Esther DINGEMANS: We view CRSV cases through the eyes of the survivors

Addressing CRSV cases from the perspective of the survivors is an approach employed by the Global Survivors Fund. Representatives of this Fund collaborate closely with the Government of Ukraine and civil society organisations to provide survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) with immediate interim reparations and implement a comprehensive reparations program. These topics were discussed in a special interview with Esther DINGEMANS, the Executive Director of the Fund.

Please chare about the history of the Fund and its main activities.

– The Global Survivors Fund was founded in 2019 by two Nobel Peace Prize laureates: Dr Denis Mukwege, a world-renowned Congolese gynecologist known for helping women survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nadia Murad, an Iraqi human rights activist of Yazidi descent who endured three months of torture by ISIS before escaping captivity. Together, they brought to life the idea of supporting survivors of conflict-related sexual violence worldwide.

We operate in nearly 20 countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Nepal, South Sudan, Myanmar, Gambia, among others, but our work varies depending on the location. In some countries, we advocate for survivors’ rights, pushing governments to offer reparations. In ten other countries, we partner with civil society organisations to implement projects providing survivors with immediate interim reparations.

The effectiveness of our efforts greatly relies on the willingness of government institutions in different countries to actively support survivors of CRSV and pay reparations. Unfortunately, many issues remain unresolved because not all governments have established comprehensive programs to support survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in their journey towards recovery, well-being, and development. However, as we carry out various aid initiatives, we witness remarkable and significant changes in the lives of female survivors. Once marginalized and abandoned by society, they are now undergoing profound transformations, emerging as leaders in their communities, thriving as businesswomen, and shaping of their own futures. Witnessing such remarkable transformations is incredibly inspiring and motivates us to persist in our efforts.

What motivated the Global Survivors Fund to be among the first international organisations to respond to the issue of CRSV in Ukraine at the beginning of the full-scale armed invasion by Russia?

– We initiated our collaboration with Ukraine earlier, operating from abroad to advocate for reparations for survivors of sexual violence in cases spanning from 2014 to 2017. We partnered with several civil society organisations and courageous activists who shared their personal experiences.

Following the full-scale invasion in February 2022, new survivors of conflict-related sexual violence came forward, publicly disclosing such crimes with factual evidence. In March 2022, Government Commissioner for Gender Policy Kateryna Levchenko approached Dr Denis Mukwege and his team to discuss the provision of specialized support for addressing CRSV cases amid the ongoing conflict. (Note: Ukrainian peacekeeper Inna Zavorotko, previously stationed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, facilitated this collaboration.) With increasing media coverage of CRSV cases and sexual violence reports, we recognised the urgency of going to Ukraine and taking action. So, we arrived in Ukraine in April last year at the invitation of the Government Commissioner and with the support of the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, Olha Stefanyshyna.

During that challenging period in Ukraine, were you feeling afraid?

– I saw an opportunity to help the survivors, and it was crucial to take action. While I may not have felt afraid, my commitment to supporting those who had endured violence was stronger than any personal concerns. However, I was deeply shocked by the sight of Kyiv’s eerily empty streets. This was shortly after the events in Bucha, where destruction and devastation were widespread on the outskirts of the capital.

However, amidst these difficulties the difficulties, Ukrainian officials were resolute in their commitment to helping people overcome challenges. They worked tirelessly towards this goal. Meanwhile, reports from the military informed about the return of war hostages from Russian captivity, sharing harrowing stories of their experiences. Many non-governmental organisations received urgent pleas for help. Together with government representatives and civil society, we visited these affected communities and conducted interviews. The horrifying stories of atrocities we heard deeply affected us. Local residents shared storied of witnessing or hearing about horrific incidents, such as hiding their young daughters behind sacks of potatoes in root cellars to protect them from Russian soldiers and keep them safe.

Were you surprised by the high number of sexual violence cases perpetrated by Russian combatants? How does this compare to situations in other countries?

– Talking about numbers can be tricky because they vary from one country to another. In Ukraine, there are many areas under temporary occupation and frontlines areas where people are hesitant to engage with Ukrainian authorities. As a result, the real number of unreported cases is likely higher than what we are currently aware of.

People who have experienced such traumas often keep their experiences hidden, sometimes only disclosing years after peace has been restored. In Kosovo, for instance, only 1,450 cases of rape and sexual violence were officially reported. However, our assessments suggest that the actual number of victims could be as high as 20,000.

In countries like Congo, the reported instances of sexual violence fall between 200 to 500, yet the real numbers may surpass these estimates by hundreds. In Ukraine, I anticipate the count to be significantly higher – possibly reaching into the thousands. However, what remains consistent across all these conflicts and wars is that CRSV is the systematic occurrence of CRSV, serving as a widespread atrocity and a weapon of war.

The mission of the Global Survivors Fund is to enhance access to reparations for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence around the globe. How important is this for CRSV survivors experiencing severe emotional stress?

– The core of reparations involves two critical components. Firstly, it is recognition of the status. It is essential for survivors to be formally recognised as survivors of violations, affirming that they are not responsible for their suffering, they are still human beings, and they deserve dignity and respect.

The second aspect involves helping individuals rebuild their shattered lives and regain stability. After such traumatic events, people often drop out of school, lose their jobs, and are abandoned by their families, facing isolation. Our crucial task is to bring these individuals back to normal life and restore their self-esteem.

When considering reparations, how viable are they in Ukraine, given the ongoing conflict and its adverse economic impact?

– Reparations encompass an official component, financial restitution, and we hope that survivors will eventually receive it. This restitution may come in various forms, such as life insurance benefits or state pensions, serving as a tangible acknowledgment of their suffering. While it is important for them to receive compensation for the harm they have endured, we recognise that this process may take time. The expectation is that Russia will have to pay. However, this depends on favourable conditions and the Ukrainian government’s ability to appropriate Russian assets seized and frozen abroad. Additionally, it depends on whether these funds will be allocated to compensation. Although a significant portion of these resources will be essential for Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction efforts, it is important for the Government of Ukraine to allocate a portion of these funds to compensate for the moral and material damages suffered by survivors of CRSV.

This is about the future. What are we doing now? We are launching a pilot initiative focused on advocating for immediate interim reparations for CRSV survivors. This responsibility lies with the Government of Ukraine. If Russia fails to fulfill its obligations, the international community may step in. Our current focus is on kickstarting the process of paying these reparations.

– Who will fund the interim reparations?

– International donors. But it is important for the Government of Ukraine to show commitment to advocating for the rights of survivors. This might involve providing financial assistance or implementing appropriate social welfare programs.

There is growing discussion about the frozen assets of Russian billionaires, but Western experts are encountering hurdles in accessing these resources. One potential solution being considered is the sale of Abramovich’s football club Chelsea. The proceeds from the sale, currently held in the UK, offer promising prospects for humanitarian assistance, particularly in Ukraine. A portion of these funds may go towards compensating victims of sexual violence.

How do various countries handle the issue of children born of CRSV?

– Their lives are very challenging. In Congo, they called ‘snake children’ or ‘vipers’, while in Nigeria, they are called ‘Boko Haram children’ after the terrorist group that perpetrated sexual assaults on women. It is heartbreaking to see these children. Typically, these children are rejected even before they are born, with their mothers often not wanting them to be born. This underscores the importance of the initiatives where psychologists begin working with expectant mothers to build a strong bond between mother and child. Psychologists help create a narrative that the mother can share with her child upon its birth. This leads to positive outcomes; we observe these children growing up to be kind and smart, excelling in school, and enjoying similar psychological well-being to their peers.

Discussing these matters openly is the first step toward addressing this problem. I recently participated in a large event arranged by the First Lady of Ukraine, where she openly addressed the international community, acknowledging the possibility of children being born in Ukraine because of these sexual crimes. I believe this courageous act of addressing such issues by a prominent leader represents a significant breakthrough. We expect that there will be more good in the lives of these children, ensuring they do not bear the burden of something that occurred through no fault of their own.

What are the peculiarities of addressing CRSV in Ukraine?

– I haven’t seen any other country where the government takes responsibility to assist those affected even amidst conflict. If this is happening, it could lead to significant progress in this area. Such approaches should be adopted globally.

Why do you think Russian combatants resort to sexual violence?

– In other countries, there are also numerous instances of sexual violence perpetrated by regular military forces. For instance, in Syria, such acts of sexual violence occur frequently, even in officially sanctioned detention facilities, let alone the unlawful detention sites for civilians or military personnel.

When this happens, several considerations come into play. Is CRSV directly ordered by officers and higher-ranking officials? It is challenging to determine. Similarly, determining if these acts are perpetrated voluntarily by individuals without orders adds another layer of complexity.

When reflecting on events such as Bucha, I learned about a situation involving a well-known brigade that was later commended in Moscow for their actions there. They were rewarded for what they did in Bucha. It is evident that their commanders turned a blind eye to the atrocities and even praised them. So, it is quite clear who is accountable for this. When we hear about instances of rape, targeting both young children and elderly women, along with cases of sexual harassment, it is about inflicting the maximum harm possible. I describe this as mass destruction.

I am not a legal expert to define the crime of genocide and its interpretation in this scenario accurately. However, when survivors of CRSV share how Russian soldiers targeted them based on their ethnic background, nationality, or support for the Ukrainian government, it raises concerns that align with certain aspects of genocide.

Legal experts argue that an act of genocide must have intent, a strategic plan, and a systematic element. From the viewpoint of the survivors who have endured these atrocities, they describe the perpetrators as targeting the entire nation through them.

These methods resemble practices from the Middle Ages

– In various countries, we continue to witness behaviors echoing those of medieval times, particularly regarding violence against women by men. Being conquered often leads to being treated as possessions rather than as fellow humans.

Similar atrocities occurred in Iraq with ISIS where female population was taken captive, and markets for human trafficking were set up. Women and girls were forced into slavery. You could witness these heartbreaking scenes on the streets, with ISIS fighters touching them, lifting their clothes, and even bargaining. This deeply concerns me because it shows that humanity has not moved beyond the barbarian Dark Ages.

On the other hand, the global community is adamant that such actions cannot be ignored. Today, all eyes are on Russia. It is evident – the Russian Federation is breaking established customs and rules of warfare, as evidenced by numerous reports. Holding them accountable for these violations is paramount. This indicates progress and raises hope that those responsible will face consequences in due course.

There is substantial support for Ukraine from the international community in addressing and responding to CRSV. What is driving this support?

– First and foremost, the severity of this issue demands support. Usually, such concerns are pushed to the sidelines, but in this instance, they are taking priority. Since the start of the full-scale war, survivors of CRSV from 2014-2015 have been vocal about their experiences. Additionally, there are individuals genuinely committed to addressing these challenges. Together, they are drawing the attention of the global community to the current situation in Ukraine.

As mentioned earlier, we approach CRSV cases from the perspective of the survivors. Sometimes it feels like no matter how much effort is put into addressing this issue, it is just a drop in the ocean. How many perpetrators have been held accountable? Sadly, not many. Yet, there remains hope that Ukraine will lead by example in the global fight against such crimes in the future because here these matters will be pursued relentlessly until justice is served.

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.