United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Helps Ukraine Address Consequences of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is one of the key partners of the Government of Ukraine in aiding survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). Today, we are joined by Jaime NADAL, UNFPA Representative in Ukraine and Mustafa ELKANZI, the Senior Emergency Coordinator, to discuss the UNFPA’s ongoing efforts and potential future cooperation.

How does UNFPA support Ukraine in addressing the aftermath of CRSV?

Jaime NADAL: – Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, UNFPA has stayed in Ukraine and continued working here. Initially, our primary job involved maintaining the services initiated back in 2015, which include shelters, crisis rooms, hotlines, and day-care centers for all victims of gender-based and domestic violence. We realised that millions of internally displaced women and girls were more likely to face domestic and conflict-related sexual violence.

Since April of last year, we have set up 100 mobile teams in 21 regions across Ukraine, providing psychological and social assistance, facilitating legal referrals, and focusing on aiding internally displaced persons. The psychosocial support mobile teams work closely with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration and the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine. Since then, they have assisted over 160,000 individuals, primarily women.

However, our efforts didn’t end there. In April and May, when Bucha and Irpin were liberated and disturbing stories from survivors of sexual violence surfaced, we initially tried to support survivors using our existing services. Following discussions and consultations with the Government of Ukraine, we recognised the need for a broader approach to address the issue. As a result, we decided to establish survivor relief centers, a unique social service that has no precedent in Ukraine or elsewhere in the world.

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).

The first Center was opened in Zaporizhzhia in July 2022. The centers currently operate in 11 cities of Ukraine, including Kyiv, Dnipro, Lviv, Poltava, Chernivtsi, Mukachevo, Odesa, and Kropyvnytskyi. We are also launching mobile Survivor Relief Centres in the cities of Kherson and Kharkiv. I would like to note that our specialists have been engaged in providing aid to survivors during the floods in Kherson.

The Centers have provided assistance to 16,000 survivors, with 85% of them being internally displaced persons. In terms of cases of sexual violence, we have documented a total of 108 CRSV instances to date. These are individuals who have reached out for help.

What challenges do you encounter in your work?

Jaime NADAL: – The issue of conflict-related violence is complicated, as is the issue of sexual violence. When these two are combined, they present a daunting challenge for survivors, society, and those who support survivors.

Unfortunately, women still blame themselves and fear social stigma, which makes them hesitant to seek professional help. Conversations with psychologists at the Survivor Relief Centers revealed that women and men survivors of conflict-related sexual violence did not start sharing their stories right away. It took some survivors until the 10th or 11th therapy session before they felt comfortable enough to share their experiences. At first, they need to feel trust, receive individually tailored help, feel comfortable, and be confident that everything is kept confidential and safe, ensuring they have no reason to be afraid.

You have received few reports from survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Is this number consistent with the actual statistics?

Jaime NADAL: – We have received 108 reports, which is considerably lower than the actual statistics. We can’t give precise numbers of existing cases, but we do know there are many more. Our strategy focuses on providing services to survivors to ensure they get social and psychological support. Once they feel ready, they will open up about their experiences.

The services provided at the Centers require in-person attendance. Understanding the stigma and the challenges faced by some people in accessing physical locations, we realised it was important to introduce online services for survivors. Thus, we set up the Aurora online platform, where individuals can access psychological support, psychotherapy, as well as referrals to local physical services, including the Survivor Relief Centers, as required or requested.

Aurora was implemented by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund 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.

Even though it is newly introduced, this service is in great demand within society. Currently, we are managing 424 cases, with 25% involving conflict-related sexual violence. Given that consultations are conducted online, anonymity is maintained at a high level. Moreover, individuals from occupied areas, unable to access essential aid –  either due to the absence of services or fear – can still use it. Hence, despite the relatively low number of inquiries, we acknowledge the significance of Aurora.

How well does UNFPA collaborate with the Government of Ukraine and NGOs?

Jaime NADAL: – I view our collaboration as highly efficient. We receive support from Olha Stefanyshyna, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, and Kateryna Levchenko, the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy. The rapid launch of the Survivor Relief Centers demonstrates our strong partnership.

We have built strong partnership with La Strada-Ukraine, a prominent civil society organisation with global influence. In the past, we collaborated on launching hotlines for victims of domestic and gender-based violence, and now these services have been extended to assist survivors of CRSV.

Establishing local services is a priority for UNFPA. Currently, we are actively engaged with 45 municipalities, cities, and communities across Ukraine. Our objective is to foster well-coordinated collaboration among the Government, CSOs, and international partners at the regional level, ensuring clear pathways for individuals seeking support services.

Do you always have understanding and support at the local level??

Jaime NADAL: – It greatly varies by location. Certain areas showed more openness than others. For instance, when we initiated our efforts to address gender-based violence in Donbas in 2015, some mayors and communities welcomed our services, while others did not. However, as local authorities witnessed the positive impact of our work, even those initially resistant communities started seeking support from UNFPA.

We employ the following approach: we invest until the community is also willing and ready to invest. We evaluate the impact of our efforts and the extent to which the services we develop in the regions meet international standards. We provide training to professionals to ensure the quality of assistance.

60% of the Ukrainian population resides in small communities and towns. Therefore, it was important for us to secure the support of the Government and civil society organizations to meet their needs. However, I do not want to be overly optimistic because there are still people who, regrettably, remain unaware where to seek help. The recent study in rural areas showed that 60% of women lack this information, indicating there is still a lot to be done.

How effectively is the conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) addressed globally? What new aspects has Russian aggression against Ukraine brought to this issue?

Jaime NADAL: – In fact, CRSV has been thoroughly studied worldwide. Consider the Balkan countries, such as Bosnia, where sexual violence was also employed as a weapon of war. Substantial evidence was collected, accounting for nearly 5,000 cases, and effective services were established, providing high quality assistance.

In Ukraine, the topic of conflict-related sexual violence remains intricate and very complex unexplored, hence not thoroughly studied. Here CRSV manifests as exceptionally brutal, aimed at undermining individual dignity, instilling fear, and grossly violating human rights. Moving forward, extensive efforts will be required to thoroughly investigate this issue.

Currently, the main objective is to assist survivors in overcoming trauma. We collaborate closely with the Government, civil society organizations, and local authorities to ensure that survivors feel supported and not isolated.

50 specialists from different Survivor Relief Centers have received specialised training focused on aiding survivors of sexual violence. This training covers various aspects of assistance provision, such as how to identify people who need help, managing trauma, balancing therapy and support for mental health, dealing with crises, etc. Training specialists to offer therapy that avoids retraumatization is crucial, as survivors frequently face the risk of being retraumatized due to inadequate assistance.

We ensure lawyers, social workers, prosecutors, and government officials are well-versed in this topic. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad, an Iraqi human rights activist, visited Kyiv and engaged with specialists from Survivor Relief Centers, exchanging experiences and learning about our assistance methods in Ukraine.

How can Ukraine’s experience in responding to CRSV be integrated into global approach?

Jaime NADAL: – Firstly, gaining a thorough understanding of the situation in Ukraine is critical. Two key aspects are important: the speed of response to CRSV and the holistic approach to assistance. Our efficient case management system enables survivors to access various vital services like legal aid and social support all in one place. Online solutions show potential. Although they may not be suitable for all situations, they deserve attention.

Why is the United Nations Population Fund specifically responsible for aiding sexual violence survivors in the UN system?

Mustafa ELKANZI: – This UN agency focuses on promoting reproductive health and countering violence against women, including gender-based and conflict-related sexual violence. Alongside the trauma, survivors often face shame and self-blame, making it challenging to discuss and share their experiences. However, addressing CRSV requires a tailored approach that acknowledges all these risks – both shame and self-blame. UNFPA focuses on fully understanding the issue, offering comprehensive aid, and implementing global standards in Ukraine to ensure survivors receive quality support.

Our response is comprehensive and cantered solely on the survivors and their needs. We provide health care, legal aid, and various other forms of support, while prioritising the survivors’ preferences and ensuring full confidentiality and safety for all individuals.

Our goal is to ensure that men, boys, women, and girls who have experienced conflict-related sexual violence receive support from the Government of Ukraine, society, and international organisations, rather than feeling neglected or abandoned.

Do you plan to scale up assistance to Ukraine?

Mustafa ELKANZI: – We currently observe an increase in the number of inquiries and the number of survivors, which means we need to grow our services, helplines, and online tools. This growth requires more investment, not just financially, but also effort from us and the government. We collaborate closely with Ukrainian authorities to integrate our services into the state aid framework, ensuring their sustainability in the long run.

Sometimes it takes years to seek assistance. UNFPA is committed to providing ongoing support to survivors until their emotional, physical, and inner well-being is restored, regardless of the duration required.

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.