SDG Club – The Unspoken Effect of War on Ukrainian Women

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all social media platforms have been flooded with their respective broadcasts. Visuals of bombings, refugees, injured civilians, and soldiers have created much controversy and raised uncertainty about the future of Ukraine. Nevertheless, in this mediatic chaos, it has been forgotten to address one of the key consequences of this conflict: its impact on women.

Women represent 54% of Ukraine’s population. As a result of forced migration, unstable living conditions, and the violence generated by the war itself, women have suffered significant physical and psychological harm. According to the UNHCR, 3.6 million women and children have already fled the country (BBC, 2022). This is enabled by the fact children and women have been given the alternative to fleeing the nation, while the martial law imposed by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in February of 2022, prohibits men aged 18–60 from leaving the country and obligates them to stay and defend it. The situation places women in an exasperating position where they must leave their loved ones behind to save themselves and their children. This results in significant psychological impact because they are aware of the heartbreakingly high possibility that they will never see those they once cared for again. Furthermore, becoming refugees alone with their children increases the risk of rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, and forced pregnancy to stabilize their family and start a new life. Therefore, women’s sexual and reproductive health is at risk. Humanitarian actors and refugee programs need to act accordingly and guarantee women’s safety.

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Sumy evacuation of civilians (Dattalion, 2022)

Moreover, there is also an internal displacement crisis, putting women in constant physical danger. As of March 2021, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy confirmed an approximate 1.5 million displaced people in Ukraine, of which 58.56% were female (Khullar, 2022). Most of them had to leave their homes due to a lack of resources (water and food) or the constant missiles exploiting the principal cities, which makes survival almost impossible. Women and children are now living in metro stations and shelters all over the country, vulnerable to famine, diseases, and war attacks while trying to help each other survive and leave Ukraine.

The internal migration crisis especially affects pregnant women because they do not have safe spaces to give birth, making what is commonly seen as a miracle resemble an unfortunate situation. According to the United Nations Population Fund, 80,000 women will give birth in the next three months, with the majority having to do so in unsafe and unstable conditions. This puts their lives and their babies at risk. Moreover, providing the health services these women need has become almost impossible due to the constant hospital and maternity clinic attacks. 

Lastly, it is impossible to discuss this topic without acknowledging the role of women in the battlefield. After the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, in which Ukrainians protested for their right of freedom and the future of their country by overthrowing the former government, which lead to cutting closer ties with Russia and attempting to join the European Union. This fight for rights also resulted in an increase of female participation in government entities. Their enrolment in the army also grew, with an estimated participation rate of 15% (around 30,000 females) (Ferris, 2022). This has been portrayed by various media outlets in the last month, which published pictures of women wearing military uniforms while fighting against Russian soldiers. However, women’s participation in the war goes beyond fighting, as they are the ones who provide vital coordination and combat support in what was dubbed the Rear Front Line. Women are baking and sending food to shelters and soldiers, pharmacists and doctors are attending wounded people, and seamstresses are making flat jackets and blankets for people to protect themselves from the cold. Women have become part of the war effort, and they are behind Ukrainian forces resisting the invasion. Additionally, women had found other creative ways to counteract the Russian invasion, one of them being the use of social media. An example is Dattalion, an open database created by a collective of around 120 women that documents the atrocities of the war using photos and videos taken from the war’s hotspots. 

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Nurse providing medical assistance to 11-year-old girl who was shot in the face in Mariupol Donetsk region (Dattalion, 2022)

To tackle the problems Ukrainian women are currently encountering, UN Women has identified seven key areas of concern: immediate safety threats, a lack of necessities, the loss of livelihood (including people’s inability to work and earn income), the psychological impact of the war, sexual and gender-based violence, exclusion from planning and decision-making at all levels, and the lack of communication, information, and social services. The UN calls for action by prioritizing funding for women’s groups and civil society organizations and ensuring gender participation in ongoing humanitarian support programs. It is time to acknowledge the war’s impact on women and adapt humanitarian aid, refugee camps, and donation funds to their needs, guaranteeing their safety.

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