian aggressors.

We should understand that even though NATO’s capabilities to counter CRSV and its consequences are limited, keeping individual missions of countries that are most active in assisting Ukraine informed is undeniably vital.

– What is your opinion of the role of Nadia Murad Code in addressing CRSV in Ukraine? How did your civil society organisation promote this Code among both governmental and non-governmental entities, and what were the reasons behind this promotion?                                                      

– Despite the long-standing history of CRSV crime and the Geneva Conventions being in effect for the past 75 years, there has been a scarcity of tools developed by the international community and specific organisations to address these issues comprehensively. While the International Protocol on the documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict developed by the United Kingdom holds significance, it remains unofficial. Certainly, the Guidance Note of the Secretary-General Reparations for Conflict‐Related Sexual Violence is an official document of significance. In this context, the Nadia Murad Code holds particular importance, especially considering its recent emergence.

Following the onset of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, our organisation swiftly introduced new sections on our website, notable one dedicated to CRSV. We promptly added the Ukrainian translation of the Murad Code, although the translation quality may not be the best due to time constraints, as we rushed to make it available to users without the opportunity for thorough editing. However, this aspect is less relevant for the Murad Code, as it is not a legally binding international document.

In essence, the document is both extensive and intricately structured, comprising 10 overarching principles for addressing CRSV survivors, each containing 8-10 sub-principles. However, its significance goes beyond its mere length and complexity. It was written by someone who directly experienced CRSV, endured slavery, torture, and was subjected to the slave market, managing to escape captivity multiple times. Thus, she has a profound understanding and insight into the issue. Primarily, this document establishes a unified approach to engaging with individuals who have suffered severe trauma, bridging a critical gap in global standards. Often, individuals with good intentions may lack the necessary understanding to offer appropriate support to survivors or may unintentionally use inappropriate language.

For instance, terms like ‘victim’ or direct statements such as ‘you were raped’ can trigger distress in survivors, leaving them helpless and exacerbating their emotional, psychological, and physical trauma resulting from CRSV. Hence, we advocate for a shift in language, even within existing international documents that use such terminology.

Why do you think Russians resort to sexual violence in wartime?

– I have no idea because I didn’t have the opportunity to ask those who did it. However, I strongly believe that sexual violence in times of war serves as a weapon of warfare – a means of exerting control, coercion, intimidation, and destruction. Therefore, I advocate redefining conflict-related sexual violence as sexualized violence, as it has nothing to do with sex per see.

Volodymyr DOBROTA,

National Press Club “Ukrainian Perspective”

The material presented herein was prepared as part of the Project “RESILIENT TOGETHER: Improving the system of response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV)”. The Project is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Ukrainian Women Fund in partnership with the Civil Society Organization La Strada-Ukraine” and the Ukrainian Lawyers Association “JurFem”, as well as the Office of the Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine and the Government Commissioner on Gender Equality Policy.