New Initiatives from National Social Service to Support CRSV Survivors

In Ukraine, amidst ongoing Russian aggression, there are 855 services assisting victims, including survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). How can we guarantee the high quality and efficacy of these services? Joining us to delve into this topic is Vasyl LUTSYK, the Head of the National Social Service of Ukraine.

– How does the National Social Service contribute to addressing CRSV and supporting its survivors?

– Since the war began, CRSV has become a pressing issue in Ukraine, yet it remains largely unregulated by law. Our primary focus has been on crafting comprehensive regulatory frameworks to address this issue. In particular, we were involved in drafting the Law On the Status of Survivors of Sexual Violence Associated with the Armed Aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, and Immediate Interim Reparations, submitted to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine by MP Maryna BARDINA. This draft law establishes clear definition of CRSV within the regulatory framework and entrusts the National Social Service with the authority to grant survivor status to those individuals who experienced conflict-related sexual violence.

Additionally, we collect and manage information about CRSV throughout the country and supervise the quality of services provided to survivors. Currently, there are 855 services operating throughout Ukraine to assist survivors of this crime. It is essential to closely monitor their activities, carry out inspections, and offer methodological guidance to ensure that the services provided are of high quality, timely, and effective. Mistakes, such as offering counseling rather than immediate intervention, can happen, posing a serious risk as inadequate assistance may result in adverse consequences, even fatalities, for the survivors.

– How important is it to enhance existing legal frameworks and formulate new legislation in light of the realities of warfare? 

– Today, our main focus is on combating external aggression. However, even in times of war, the state undergoes processes similar to those in times of peace, but with deeper and more complex ramifications. Hence, it is significant to draft laws, particularly those dealing with CRSV. For instance, while “gender-based violence” is widely recognised, Ukrainian laws do not provide a clear definition of this concept. Therefore, the objective of developing new legislation is to harmonize our legal terms with international standards and address the challenges arising from the war.

Many survivors of CRSV currently live in occupied regions, making their identification challenging. However, our goal is to ensure they have clear pathways for assistance. Whether they move from Russian territory or occupied areas to Europe, they should know where to seek assistance and how to obtain survivor status. Similarly, upon returning to Ukraine, they should be informed about available assistance and support services. Achieving this requires relevant amendments to legislation.

– What are the biggest challenges you encounter in providing assistance to survivors of CRSV?

– CRSV is a deeply sensitive and latent crime, profoundly affecting the mental and psychological well-being of survivors. Therefore, our primary focus should be on raising awareness to eliminate any stigma associated with being a victim. It is important to recognise that being a victim is not their fault; rather, it is a tactic employed by the Russian aggressor against our civilian population. Awareness campaigns should shape understanding of this phenomenon and provide guidance on addressing it.

Another issue pertains to the actual sentences our courts will render for CRSV perpetrators. Witnessing perpetrators being held accountable will encourage people to seek help and have confidence in state protection.

Moreover, we encounter difficulties in operating within regions that were previously under occupation because of the lack of social workers and support services. Establishing such services is crucial to ensure access to various types of assistance, including informational, psychological, material, etc.

Ultimately, in my opinion, the most pressing issue nationwide is the scarcity of human resources. Particularly in the social sector, there is a significant outflow of talent and skills due to low wages. Furthermore, there is a shortage of individuals willing to work in liberated areas or regions of active combat actions, despite the substantial number of survivors living there.

– How does the state implement its policy regarding social protection and aid for CRSV survivors?

– As I mentioned earlier, there is currently no specific legal framework regulating CRSV. Consequently, survivors of conflict-related sexual violence often receive the same assistance as victims of domestic violence, as there is no designated mechanism in place. On the other hand, we partner with international organisations to provide training for all professionals in the social sector. This initiative aims to enhance their understanding of the distinct characteristics of conflict-related sexual violence and equip them to interact effectively with survivors and gather evidence to support CRSV cases. Our goal has been to create suitable protocols, introduce new tools to social service professionals, and ensure ongoing training and development.

These strategies are implemented through our network of local offices, spanning across all regions of Ukraine. Our aim is to foster efficient communication with various communities, local authorities, and regional military administrations to identify survivors of CRSV and offer them effective assistance. Close collaboration with law enforcement is crucial to ensure their interview protocols prioritise survivor’s well-being and prevent re-traumatization.

– How does the National Social Service coordinate its efforts and cooperate with other executive government agencies, civil society organisations, and international institutions providing assistance to survivors of CRSV?

– We engage with various counterparts. Firstly, we collaborate with the Office of the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy, led by Kateryna LEVCHENKO, and actively contribute to all working groups dedicated to shaping policies in this field.

Another important partnership involves joint efforts with the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Prosecutor General’s Office. Together, we have developed an algorithm of actions for police officers, prosecutors, and healthcare providers working in liberated areas. This algorithm not only provides guidance on interacting with identified survivors but also emphasizes the importance of coordinated efforts among them. It has received positive feedback and is widely used as a practical guide by all police officers, prosecutors, and healthcare workers operating in formerly occupied areas.

We also engage extensively with international partners as part of the National Action Plan for the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution on Women, Peace, and Security. Under the NAP, the National Social Service is responsible for various activities such as engaging international partners to provide training, developing methodological materials, and fostering communication among all stakeholders in this process. Drawing on international expertise enhances our efforts in addressing CRSV.

– How does the National Social Service coordinate services for CRSV survivors provided by local authorities and communities?

– In the summer of 2023, we recognised the necessity of revising the Regulations governing the operations of our local branches. This was essential to empower them to coordinate efforts related to domestic violence and CRSV within their respective regions.

The local branches actively monitor all services offered to CRSV survivors. Subsequently, they compile analytical reports based on their findings. If any shortcomings are identified, they are promptly reported to the regional administration for necessary action.

At the central level, we collect information about shortcomings across the country, compile analytical reports, and distribute them to all stakeholders. For instance, if an issue pertains to healthcare, we inform the Ministry of Health; if it concerns law enforcement, we send the report to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. We also conduct inspections when we identify inadequate services or encounter problems. For example, despite receiving donor support, a Survivor Relief Center was established but is hardly operational. Visitors arrive to find it closed, so our goal is to ensure it operates as intended.

– Do you offer support to survivors located in temporarily occupied territories or in grey zone’ areas?

– The National Social Service acts as a regulatory body overseeing the quality of social services, social support, and children’s rights adherence, rather than directly delivering these services. Our focus lies mainly on individuals residing within the territory controlled by the Government of Ukraine. In occupied regions, we partner with non-governmental organisations that maintain communication with the residents. We also contribute to returning children from temporarily occupied areas, including, sadly, those affected by CRSV.

We have our territorial branches operating in ‘grey zone’ areas, and I personally visit these regions. If cases of CRSV are identified, we promptly initiate support mechanisms for the survivors.

How does the National Social Service assist survivors of CRSV in liberated territories? How do you identify them and who do you engage with on these issues?

– We engage with different groups depending on the region. Initially, we reached out to community leaders, including informal ones, who demonstrated patriotism and supported residents during the occupation.

In line with international standards during the de-occupation process, the Armed Forces of Ukraine entered first, followed by the National Police to restore order, and then social workers became involved. This sequence is essential as the entire population requires immediate assistance. Therefore, we collaborate closely with social workers who start their involvement immediately after liberation, as they have valuable insights into the community’s needs. If there are no social workers available, we seek assistance from civil society organisations to strengthen our efforts and help identify the survivors.

– Many European countries require service providers assisting victims of gender-based violence (GBV), including sexual violence (excluding conflict-related incidents), to be licensed. Is Ukraine required to introduce similar regulations for service providers aiding victims and survivors of GBV and CRSV?

– Licensing has its advantages, as it provides a framework for the market and establishes government oversight. But is Ukraine ready for this step? I believe it is too early, considering our circumstances. Social services in Ukraine are still developing. Even in regions, like Zakarpattia and Lviv, there are communities without any social service providers. If we introduce regulations now, there might be no providers to comply with them. Instead, I suggest focusing on licensing and certifying individuals capable of providing these services. They should have proper training and be listed in a registry. This is the path we are pursuing.

– The National Social Service employs a significant number of professionals. How do you guarantee their comprehensive training to effectively handle and support survivors of CRSV?

– In 2023, we made significant progress in addressing this issue. Nearly 400 employees, comprising around 70% of our territorial branch personnel, received training on assisting CRSV survivors. This training was conducted in collaboration with NGO JurFem, the Association of Women Lawyers of Ukraine. Furthermore, the central office staff of the National Social Service provided training to employees at the Government Contact Centre, responsible for managing all CRSV-related inquiries and ensuring efficient communication with the survivors.

We partnered with the Information and Advisory Women’s Centre NGO to train and prepare the employees of our main departments. We developed a guide outlining the necessary actions to take in CRSV cases, including where to seek assistance and the responsibilities of social service providers. Additionally, we ensured that social workers from liberated territories also received training.

– Your staff frequently encounter secondary (vicarious) trauma due to their work, placing them in ongoing stressful situations. How does the National Social Service deal with this issue?

– We are pursuing two primary strategies. Firstly, we are deeply invested in the well-being of our employees. WE are currently collaborating with the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation to develop a training programme tailored to provide psychological support to those directly assisting CRSV survivors. Recognising the sensitive and emotionally taxing nature of their roles, it is crucial for them to learn how to manage trauma, foster peer support, and enhance resilience.

Secondly, starting in December 2023, we have initiated the Resilience Building social service in partnership with the Ministry of Social Policy. This initiative involves setting up Resilience Centers in every community, funded from the state budget. These centers will extend a range of services, including psychological support, to all community members. This approach will restore and strengthen resilience for all citizens, extending beyond just social workers.

This endeavor is a major state project for 2024, aimed at ensuring widespread public access to quality psychological services to aid in recovery and resilience-building efforts.

Do you believe that all documented cases of CRSV will be prosecuted, and will the perpetrators be held accountable?

– With over ten years of experience in criminal justice and legal proceedings, I remain optimistic, yet mindful of the challenges in gathering required evidence and navigating legal processes, especially in cases like these.

Our primary goal is to preserve information from victims and survivors, particularly their testimonies. Prior to the war, sexual violence cases followed a different procedure, requiring a forensic medical examination to be promptly conducted following the incident. However, the onset of war presented new challenges, as survivors could reside in temporarily occupied territories for extended periods, making it challenging to retain physical evidence. As a result, new methods for gathering evidence have been developed.

Raising public awareness about combatting CRSV and encouraging reporting is crucial. This not only promotes social understanding but also fosters greater tolerance towards survivors. Ultimately, it enhances the likelihood of achieving justice for CRSV survivors in both the International Tribunal and our national courts.

What do you think encourages Russians to resort to CRSV?

– We are dealing with a nation that is still developing, influenced significantly by outdated beliefs, particularly those reminiscent of medieval times. Think back to the historical events of 1918 near Kyiv and 1939 in Western Ukraine – both ended in widespread terror and repression.

This behavior stems from Russian chauvinism and a broader cultural mindset prevalent in Russia. Today, they exploit CRSV as a weapon of war to instill fear among our population in the occupied territories. However, we recognise our obligation to ensure that those responsible for such actions face consequences, thus imprinting a memory that deters their descendants from ever deeming such actions acceptable in the future.

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.