Ukraine Provides Effective Services for Survivors of CRSV

UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, provides aid to Ukrainian people facing different challenges caused by Russian aggression, like conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). Among these challenges is the distressing issue of sexual violence linked to the ongoing conflict. Through collaborative efforts with the Government of Ukraine, UNFPA has set up Survivor Relief Centers and the Aurora online platform to provide support to survivors. We are joined by Pavlo ZAMOSTIAN, UNFPA Assistant Representative in Ukraine, and Nina LOMPART, UNFPA Project Coordinator, to discuss the significance of these services.

What were the reasons behind establishing services for survivors of CRSV?

Pavlo ZAMOSTIAN: – Together with the Government of Ukraine, we thought about expanding the existing services for survivors of domestic and gender-based violence to accommodate the emerging challenges arising from the war. One significant challenge was widespread sexual violence perpetrated by Russian combatants, which led to new needs among survivors, especially for long-term psychotherapy. Rather than just providing temporary psychological assistance over a few therapy sessions, survivors of sexual violence require sustained psychotherapy due to the profound nature of the trauma they experienced.

We realized that survivors of CRSV might not feel ready to talk in person, face to face, right away. They might also move, including abroad. At the same time, there was a big demand for psychotherapists in Ukraine, while their availability remained scarce. So, we decided that providing professional help online would be the best way to make it easier for survivors to get support from anywhere while keeping it confidential and supportive.

On May 31, 2022, we launched the Aurora online platform with the assistance of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine and the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy, and with the support of the UK Government. We started with our existing resources to develop it as a temporary solution. However, our long-standing business partner, the leading Ukrainian company “SoftServe,” based in Lviv and one of the world’s largest IT companies, helped us create its technical component. Now, the platform is fully up and running.

What are the features and advantages of the Platform?

Pavlo ZAMOSTIAN: –  Anyone who feels they need help from a psychotherapist, whether because of being held captive, living in occupied areas, experiencing sexual violence, or going through other traumatic events, can seek help from the platform. It ensures complete confidentiality, enabling individuals to openly share their experiences with specialists without worrying about any negative consequences.

Another benefit of the Platform is its extraterritoriality, being accessible from anywhere via Internet, even from occupied territories or abroad.

After completing a quick assessment to identify their required assistance, individuals are matched with a psychotherapist for one-on-one sessions throughout their rehabilitation without changing therapists. This ongoing support is important because it prevents survivors from having to repeatedly share their experiences with different specialists, thereby avoiding additional trauma.

How popular has this service been?

Pavlo ZAMOSTIAN: – At the moment, we are handling around 300 requests, providing regular support to 192 clients, mostly women—approximately 180 individuals. About 25% of these cases involve various forms of sexual violence.

Sexual violence extends beyond rape; strip searches at checkpoints also qualify as sexual violence. However, not everyone who undergoes such experience realise they are victims or recognise the need for assistance. The sooner they come to understand this, the greater their chances for recovery.

Indeed, individuals may initially be focused on feeling happy for making it through. After enduring such difficult situations, they might focus more on immediate needs and overlook the psychological trauma. However, as time passes, the untreated trauma can lead to negative consequences. Hence, it is part of Aurora specialists’ job to guide individuals in recognising the importance of psychotherapy.

Apart from the Aurora online platform, Survivor Relief Centers are being established in Ukraine. How fast were they put together?

Pavlo ZAMOSTIAN: – The events in Bucha shook the world with the extent of the crimes committed. Following that, many non-governmental and international organisations began offering aid to survivors, including conflict-related sexual violence. However, a coordinating hub was needed. It should be noted that there isn’t much positive international experience in this area, as discussions about conflict-related sexual crimes typically occur after the conflict has ended. Consequently, the response often arrives late, when much has already been lost.

Ukraine’s success can be attributed to the Government’s prompt response to the issue as soon as it arose. They initiated setting up survivor relief centers where survivors or victims could seek help. These centers not only offer services but also carefully identify survivors of CRSV and provide assistance or refer them to Aurora or other service providers. These centers act as support hubs. The Government took the initiative on this project, and UNFPA is proud to have longstanding partnerships with the Office of Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna. They approached us as experts capable of quickly fleshing out their ideas. It is great that this Office has taken on coordinating and leading the project.

The Survivor Relief Centres were started on the initiative of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, with assistance from the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy and support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). This project is a pilot initiative, funded entirely by humanitarian resources entrusted to us by donors.

Nina LOMPART: – This network was established in June 2022. The first Center was opened in Zaporizhzhia to respond to the occupation of Mariupol and neighboring towns, resulting in the displacement of Ukrainian citizens.

The Center was set up in just three weeks. Our main approach to operating the Centers is efficiency. We strive to respond quickly to events happening in the cities where the Centers are located, ensuring prompt delivery of aid to affected areas during shelling. For instance, in Kherson, we distributed essential aid kits to residents within two days. We are actively involved in providing assistance directly at the scenes of shelled areas.

We maintain constant communication and close collaboration with relevant authorities, actively listening to local residents to identify their needs. Based on the identified needs, we proceed with our initiatives. We established Centers in the cities that experienced the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) relocating from elsewhere during the summer and fall seasons. Thus, Centers were opened in Dnipro, Lviv, and Kyiv, followed by Poltava, Kropyvnytskyi, and Odesa. In the western area, we gave priority to Mukacheve and Chernivtsi, which serve as major transit points for people relocating abroad.

Currently, we have 9 Centers operating in a stationary setup, equipped with premises and staff. Additionally, in Kharkiv and Kherson, we operate mobile Centers. This summer we are establishing a Survivor Relief Center in Kharkiv.

Today, our coverage spans nearly every region of Ukraine. We and not discussing every local center right now as we do not feel it is necessary. However, if the need arises, we will expand our reach across the map of Ukraine.

Pavlo ZAMOSTIAN: – The Centers model was effective: people started coming, and we ensured they had accommodation. In Zaporizhzhia, the Center operated at a humanitarian hub, serving as a refuge for all internally displaced persons arriving in the city via evacuation buses or by crossing the contact line independently. The aim was for individuals to access humanitarian aid and essential services there, while the Survivor Relief Center offered further help. Unfortunately, due to the worsening security situation, we had to move as Zaporizhzhia came under heavier shelling.

– What services are offered by the Survivor Relief Centres?

Pavlo ZAMOSTIAN: – The Centers were created to respond to the violence stemming from the war. Their primary goal is to encourage survivors to acknowledge their need for aid and to offer them that support. Investigations into crimes, punishment for perpetrators, and compensation follow later. Those are all long-term goals, but right now, the priority should be helping individuals in overcoming the trauma they’re experiencing.

The main goal is to identify the problems individuals encounter as a result of the war. These challenges often involve mental health issues. But sometimes, people feel disoriented and do not know what to do next. This is where specialists at the Centers can help by providing guidance on the next steps and by asking about the person’s experiences in a considerate manner.

Our experience suggests that people often return to the Centers seeking assistance. They may not always feel comfortable opening up during their initial visit, and it might require a second, third, or even fourth consultation for them to feel ready to do so. Sometimes, individuals share their experiences from a third-person perspective rather than their own. However, our therapists are skilled at guiding individuals to share their own stories, as well as those of their children or parents. Some people come with a specific goal in mind, such as wanting to engage with law enforcement. In such cases, the therapist accompanies them during these conversations, ensuring they are conducted in a less traumatic manner.

We stress the critical importance of putting the needs of survivors first. We strongly believe that with the right support, individuals can move from being mere victims to empowered survivors, leading normal lives. It is all about adapting and carrying on with life.

 – Are there regional specifics in the work of the Centers?

Nina LOMPART: – Certainly, we notice certain differences in how the Survivor Relief Center operates across different regions of Ukraine—whether in the central, western, or regions bordering the east or south. These differences are driven by the unique needs expressed by those seeking aid. In cities such as Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro, IDPs often require immediate psychological support. Conversely, in areas like Lviv or Mukacheve, requests typically revolve around temporary housing or accommodation. As a result, these differences shape the types of services sought by potential clients and guide where our staff members focus their attention.

At first, when someone is forced to leave their home, their primary concern is safety. It is only later that they start thinking about their social well-being. Therefore, we pay close attention to the journey of internally displaced Ukrainians as they move, for instance, from the eastern to the western regions of the country. They may require crisis counseling from a psychologist somewhere near Zaporizhzhia or Dnipro. As they get closer to Lviv in the west, they are likely to shift their focus towards more strategic concerns about securing their future life.

How often do survivors of wartime sexual violence seek assistance from the Centers?

Nina LOMPART: – This question doesn’t have a straightforward answer because the issue emerged in Ukraine due to the war. We cannot simply replicate the experiences of other countries in addressing CRSV. Specialists in Ukraine are essentially starting from square one, creating their own methods and practices from scratch.

Typically, people do not discuss war-related sexual violence during their first consultations. It could be brought up weeks, years, or even decades later. As a result, current statistics on the frequency or location of reports do not demonstrate any clear patterns. It may take many years, or even decades, to collect sufficient data. Although we have reports available, discussing specific numbers is not practical at the moment.

Who are the main users of the Centers’ services?

Nina LOMPART: – Most of our clients are internally displaced persons. However, there have been changes in this distribution. While IDPs accounted for 95-98% of our clients a year ago, their proportion has now dropped. Currently, about 85% of requests come from IDPs, while the remaining 15% come from residents of the communities where our services are offered.

This is because the Survivor Relief Centers are not exclusively designed for the needs of IDPs. These centers are available to anyone who requires assistance due to the effects of the war.

The majority of requests come from women, constituting approximately 75% of the total. However, men also seek assistance, making up 25% of our clients.

In terms of age distribution, the largest group comprises individuals aged 18-59, though there is also representation from those over 60. We provide assistance to more than 10% of women aged 60 and above, and around 5% of men in this age bracket.

The Survivor Relief Centers have psychologists who specialize in aiding children and can assist young clients with parental consent. Approximately 5-7% of our clients are individuals under 18 years old.

Pavlo ZAMOSTIAN: – As of the end of May 2023, over 16,000 individuals had accessed the services offered by the Survivor Relief Centers, leading to the identification of over 100 cases of CRSV.

 – Do the Centers cooperate with law enforcement agencies?

Nina LOMPART: – The Survivor Relief Centers operate based on clear principles, which prioritize safety, confidentiality, free access, and non-conditionality. Individuals seeking assistance are not required to provide any proof of being survivors through documents, actions, photographs, or messages to receive help from our staff. Consequently, our non-conditionality principle guides our interactions with police and law enforcement agencies; we do not document these crimes or share such information.

However, we collaborate with law enforcement agencies when survivors express a willingness to do so. If someone seeking assistance from the Survivor Relief Center wishes to file a complaint or pursue legal action, we assist them in doing so.

– Is the Ukrainian experience in these matters considered innovative?

Pavlo ZAMOSTIAN: – Ukraine has demonstrated political readiness to respond and provide services to survivors of traumatic events, including CRSV, already during the war, which was a unique initiative at the time. The effectiveness of this approach will be evaluated by post-war analysis. We hope that the efforts of Aurora and Survivor Relief Centers, as well as the Ukrainian Government’s leadership, will prove successful.

Ukraine is leading the way in conducting legal proceedings for unlawful actions by Russian combatants even during the war, which differs from the typical practice observed in other countries, where such proceedings often take place decades later. Even if the perpetrator is no longer alive or present in the courtroom, this represents significant legal progress. This determination, coupled with political leadership and the commitment to address CRSV during wartime, showcases innovation.

The network is up and running, but we are always looking to make it better. Our practices help us identify areas for improvement. For example, when new clients come to us, we request additional therapists from Dnipro with expertise in child counseling to aid in investigations. Our goal is to address these issues promptly.

A Ukrainian delegation led by Kateryna Levchenko, the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy, recently traveled to the Czech Republic. The discussions focused on the possibility of setting up the first international Ukrainian Survivor Relief Center in Prague. A similar center may also be opened in Germany.

Will the Survivor Relief Centers and the Aurora online platform remain in operation after the end of the Russian-Ukrainian war?

Pavlo ZAMOSTIAN: – This support is designed to be ongoing. Therefore, we will engage in discussions with donors to ensure that both the Centers and the Aurora platform become part of Ukraine’s violence response system. Our collaboration with the Government and the Ministry of Social Policy is effective. We are currently developing the model regulations for the Centers, which will allow us to gradually integrate them into the system.

We anticipate more territories to be liberated, where Ukrainian residents will encounter the same challenges of war. There may be a new wave of survivors, particularly of CRSV, prompting the opening of new Centers. Initially, these Centers will be mobile, and then we will see.

New tasks may emerge, such as assisting veteran families in preventing violence and providing tailored support to the families as they help reintegrate veterans into society.

Given the widespread trauma inflicted by the war on Ukrainian society, extensive rehabilitation efforts will be needed. And that will take time.


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.