Kateryna LEVCHENKO: Empathy and support are what make us human and distinguish us from Russian aggressors

We are here today with Dr. Kateryna LEVCHENKO, the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy, Doctor of Law, and Professor, to talk about the development and implementation of state policies addressing conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) and assisting those affected by Russian aggression.

The Russian aggression has caused profound sorrow, resulting in the loss of civilian and military lives, widespread destruction, and suffering for Ukraine and its people. Among the various war crimes committed by Russians, sexual violence has emerged as a weapon of war. What strategies can be implemented to address and overcome this issue?

– The challenges posed by sexual violence perpetrated by Russians are vast and affect both individuals and the state as a whole. Swift responses, survivor assistance, crime documentation, and long-term support are imperative.

CRSV is currently relatively under-reported This is due to both survivors’ distrust in law enforcement and the trauma associated with revisiting these experiences. Identifying and self-identifying these crimes pose additional hurdles.

Refining interaction algorithms among entities providing assistance at both national and local levels is essential. The Criminal Code should be amended to single out sexual violence among the spectrum of war crimes.

There are other matters requiring attention. Indeed, the Government, in collaboration with its partners, has initiated information campaigns to raise awareness of this form of violence. Therefore, formulating state policy in this domain is a logical response to these challenges.

The distinctive aspect of the Ukrainian situation lies in the resilience of its government system during wartime, not only enduring but functioning fully throughout this period (excluding temporarily occupied territories). It is adept at responding to the current circumstances and formulating strategic decisions. This instills confidence in its capacity to address various issues, such as aiding those affected and holding criminals accountable.

The international community provides significant support in this endeavor. Notably, countries with firsthand experience of war and crimes against their citizens, including sexual violence—examples being the geographically proximate Balkan countries like Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.

This includes international organizations, among which the UN holds a prominent place.

Over the past years and currently, there have been several complaints raised in Ukraine and other countries regarding the bureaucratic UN system and its inefficiency in addressing security challenges. In fact, there has been a lack of response to the aggressive policies of the Russian Federation, impacting not only its immediate neighbors like Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine but also other regions, including Syria. Has this affected Ukraine’s ability to receive assistance?

– Ukraine identifies itself as a part of the global system of relations founded on international law, documents, and principles primarily established during the creation of the UN. This is what sets up apart from Russia, the state that seeks to shape the global order according to its own flawed rules and interests, appropriating the achievements of other countries and nations. Ukraine aligns itself with the civilized world and garners its support.

Today, the UN remains the single platform uniting all countries. When communicating information about the situation in Ukraine, we should leverage this platform. Thus, we aim for fostering effective and constructive collaboration with this international institution, encompassing various agencies and units.

I can’t disregard the position of Ukraine’s Representative to the UN Serhiy Kyslytsia who has emphasized on multiple occasions that if Ukraine turns back on the United Nations, the organization would not lose much. However, in such a scenario, Ukraine would lose a platform to communicate with 190 countries worldwide.

Let me quote him directly, “The UN is not just the building in New York, nor is it a secretariat hired to implement the decisions of member countries. The UN is a union of governments and peoples of practically every nation on Earth. Therefore, UN agencies are expected to implement decisions of these governments and consider the expectations of peoples, including Ukrainians”.

Our government, along with civil society organizations, collaborate with UN agencies to ensure that decision-makers understand the actual situation in Ukraine, guiding their conclusions, documents, activities, and assistance based on current realities.

We also place a strong emphasis on engagement with regional organizations such as the European Union, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, etc. Effectively leveraging all available platforms, both multilateral and bilateral, is crucial to disseminate information about Ukraine, address the needs of our citizens, shed light on the crimes committed by Russia, and emphasize the need for comprehensive support for our country. The more relevant information and advocacy the international community possesses, the more substantial assistance it can provide to us.

How does collaboration with the UN address the consequences of war crimes perpetrated by the Russian Federation in Ukraine, specifically with regard to sexual violence? How is this collaboration executed?

– Towards the end of March and the beginning of April 2022, as liberated areas of the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions were reclaimed, distressing reports emerged about mass killings, torture, and rape by Russian military personnel against local residents. These reports were not only documented by law enforcement agencies but also warranted a response from the international community.

A systematic approach commenced with the swift development of doctrinal documents. On 3 May 2022, a jointly crafted Framework of Cooperation between the Government of Ukraine and the United Nations on the Prevention and Response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence was signed. Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Olha STEFANISHYNA signed on behalf of Ukraine, and Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila PATTEN signed on behalf of the UN.

This document encompasses 16 tasks consolidated into 5 areas:

  • Monitoring conflict-related trafficking in persons for the purposes of sexual exploitation.
  • Providing assistance to individuals affected by conflict-related sexual violence.
  • Access to justice and accountability.
  • Strengthening the capacity of the security and defense sector to prevent conflict-related sexual violence.
  • Reparations and compensation.

Importantly, this roadmap serves not only the Government of Ukraine and the United Nations but also all our partners. Donors consult it when deciding where to allocate funds. The document is publicly available and can be accessed through the following link: https://www.stoprapenow.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/20220503-FoC_Ukraine_SIGNED.pdf .

What were the subsequent steps in implementing this Framework of Cooperation?

–  On 25 May 2022, the Interagency Working Group (IAWG) on Combating Sexual Violence Related to Russia’s Armed Aggression against Ukraine and Assistance to the Survivors was established. I am directly involved in the efforts, serving as the chair of IAWG.

The IAWG includes MPs, representatives of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, the Office of the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy, central executive authorities, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the National Police, the State Emergency Service, the State Migration Service, the Ministry of Defense, the Office of the Prosecutor General, the Security Service of Ukraine, the Ministry of Health, as well as representatives from international and civil society organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, UNFPA, UN Women, International Organization for Migration, UNICEF, Council of Europe, European Union Advisory Mission, Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation, Global Survivors Fund, CSO “Women’s Information Consultative Center”, Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association “JurFem”, CSO La Strada-Ukraine, Ukrainian Women’s Fund, PACT Ukraine, Center for Economic Recovery, CSO “Innovative Social Solutions”, Women’s Network of Survivors of Sexual Violence “SEMA-Ukraine”, Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, PROTECT Project, and others.

This strong representation greatly contributes to the overall efforts.

I would like to specifically highlight the process of updating the second National Action Plan for the Implementation of UNSCR 1325 “Women, Peace, and Security”. Initially adopted by the government in 2020, the Action Plan required revision due to unprecedented security challenges arising from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Women, Peace, and Security agenda remains relevant for many countries. Through collaborative efforts between the government and civil society, amendments to the Plan were formulated and approved on 16 December 2022 by the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine (https://www.kmu.gov.ua/npas/pro-vnesennia-zmin-do-rozporiadzhennia-kabinetu-ministriv-ukrainy-vid-28-zhovtnia-2020-r-s1150-161222 ).

In collaboration with the Office of Pramila PATTEN, a decision was made and implemented to develop the Implementation Plan for the Framework of Cooperation. The plan was approved by the Commission for Coordination of Interaction of Executive Authorities on Ensuring Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women and Men (https://www.kmu.gov.ua/news/vidbulasia-koordynatsiina-narada-v-ramkakh-pidhotovky-uchasti-ofitsiinoi-delehatsii-uriadu-ukrainy-v-67-ii-sesii-komisii-zi-stanovyshcha-zhinok). It has been presented at the UN, is currently underway, and its first mid-year progress review has been prepared.

Such meticulous and timely planning facilitates more efficient utilization of resources, identifies gaps and shortcomings, and establishes coordination and interaction among various entities to assist survivors and hold perpetrators accountable.

Before Russia launched its large-scale aggression, Ukraine did not possess the knowledge and expertise to address CRSV. Have we since ensured that a sufficient number of qualified professionals are now trained for this task?  

– This is an important question. Before I respond, I’d like to emphasize that Russian soldiers have resorted to sexual violence against Ukrainian citizens since the onset of the war in 2014. Violence, particularly against women, and domestic violence are fundamental features of the traditional spiritual bonds among Russians, referred to as the “Russian world”. Brutality constitutes an essential element of the Russian imperial mindset, permeating the entire population of the Russian Federation. The extreme manifestations of cruelty by this Russian ‘collective Chikatilo’ cannot be justified by any military imperatives.

Let us acknowledge that many of our citizens, brainwashed by the false ideology of ‘friendship among brotherly nations’, were not prepared to perceive Russian brutality as systematic, organized actions, not only approved and encouraged by the Russian military and political leaders but also supported by the general public. They justified it as merely unintentional, subjective behavior of individual occupiers, which is evident in rhetorical questions like ‘How can this be possible?, why are they acting in this way? etc. Recall the intercepted conversations between Russian soldiers in Ukraine and their loved ones back home, where they relish and tolerate atrocities and killings, revealing a deep-seated hatred for everything Ukrainian.

Therefore, in conducting information campaigns and training, we must consider these ideological principles inherent in Russian policy, mentality, and actions.

Personnel training is an integral part of the state policy we are implementing. I can say that we now have trained professionals – investigators, prosecutors, social workers, lawyers, and experts from local authorities and civil society organizations.

Numerous training programs were developed and implemented throughout the past year. Initially, they were mostly introductory, focusing on raising awareness about the existence of such a problem, explaining its specifics, and teaching effective communication with those affected by war crimes. The Prosecutor Training Center, the National Academy of the Security Service of Ukraine, the National Academy of Internal Affairs, the National School of Judges of Ukraine, the National Agency of Ukraine on Civil Service, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the National Social Service of Ukraine have been actively involved in these efforts. The training initiatives were carried out in collaboration with international and civil society organizations.

The Information and Advisory Women’s Center, in partnership with the Office of the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy, organised and provided training sessions for nearly 2,000 representatives of liberated communities in the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kherson, and Kharkiv regions between September 2022 and January 2023.

The Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association “JurFem”, in collaboration with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, provided training for over 300 lawyers, representatives of civil society organizations, and law enforcement officers.

UN Women, together with DCAF and the Information and Consultative Women’s Center, provided training for police officers from all regions of Ukraine. There are many other examples.

It’s important to note that law enforcement officers have demonstrated responsiveness to the CRSV issue. This sensitivity arises not only from the imperative to solve crimes committed by Russian aggressors. It has been built up through previous training, which equipped them with substantial experience in championing human rights, promoting gender equality, and combating gender-based violence. During that period, a vital cohort of professionals was formed to include advisors, representatives of responsible units, and government officials, who understand the significance of incorporating gender perspectives into their work.

We now shift our focus to specialized training, incorporating accumulated experience, lessons learned, and feedback from survivors.

This approach is being implemented by all partners involved in the RESILIENT TOGETHER: Improving the system of response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) Project, operating across 14 regions with the aim of localizing state policies.

Localization involves training local professionals, both men and women. It should be noted that many survivors of CRSV reside in towns and villages and require appropriate services.

As part of the project, we hold meetings with all partners on the local level, including regional military administrations, local authorities, civil society and international organizations, media, and educational institutions.

We operate both online and offline. Recent events were held in the cities of Kropyvnytskyi, Zaporizhzhia, and Dnipro, accommodating 50-60 people at physical venues, with an additional 20-30 representatives of local communities joining remotely each time. We have become accustomed to operating in this format.

Which global organizations were the initial responders to the widespread reports of CRSV from the liberated Ukrainian territories?

– The first international organizations to visit the liberated territories of northern Ukraine were representatives of the Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation and the Global Survivors Fund, founded by Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Dr Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad. I extend special gratitude to them for their partnership. The Dr Mukwege Foundation supports survivors’ demands for a world where sexual violence as a weapon of war is no longer tolerated and bears consequences for individual perpetrators and states – a stance aligning with Ukraine’s position.

The Global Survivors Fund focuses on reparations for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, including in Ukraine.

Survivors of war-related sexual violence need to know they are not alone in their pain. However, many find it challenging to share their experiences openly.

– The state policy we are discussing aims to ensure survivors receive the necessary assistance and know that they are not alone in their struggles. We believe that, with support and trust in themselves and those providing assistance, they can contribute to achieving justice. Engaging with law enforcement should follow once survivors receive all the necessary support and assistance, as restoring justice and holding perpetrators accountable are crucial, and survivors play a significant role here. Reporting facts helps prevent impunity for criminals. However, assistance comes first and foremost.

An open society is emerging in Ukraine, marked by a compassion-focused approach to each person and their challenges. Every survivor has unique needs that require tailored assistance. It’s crucial to remain compassionate; being human means showing empathy and support. This is what sets us apart from Russian invaders who take pleasure from the suffering of others.

– Ukraine is gaining significant experience in addressing diverse challenges brought about by the war instigated by Russia. Will this experience contribute to establishing Ukraine as a significant player in the international arena in the future

– Let’s recall past discussions claiming that Ukraine was considered uninteresting, merely an object of politics exploited by others. However, Ukraine is now asserting itself as a political player. Through our experience and examples, we demonstrate today what is effective and what is not. Our legal professionals are actively advocating for amendments to various conventions, including the Geneva Conventions. Our women’s organizations stress the importance of updating Resolution 1325 and international documents concerning sexual violence, offering a unique vision shaped by the unprecedented nature of the war Russia is waging in Ukraine — something unseen since World War II.

Global collective security is currently facing a crisis, which is widely discussed. I think part of this stems from the fact that no women were involved in its formation, leading to a lack of consideration for their interests, experiences, and needs. All population groups should be represented in this system.

Indeed, Ukraine makes a significant contribution through its active women’s movement, women’s participation, and female diplomacy. It’s important to note that during the initial phase of the large-scale Russian aggression, Ukrainian delegations to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe were predominantly composed of women, because men of conscription age were banned from leaving the country under martial law in force at that time. Our women politicians played a crucial role in ensuring that all pro-Ukrainian resolutions ere adopted there.

Olena Zelenska is actively engaged in the international arena, rallying countries and organizations in support of Ukraine. Our Vice Prime Ministers, ministers, government officials, and ambassadors are also channeling their efforts towards this goal.

Leaders of civil society organizations such as La Strada-Ukraine and the Ukrainian Women’s Fund spoke online at the UN Security Council last year, marking an unprecedented occurrence. I am honored to speak at the UN Security Council on 7 March this year.

Ukraine commands a significant presence in the global arena with a compelling voice. It is equally important to ensure that the voices of those affected are heard and recognized at the national level!


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.

Інші матеріали про відповідь України на сексуальне насильство, пов'язане з війною: