Olha Stefanishyna: “Sexual violence during war is a war crime that does not have a statute of limitation”

The Russian aggressors are not only waging war against Ukrainian armed forces but also targeting civilians of our country. Disregarding international humanitarian law, they are actively employing dirty war tactics, including sexual assault, making it a part of their strategy to demoralize and humiliate Ukrainian society. Olha STEFANISHYNA, the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, sheds light on the particular aggressor’s actions which have become widespread now, the international community’s response, and the assistance available for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV).

– Since the beginning of the large-scale war in late February 2022, Russia has been actively employing various instruments of hybrid warfare, including sexual violence against our fellow citizens. How significant is the problem now, and who is most affected?

– Since the commencement of the full-scale war, Ukraine and the entire world have witnessed unprecedented cruelty and disregard for international law by Russia. Over 68,000 war crimes by the Russian military have already been documented, with 171 cases of sexual violence currently under investigation by the Prosecutor General’s Office. These are cases where victims have been willing to testify, and we understand that the actual scale of these crimes is likely much larger, as hostilities continue, and we lack data on the situation in temporarily occupied territories. It is crucial to note that conflict-related sexual violence is a war crime without a statute of limitation, allowing survivors to report it at any time, whenever they are ready. Based on the experience of other countries, it can be reported even 10 or 30 years later.

Despite the majority of violence, especially sexual violence, being committed against women and girls, there are no gender or age restrictions for Russian criminals. Women and men of all ages, as well as minors have all been affected. Immediately after the first incidents of such crimes committed by Russians were revealed, we initiated a unified response to violence together with our international partners, signing the Framework of Cooperation between the Government of Ukraine and the United Nations on the Prevention and Response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and developing an Implementation Plan. This marks a significant step for Ukraine in establishing a comprehensive coordination mechanism to address sexual violence. Our key focus areas include effective investigation and documentation of crimes, provision of comprehensive assistance to survivors, including reparations, strengthening the capacity of professionals and raising public awareness.

– In his speech in Warsaw, U.S. President Joe Biden mentioned that the Russian military is using rape as a weapon of war in the war against Ukraine. Why do they resort to this, and what are they trying to achieve?

– I agree with President Biden. Violence is part of Russia’s military strategy to demoralize Ukrainians and break our spirit. From the first days of the invasion, they unleashed terror against the defenseless. We are actively working with partners to ensure that everyone responsible for criminal orders or committed these horrific crimes faces due punishment. This involves documenting crimes and engaging international instruments.

Ukraine has recently co-chaired the newly created International Alliance on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, with 13 countries already joined, including Australia, Japan, the U.S., and UAE, and we hope for more countries to join. The Alliance will strengthen cooperation and ultimately ensure Russia’s accountability for all committed crimes, including sexual violence.

– How is Ukraine responding to sexual violence perpetrated by Russian aggressors? Who is documenting these instances, and what is the next step this grim statistics? Will the documented cases be considered by international organizations and courts? What response are we expecting?

– Once Ukrainian armed forces liberate occupied territories, law enforcement agencies, including police officers as part of specialized mobile groups, document cases of sexual violence and other crimes. The information is then submitted to the Prosecutor’s Office. Documented cases of violence are also presented to the International Criminal Court. In early March 2022, the International Criminal Court set up a joint investigative group involving several European judicial bodies to facilitate its own investigations. To enhance efforts, the Government of Ukraine has adopted a draft bilateral agreement to establish the International Criminal Court Office in Ukraine. It should be noted that international organizations, including the UN, also document these cases. During the recent meeting with Pramila Patten, the UN Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, we agreed to enhance cooperation in information exchange and conduct a comprehensive analysis of Ukrainian legislation to improve the regulatory framework for prosecuting sexual violence crimes. Our legislation must be comprehensive so that offenders cannot escape responsibility in one or ten years. Punishment for committed crimes remains the only path to true justice.

Pramila Patten and Olha Stefanishyna

Providing effective assistance to CRSV survivors poses significant challenges during the war, especially in active combat zones or adjacent areas. Does the existing system of comprehensive assistance to survivors, including those of sexual violence, established in Ukraine prior to the large-scale war, effectively address the current challenges?

– Indeed, before 24 February 2022, we were developing a network to prevent and respond to domestic and gender-based violence. The government allocated state subsidies to set up shelters and crisis rooms for survivors of domestic violence. In collaboration with UNFPA, we launched hotlines and set up mobile teams to provide psychological support. These services carried on operations even after the large-scale aggression and adopted their practices to assist those affected by conflict-related violence.

Furthermore, in the first months of the invasion, our shelters provided temporary refuge for people forced to flee armed conflict and occupation. However, we recognized that existing aid services were insufficient during the war. It was necessary to create a place where survivors would feel safe, secure and supported, and, ultimately, after receiving assistance, would be willing to share their testimony. This is how the idea of Survivor Assistance Centers emerged. Currently, 7 Survivor Assistance Centers are operating in Ukraine: in the cities of Kyiv, Lviv, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro, Chernivtsi, Mukachevo, and Poltava. We plan to expand, and online assistance services, like the Aurora psychotherapy support platform for survivors, are being developed for survivors even in temporarily occupied areas, to access psychological, legal, and information support by mobile phone.

– On 15 March 2023, the All-in-One Online Platform “Assistance Platform for Survivors” was introduced, and you played a direct role in not establishment. What prompted the creation of the Platform, and how will it benefit Ukrainians affected by Russian aggression?

– When survivors from temporarily occupied and de-occupied areas feel relatively safe, they often do not know where to seek professional assistance. Information about available services is scattered all over the place. Therefore, we wanted to create an all-in-one platform that would simplify the search for necessary services. This is how the idea of creating the Assistance Platform for Survivors was born. The Platform provides access to key government hotlines, Help Centers for Survivors, contacts for psychological, social, and legal support services. All services on the Platform are verified, confidential, and free. It also offers information on recognizing the health effects of violence, actions for survivors of violence, and advice for friends and family of survivors. Professionals working with survivors can find guidance based on the best international standards and protocols.

Is the Platform considered a crucial instrument in shaping modern state policies to address violence, ensuring guaranteed protection for survivors and enforcing penalties for perpetrators?

– The establishment of the Platform adds another layer to the groundwork of an effective response mechanism for violence, ensuring unequivocal and professional support for every user. Once individuals achieve a state of balanced psycho-emotional health and process their trauma, they become ready to provide testimony against those accountable. Thus, the Assistance Platform for Survivors significantly contributes to restoring justice and punishing those accountable.


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.