Natalia KARBOWSKA: “We must become a support for those affected by conflict-related sexual violence”

Today, Ukraine is working on establishing an effective system to address conflict-related sexual violence.

We are here today with Natalia KARBOWSKA, Director of Strategic Development at the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, to discuss the efforts involved.

– “The first time I learned about a specific case of such violence was not from official channels, social media, or television”, Ms. Natalia began. “A colleague from a partner organization reached out, informing us that a neighbor of an individual who had suffered violence from Russian military during the occupation of the Kyiv region had sought help. The victim was hesitant to speak out, and the neighbor was looking for ways to assist.

At that time, handling such cases was uncharted territory. Ukraine lacked experience in addressing the complexities of hybrid warfare, particularly in responding to sexual violence committed by aggressors. Women’s groups and civil organizations, including us at the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, were among the first to respond to such cases. We delved into discussions, studied the experiences of countries like Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina which had similar experiences, and increased collaboration with government agencies, local authorities, and international organizations to find common solutions.

Out of this effort, the project “Resilient Together: Improving the System of Response to War-Related Sexual Violence (WRSV)” emerged and is currently being implemented by our organization.

Why has war-related sexual violence become such a significant challenge?

– First, it involves a weapon that Russian aggressors use to subdue occupied communities. They employ both modern technologies and medieval methods in this war. Unfortunately, experience shows that these methods work effectively for the aggressor, causing people to close off and live in fear. It’s not an isolated incident; it’s a widespread issue. Until we establish a system to address and combat this, we cannot fully resist this weapon.

What does an effective response system to war-related sexual violence involve?

– It’s a complex issue, and our project contributes to resolving it. It is crucial to hear the voices of those affected by sexual violence committed by the Russian military, accurately document their stories and ensure all responsible parties are held accountable.

Public institutions and civil society must provide support for those affected by war-related sexual violence. An effective response system would encompass medical, psychological, and social support, while also holding the guilty accountable and compensating for the harm caused. I hope Ukraine won’t face delays in reparations, similar to what happened in Balkan countries where reparations began to be paid 25 years after the war ended.

One of our project goals is to assist professionals in learning from international experiences. Currently, with our support, two groups of specialists are gaining practical insights—one group has just returned from Switzerland, where they studied urgent interim reparations, and another group, including Ukrainian judges, has visited Croatia to discuss pre-trial investigations of war-related sexual violence crimes. Education and information dissemination are crucial aspects of our work.

Crimes committed by Russian aggressors are meticulously documented. How does the project contribute to this work?

– Documenting crimes and providing assistance to survivors are interconnected. Law enforcement agencies are primarily responsible for documenting crimes. It’s crucial that the affected individuals themselves come forward and are willing to testify. War-related sexual violence is uniquely latent, often causing victims to remain silent. Civil society organizations, particularly women’s groups, work with these individuals, providing support to help them find comfort and share their experiences. At a national level, La Strada-Ukraine and the Association of Women Lawyers of Ukraine (JurFem), our partners in this project, are actively engaged. Moreover, numerous regional organizations directly offer services to the victims at the local level. Civil organizations like SEMA-Ukraine bring together people who have experienced war-related sexual violence, contributing valuable insights.

My involvement with individuals who first stepped in to help survivors traces back to the Kyiv region, and currently, there is a growing awareness of cases in the Kherson region. Local civil society organizations report numerous instances where individuals, including men, have not only faced sexual assault but various forms of sexual violence by occupiers. However, severe trauma makes it difficult for survivors to share their pain with official institutions, government officials, and even law enforcement. In this context, informal communication with civil organizations proves to be more effective. Our assistance to survivors ultimately contributes to the continuous documentation of crimes committed by Russian aggressors.

Do civil organizations have sufficient experience and resources to handle this work? How does the media come into play?

– For the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, civil organizations play a crucial role. They are often the first to identify cases of war-related sexual violence and provide initial assistance to the survivors. Strengthening their work, especially at the local level, is a key priority of the Project. While national policies and systems may exist, but we believe they are successful only if proven effective on the local level.

We also collaborate with the media. The media plays a significant role in documenting cases of sexual violence and raising public awareness of this issue. We rely on the media to inform people about available assistance for survivors and how to access it. However, it is crucial that news stories are sensitive and do not harm the survivors.

We will conduct interdisciplinary training for civil organizations, representatives of local authorities, healthcare institutions, and law enforcement agencies. Additionally, we’ll extend invitations to media professionals to join these training sessions.

Who else is involved in implementing the Project?

– The Project is based on the Coalition 1325 network, established in 14 regions of Ukraine, bringing together representatives of local authorities and non-governmental organizations. These regions include Kyiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Kirovohrad, Odesa, Khmelnytskyi, Rivne, and Lviv.

Resolution 1325 refers to the UN Security Council Resolution on “Women, Peace, and Security”, recognizing the increasing role of women in conflict resolution. Often, it is their voices that can be decisive in achieving peace and post-war recovery. Coalitions 1325 actively promote this agenda.

War-related sexual violence is one of the five strategic goals of the Ukrainian National Action Plan 1325. This garners institutional support from the state, which significantly aids our partners at the local level. Some regions may not fully comprehend the relevance and importance of the issue, particularly those unaffected by occupation or located at a considerable distance from ongoing combat. Sometimes, local officials claim that the issue doesn’t concern them, as it is not relevant to their area. We have to remind them that the problem doesn’t concern them because they are not paying attention. Many women and men affected by war-related sexual violence have moved to the western and northern regions of Ukraine. However, since there is no proper support system in place there, they often do not seek assistance.

Hence, another objective of the Project is to help establish such systems in different regions of Ukraine.

The government helps address issues requiring systematic solutions and political backing. We collaborate with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, led by Olga Stefanishyna, and consistently receive support from the Office of the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy, headed by Kateryna Levchenko Our collaborative efforts extend to include the Ministry of Social Policy, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, the National Police, etc.

Furthermore, we have initiated a partnership with the National School of Judges, aiming for systemic solutions. Our goal is to integrate the training module developed in collaboration with La Strada-Ukraine into the judicial education system. We also actively engage with the broader legal community, including both male and female lawyers. Notably, our partnership extends to the Association of Women Lawyers (JurFem), with whom we work directly to assist survivors.

The Ukrainian Women’s Fund primarily contributes by coordinating and supporting civil society organizations working with survivors.

– How do international donor organizations contribute to addressing war-related sexual violence?

– The first instances of war-related sexual violence began emerging after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, escalating significantly with the widespread Russian aggression in 2022. In response, the European Union promptly stepped in to address this issue, and our Project is currently funded by the EU.

We’ve maintained a productive and long-standing partnership with the UNFPA. Through joint initiatives, we set up points and offices within healthcare institutions where survivors of war-related sexual violence and domestic violence can seek medical assistance.

Our Project is implemented in collaboration with the UNFPA, ensuring that information about essential assistance is readily available to the public. We often come across situations where well-equipped medical facilities are operational, but the victims are unaware of them and, therefore, cannot access the services.

Additionally, our partnerships with the Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation and the Global Survivors Fund, both of which have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Ukraine, contribute significantly to our network. Through this collaboration, we are able to organise study trips focusing on reparations for survivors. Hence, these robust international organisations actively contribute to addressing the issue of war-related sexual violence in Ukraine.

Could the Ukrainian experience in addressing war-related sexual violence potentially serve as a foundation for improving international documents related to this issue?

– Ukraine adopted its first National Action Plan for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 “Women, Peace, and Security” in 2016 amidst the Russian aggression, and updated it after the full-scale Russian invasion started. Supported by the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, the corresponding regional action plans were also updated in the 14 regions of Ukraine where Coalitions 1325 operates.

During the 67th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women held in March this year, the Ukrainian delegation emphasized that the experience of Ukraine, Afghanistan, and other countries has revealed that the global security system is outdated and ineffective for both women and men, as well as for states in general. It is high time for a change, and I believe the focus on sexual violence during wartime, the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, and Ukraine’s unique experiences in this matter should serve as a catalyst to overhaul the global security system.


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.

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