La Strada Hotlines provide assistance to victims and survivors of CRSV

In Ukraine, robust resources have been set up to assist those affected by conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), and the La Strada-Ukraine hotlines actively contribute to this effort. Today, we’re joined by Alyona KRYVULYAK, the Director of the Department of National Hotlines and Social Assistance at CSO La Strada-Ukraine.

– How often do people reach out to your hotlines?

– CSO La Strada-Ukraine operates two hotlines. The National Hotline focuses on preventing domestic violence, human trafficking, and gender discrimination. Most inquiries are from adults, with 77% coming from women and 23% from men, according to our statistics.

In the past year, we received 38,472 inquiries;19,393 inquiries were recorded in the first half of 2023 alone. While domestic violence is a prevalent issue, we also address cases of gender discrimination and non-domestic violence.

We also run a National Hotline for children and youth. As the name suggests, it is designed for children, teenagers, and university students. In 2022, it received 178,637 inquiries, marking its highest engagement since 2013.

For the first half of 2023, we received just over 60,000 inquiries. These inquiries are different than from previous years, underscoring the importance of deep psychological consultations and mental health support for children, teenagers, and university students. For example, when they struggle with fear, anxiety, and loneliness, experience panic attacks, resort to self-harm, or have suicidal thoughts.

How often do survivors of CRSV contact you?

– We’ve been tracking such statistics since 2014 when Russia began taking control of our country’s territories. The number of reports intensified after the large-scale aggression by the Russian Federation. Since 24 February 2022, we have received 69 reports of conflict-related sexual violence.

While this number may appear relatively small compared to overall hotline statistics, it is crucial to recognize that the topic of CRSV is more taboo and concealed than, for instance, domestic violence or sexual harassment in the workplace or educational institutions.

How do your consultants identify individuals affected by CRSV?

– The situations vary significantly. For example, we’ve handled four cases involving boys who have experienced CRSV. They communicated independently and openly shared their experiences.

There were also two cases involving adult men. One openly shared the experience he had undergone, while the other, returning from occupation, initially requested only humanitarian aid and social benefits. However, he stressed the importance of obtaining medical assistance, particularly in a confidential capacity. Further communication revealed that he had been sexually assaulted by Russian occupiers.

Throughout the full-scale war, we received requests for assistance from 19 girls who had experienced CRSV. Some were upfront about being victims or witnessing such abuse right from the start, while others took time to find the courage to talk about their experiences. They often showed an interest in psychological support, sharing their challenges, the difficulties of leaving the occupied areas, and even thoughts of suicide. In-depth conversations enabled us to recognize that these girls had been directly or indirectly affected by CRSV.

We received 44 CRSV-related inquiries from women aged 18 and above. Among them, only five openly shared their experiences, detailing incidents of rape, sexual humiliation, and harm to their genital organs. Other women approached the topic more subtly, hinting at their experiences indirectly.

A woman called and said that she saw no purpose in her life anymore, contemplating suicide, and the only thing preventing her was the thought of her three-year-old son. As we continued talking, she shared that she had been gang-raped by Russian soldiers, and her three-year-old son had witnessed that.

Which areas do you typically receive CRSV-related calls from?

–  The majority of calls come from liberated areas of Kyiv region, such as Bucha, Makariv, Borodianka, and Brovary districts. There were also calls from Kherson, when the city was under occupation and also later from the areas that after were liberated. Women living in the occupied areas of Zaporizhzhia region, especially in Melitopol and Berdyansk, reach out to seek counseling and support. We also received calls and correspondence from liberated areas in Kharkiv region, mostly from the town of Izuim. We were contacted by people from Chernihiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk regions. We have had women calling from the occupied city of Mariupol to report that they experienced CRSV and express concern about the significant risk that this situation could persist.

What is the present trend: are more survivors survivors of CRSV seeking assistance through hotlines?

– Currently, there has been a decrease in the number of inquiries. When Kyiv region was liberated, there were significantly more reports. However, it is worth noting that even now we continue to receive inquiries from women who experienced sexual violence during the occupation of specific areas in the capital region. Some have taken a year to be ready to talk about it, while others may take five years or even longer. Hence, we expect to continue receiving similar inquiries for an extended period.

Sometimes friends or acquaintances of survivors reach out to report cases of CRSV. For example, a woman shared her experience with a close friend, who then reached out to us for advice on how to help and communicate effectively with the survivor. Some reports came from family members, including instances where teenage children shared their parents’ experiences or, conversely, parents called to talk about their children who were sexually abused by Russian soldiers.

When survivors of CRSV reach out to hotlines, what types of assistance do they typically require?

– The majority of individuals seek information on medical assistance, explore relocation possibilities to other regions or countries, enquire about financial benefits or housing.

Both female and male survivors of CRSV inquire about relocation, as their present surroundings serve as a constant reminder of the experiences they endured. Neighbors or fellow villagers often gossip, occasionally even blaming survivors, implying that louder protests or stronger resistance could have prevented mistreatment. Instances have been reported where civilians impose a sense of guilt on the survivor. Any reasonable person should understand that in such circumstances, as in any other violent situation, sexual assault is never the fault of the survivor.

– How challenging is it for hotline consultants to communicate with individuals affected by CRSV?

– When the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine, we were generally prepared to work with this category of survivors. Our prior experience with similar cases dating back to 2014 enabled us to foresee the probability of war crimes, including CRSV, committed by Russian soldiers.

Our consultants continuously improve their skills through legal and psychological training, especially in international matters. This is very helpful during their work.

The La Strada-Ukraine experts have created CRSV online courses on the Prometheus platform, which are compulsory for all our consultants. We also maintain strong connections with our international partners. Experts from abroad provide training and webinars for our consultants on supporting CRSV survivors, sharing insights from their experiences in countries with a history of war and war crimes.

We carry out regular supervision sessions and interviews with our consultants to support them in preventing professional burnout while working on hotlines. Communicating with survivors can present emotional and psychological challenges. These sessions also involve discussions of difficult CRSV cases, enabling us to brainstorm and improve existing algorithms based on practical experience.

Our experts provide CRSV training to other NGOs and government representatives. If a hotline consultant encounters a challenging question related to CRSV, they can always seek additional consultation from our experts.

 – When engaging with individuals, do you take into account their age and gender?

– We recognize that each person responds uniquely to their experiences. For example, communicating with male survivors of sexual violence committed by Russian soldiers can be psychologically challenging, because men are generally more reserved in reporting such crimes compared to women. Counseling children presents its own set of challenges, as they often find it difficult to cope with traumatic events. Teenagers, in particular, may incline towards self-hatred and self-harm and even contemplate suicide as a solution. Therefore, all these factors should be considered.

CRSV survivors often require specific assistance, including medical, psychological, legal, and other forms of support. Are there established partnerships with professionals and organizations capable of providing such services, to which you can refer survivors for help?

– Certainly, we partner with government institutions, international organizations, and the civil society sector in Ukraine. We also collaborate with civil society and international organizations globally. For instance, if a Ukrainian woman who has experienced CRSV in another country reaches out to us and is unsure where to seek assistance abroad, we refer her to our local partners for support.

Similarly, in Ukraine, the hotline doesn’t provide medical assistance, but we maintain a database of partner organisations operating in different regions. This enables us to refer survivors for medical assistance, comprehensive therapy, humanitarian aid and financial support.

What guidance do the “La Strada” hotline consultants offer to survivors of CRSV?

– First and foremost, we recommend survivors to find a safe place, taking into account the potential need to prevent the recurrence of the crime or, in some cases, to save their lives.

After that, they should seek medical assistance by calling 103. Healthcare institutions should document physical injuries and assess the health condition of victims. We also advise survivors to report the crime to relevant authorities, including the National Police of Ukraine (by calling 102), the prosecutor’s office (details available at https://gp.gov.ua/ua/posts/sajti-oblasnih-prokuratur) and the military administration in the area where the crime took place or where the survivor is located.

We recommend diligently documenting the crime, whenever feasible, using photographs and videos. If there are witnesses to the crime, capturing their testimonies is important.

If survivors need psychological and legal assistance, they are encouraged to reach out to the Free Legal Aid Hotline (0 800 213 103 or www.legalaid.gov.ua) and the Government Hotline (1547 or www.1547.ukc.gov.ua). Our hotlines also offer similar services.

Survivors of CRSV in the temporarily occupied territories can contact the competent authorities of Ukraine, including reporting the crime to the General Prosecutor’s Office via hotline for crimes committed during the armed conflict – (096) 755-02-40 (Viber, WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal) and via email at  conflict2022.ua@gmail.com (if information is sent by email, it is necessary to provide full name and contact details).

Where do you get funding?

– Currently, our main partners and donors are international organizations. Specifically, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in collaboration with the Government of Japan, provides funding for the National Hotline for children and youth. The National Hotline for preventing domestic violence, human trafficking, and gender discrimination is funded by the United Nations Population Fund. We sincerely appreciate there vital assistance.

What support do you receive from the Government?

– With regard to the National Hotline for preventing domestic violence, human trafficking, and gender discrimination, Government Commissioner for Gender Policy Kateryna Levchenko herself or members of her office are often involved in responding to calls and providing expert consultations. Those wishing to speak with the government representative are welcome to reach out to us.

Furthermore, the Government Commissioner and her team provide training to our consultants, ensuring they have a comprehensive understanding of the government’s initiatives to assist survivors of CRSV and the public support services available to them. The exchange of professional insights and expert viewpoints from government representatives is crucial to equip our consultants with extensive knowledge, encompassing not only the civil society initiatives but also the government’s involvement in this realm.

What communication channels do survivors of CRSV typically use?

– Most often, people reach out to us online via texts, accounting for around 80% of all inquiries, whereas phone conversations represent about 20% of inquiries. This pattern is intentional, as many CRSV survivors find it more comfortable to share their stories in writing before engaging in verbal conversations.

For the National Hotline for children and youth, you can call either 0 800 500 225 or the toll-free short number 116 111, available on all mobile phones. Alternatively, you can use our online channels: Facebook – @childhotline.ukraine, Instagram – childhotline_ua, or Telegram – CHL116111. This hotline operates 24/7.

To contact the National Hotline for preventing domestic violence, human trafficking, and gender discrimination, you can dial the toll-free numbers 0 800 500 335 or 116 123, accessible from all mobile phones, or reach out through electronic channels – Skype @lastrada-ukraine, Facebook @lastradaukraine, Instagram @lastradaukraine, Telegram – NHL116123, or via email at hotline@la-strada.org.ua. This hotline operates 24/7 as well.

Hotlines provide widespread coverage across Ukraine, enabling individuals in active conflict zones to access support, provided they have active mobile data or internet access. This extends to residents of temporarily occupied territories. While Ukrainian mobile operators are not currently available in these areas, online communication channels and social networks remain accessible. Additionally, consultations, including voice consultations, can be facilitated through social media.

Ukrainians living abroad can contact us through social networks by texting or calling. They often may not be proficient in foreign languages, finding it more comfortable to share emotional and social issues and access free consultations in their native language.

Although there are organizations abroad providing consultations to our fellow citizens, individuals may encounter situations where not all psychological and legal assistance is offered free of charge.

How is it perceived if a person wants to report a case of CRSV anonymously?

– Both our hotlines operate on the principles of anonymity and confidentiality. We do not have access to the caller’s phone number, and we do not gather or require any personal information. While a person may choose to reveal their identity and share personal details, we do not use this information in any way. Only if a person explicitly requests a specific action or engagement with a particular organisation, an official request is necessary for our organisation to intervene.

We can see the nicknames of social media users, but we do not use them anywhere. If someone has reservations about this, they can create an entirely new profile solely for receiving our consultations, without disclosing their existing social network profile.

 

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.