The Forgotten Victims: The Fight for Sexual and Reproductive Autonomy Among Women and Girls During the Russian-Ukrainian Armed Conflict

In the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict, which began on February 24, 2022 with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a poignant narrative emerges.[1] Ukrainian women and girls are courageously advocating for their sexual and reproductive autonomy amid human rights violations, stemming from invasion-related sexual and reproductive abuse.[2] This crisis transcends Ukrainian borders, as conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) emerges as a global issue,[3] disproportionately impacting countless women and girls and constituting a grave violation of human rights law within the context of armed conflicts.[4] This article offers a focused examination of the impacts of the ongoing armed conflict in Ukraine on women and girls, highlighting the urgent necessity for enhanced international and national responses to address this critical global issue.

In the Ukrainian conflict zone, there have been surges of SGBV, with Russian soldiers targeting Ukrainian women and children,[5] jeopardizing their sexual and reproductive health and violating their bodily autonomy.[6] Disturbingly, one in five refugee or displaced women endures sexual violence amid armed conflict.[7] This often results in forced pregnancies, all while contending with limited access to safe abortions and essential reproductive healthcare.[8]

In May 2022, Vika, a 42-year-old resident of a rural village near Kyiv, Ukraine, along with her 44-year-old neighbor, Natasha, courageously shared with Sky News their personal accounts of SGBV inflicted by Russian soldiers during the Ukrainian-Russian conflict.[9] On March 9, 2022, when Russian forces seized control of their village, both women were forcibly taken from their homes by Russian soldiers to an abandoned house.[10] There, Vika revealed that she “was raped multiple times” by one soldier.[11] When she attempted to reason with her attacker, he callously instructed her “not to distract him and just to do her job,” warning that she would be killed if she resisted.[12] In the aftermath, Vika felt dehumanized, stripped of her identity as a woman and mother, and instead treated “like a prostitute.”[13] Natasha shared how she was “rape[d]…[for] about an hour-and-a-half” by another soldier, and when questioned by the police about her apparent lack of resistance, she poignantly explained, “But how could I resist when the soldier said, if you want your son to be safe, then do what I tell you.”[14] Despite the trauma, both Vika and Natasha chose to speak out, hoping to inspire other survivors to seek justice.[15] The courage displayed by these women underscores the pressing need to hold perpetrators of SGBV accountable.[16]

Displacement heightens challenges, such as obtaining healthcare post-SGBV and seeking access to justice and accountability for perpetrators, as women and girls are compelled to flee amidst armed conflict, leaving them without essential healthcare and legal remedies.[17] In early 2023, within Ukraine, women and their children comprised ninety percent (90%) of the 7.9 million individuals compelled to migrate internationally.[18] Moreover, of those displaced inside Ukraine, sixty-eight percent (68%) were women.[19] In conflict-affected regions, limited access to clean water and sanitation, coupled with the breakdown of healthcare systems, heightens the risk of reproductive health complications, including maternal mortality and infections.[20] Approximately sixty percent (60%) of preventable maternal deaths occur in situations of displacement or conflict.[21] This silent crisis demands immediate and heightened national and international attention.

Throughout history, addressing conflict-related SGBV crimes has posed persistent challenges due to an inadequate international response,[22] despite the classification of these crimes as war crimes, acts of torture, and crimes against humanity.[23]­ International legal instruments, including the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) 1998 Rome Statute[24] and its accompanying publication ‘Elements of Crimes,’[25] have evolved to provide a more comprehensive framework for addressing and investigating these offenses.[26] The surge in SGBV crimes in Ukraine underscores the need for Ukraine and the international community to prioritize evolving strategies and policies to address this pressing national crisis and bring perpetrators to justice.[27] Although not a party to the Rome Statute, Ukraine accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction in 2015, requiring cooperation and alignment of its national legislation accordingly.[28] Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine ratified the Istanbul Convention, acknowledging Russia’s role in mass conflict-related SGBV.[29] This Convention, developed by the Council of Europe, a human rights organization, combats violence against women and urges member States to provide survivor-centered care, sexual and reproductive health services, and prosecute perpetrators.[30]

Ukraine has actively pursued the investigation and documentation of war crimes committed by Russian forces.[31] This includes the approval on June 26, 2023, and the implementation of the ‘Strategic Plan for the Implementation of the Powers of the Prosecutor’s Office in the Field of Criminal Prosecution for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence.’[32] This initiative aims to improve access to justice for conflict-related SGBV victims by establishing specialized investigative teams and intensifying criminal prosecution efforts.[33] Despite these commendable initial efforts, challenges persist. Notably, the absence of explicit references to sexual crimes in Ukraine’s unified register of the pre-trial investigation system is impeding the tracking of SGBV cases.[34] To address these limitations, Ukraine is working to enhance its criminal legislation on war crimes and plans to introduce a law granting SGBV survivors victim status and compensation, underscoring the importance of comprehensive psychological, legal, and social support beyond financial compensation.[35]

Despite the systemic and widespread nature of SGBV violations, they remain insufficiently addressed legally, politically, and socially.[36] To enhance accountability and justice for SGBV crimes during armed conflict, Ukraine must prioritize accurate data collection, train law enforcement and prosecutors in victim-centric and gender-sensitive approaches, enact gender-sensitive legislation, and adopt Rome Statute standards into national law and prosecutorial practices.[37] These urgent measures are crucial for accountability, justice, and gender equality,[38] and not only to restore territorial integrity and independence, but also to ensure justice for all victims and survivors of this war.[39]

Prioritizing sexual and reproductive health and women’s rights in conflict zones is about more than just compliance with international laws; it is an ethical obligation and a moral imperative.[40] The International community shares a collective responsibility to address this humanitarian crisis and enhance prevention and response to SGBV in armed conflict.[41] Immediate, intensified action is imperative for both courageous survivors who have come forward and those silenced by fear.[42] This silent battle cannot be ignored, and substantial resources are required to protect their dignity, autonomy, and health.[43] It is both a humanitarian necessity and a testament to our global commitment to justice and equality.[44]


[1] Akanksha Khullar, ORF Special Report No. 199, War’s Gendered Costs: The Story of Ukraine’s Women 3 (Observer Research Foundation 2022).

[2] Id. at 8, 12.

[3] Off. of Press & Pub. Dipl., Statement by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield on the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, U.S. Mission to the United Nations (June 19, 2023), https://usun.usmission.gov/statement-by-ambassador-linda-thomas-greenfield-on-the-international-day-for-the-elimination-of-sexual-violence-in-conflict/.

[4] Fao, Gender-related impacts of the Ukraine Conflict: Entry points for gender-responsive and inclusive interventions for Ukraine crisis 3 (2022); Noemí Pérez Vásquez & Liiri Oja, A Change of Narrative: Protecting Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Post-Conflict Criminal Justice, 43(1) Colum. J. of Gender & L. 31, at 35 (2023).

[5] Vásquez & Oja, supra note 4, at 31.

[6] Id. at 32, 45.

[7] UNHCR, Protecting the Rights of Refugee Women 3 (2020).

[8] Vásquez & Oja, supra note 4, at 31-32.    

[9] Deborah Haynes, Ukrainian women reveal their rape ordeal and say Russian soldiers must ‘be punished’, Sky News (May 16, 2022, 10:37 AM), https://news.sky.com/story/ukrainian-women-reveal-their-rape-ordeal-and-say-russian-soldiers-must-be-punished-12613584.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Ukraine, U.N. Women: Eur. & Cent. Asia, ¶ 7,https://eca.unwomen.org/en/where-we-are/ukraine (last visited Sept. 12, 2023).

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] U.N. Women, Global Gendered Impacts of the Ukraine Crisis on Energy Access and Food Security and Nutrition 10 (2022).

[21] UNHCR, supra note 7.

[22] Vásquez & Oja, supra note 4, at 35.

[23] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, art. 7-8, opened for signature July 17, 1998, 2187 U.N.T.S. 90 (entered into force July 1, 2002).

[24] Id.

[25] Int’l Crim. Ct., Elements of Crimes (2013).

[26] Mariam Uberi, Ukraine’s efforts to investigate conflict related sexual and gender-based violence and the role of the ‘complementarity’ in International Criminal law, The Foreign Pol’y Ctr. ¶ 1 (Sept. 21, 2023), https://fpc.org.uk/ukraines-efforts-to-investigate-conflict-related-sexual-and-gender-based-violence-and-the-role-of-the-complementarity-in-the-international-criminal-code/.

[27] Id. at ¶ 2.

[28] Id. at ¶ 3.

[29] OSCE PA, 2023 Gender Report: Understanding and Addressing the Gendered Consequences of the War in Ukraine 15-16 (2023).

[30] Id.

[31] Uberi, supra note 26, at ¶ 10.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id. at ¶ 12.

[35] Id. at ¶ 19.

[36] Vásquez & Oja, supra note 4, at 32.       

[37] Uberi, supra note 26, at ¶ 23.

[38] Id. at ¶ 24.

[39] Ukraine’s Quest for Justice: A Conversation With Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin, Carnegie Endowment for Int’l Peace (Sept. 26, 2023), https://carnegieendowment.org/2023/09/26/ukraine-s-quest-for-justice-conversation-with-prosecutor-general-andriy-kostin-event-8161.

[40] Khullar, supra note 1, at 6, 15.

[41] Off. of Press & Pub. Dipl., supra note 3.

[42] Id.

[43] Khullar, supra note 1, at 15.

[44] Id. at 12.