Sexual violence in wartime: how to bring perpetrators to justice

Sexual violence in wartime: how to bring perpetrators to justice

Julia Anosova
lawyer of the National "hotlines"

Legal assistance to people affected by sexual violence in the conditions of war is complicated by many circumstances. It is difficult or even impossible to get not only legal, but also medical and psychological help in the territories where active hostilities are taking place or which are temporarily occupied by the Russian military.

We have been working with cases of sexual violence by the Russian occupiers against civilian Ukrainian women and men since 2014, when the war in eastern Ukraine began. With the onset of the full-scale Russian invasion, it can be argued that sexual violence against civilians is being used as a strategy and weapon of war. There have been recorded cases of soldiers sexually abusing civilians in the presence of their superiors, indicating that soldiers either have direct orders from their commanders or are not prohibited from committing the crime.  

During war, various forms of sexual violence are common, each of which is a war crime:
  • rape
  • threats of rape
  • genital mutilation
  • forced prostitution
  • forced to watch sexual abuse
  • sexual slavery 
  • forced pregnancy
  • forced abortion
  • forced exposure 

Important: Different standards apply to sex crimes in peacetime and wartime. Thus, in the conditions of hostilities and occupation, the standard of sexual consent is not valid (in particular, according to modern standards of international humanitarian and international criminal law) - coercion is assumed by default, since we are talking about armed soldiers, against whom the civilian population is practically defenseless.

Article 438 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine stipulates that rape as a war crime is punishable by imprisonment for a term of 8 to 12 years, if rape is combined with intentional murder, by imprisonment for a term of 10 to 15 years or life imprisonment.

The components of war crimes are also provided for by international acts - in the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. When imposing punishment, international courts take into account various aggravating factors, for example, the onset of pregnancy or causing severe physical and psychological consequences to the victim.

There is no statute of limitations for prosecution of war crimes. This is important given the fact that not all victims are ready to report it officially immediately after sexual violence. 

Regarding the recorded number of cases of sexual violence, the General Prosecutor's Office reported on the opening of a number of criminal proceedings on the facts of rape in Donetsk, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson regions. However, we understand that there are many times more, because many Ukrainian territories have not yet been liberated from the occupiers, and the victims cannot physically report crimes.

It should be added that other forms of sexual violence are more common during wartime than during peacetime. For example, sexual harassment of women by civilians while in bomb shelters. Such cases are often silenced by women as "not serious". At the same time, according to the Istanbul Convention, sexual harassment is a type of gender-based violence. However, in Ukraine, the Istanbul Convention, unfortunately, has not yet been ratified, despite the calls of human rights activists. It is now more timely than ever, because it will allow to raise the standards of assistance to victims of sexual violence both in wartime and in peacetime.

How should a victim act if sexual violence has occurred?

First of all, it is necessary to take care of physical safety and, if possible, to a place where the risk of re-victimization of sexual violence is lower. 

If possible, you should contact the local law enforcement agencies (the police or the prosecutor's office) and a lawyer. After filing an application and opening criminal proceedings, law enforcement agencies must issue a referral for a forensic medical examination.  

On any occasion, it is important to contact a medical institution. First of all, to receive medical assistance, drugs to prevent unwanted pregnancy and venereal diseases. And also for documenting the case, with the issuance of a medical opinion based on the results of the examination. 

Worth knowing: By order The Ministry of Health of Ukraine No. 278 dated 01.02.2019 approved the Procedure for conducting and documenting the results of medical examination of victims of domestic violence or persons likely to have suffered from domestic violence, and providing them with medical assistance. It is also relevant for persons who have suffered from war-related sexual violence. Based on the results of the examination, the doctor must issue a certificate in the form specified in the Procedure. Later, this certificate can be submitted to law enforcement agencies or a court as evidence of a crime.

If there is an opportunity and the person decides to contact the law enforcement agencies and a medical institution, do not take a shower or bath so as not to wash away traces of the offender's DNA from the body.

In many countries, in particular in America, medical personnel use so-called rape kits - special sets for collecting and storing physical evidence of sexual violence (in particular, DNA samples). These kits are kept at the hospital, and the victim can later decide whether to turn them over to law enforcement. Unfortunately, this useful practice is currently not used in Ukraine. The procedure for its use is also not regulated.

Access to medical facilities and law enforcement agencies is limited or non-existent in war zones and occupied territories. In this case, if possible, you can take care of preserving the evidence of sexual violence on your own. 

But only if it does not expose to even greater danger! In particular, if the offender is an armed soldier and remains at the scene, has access to the victim's personal belongings, gadgets - gathering evidence is not a priority, the main thing is survival. 

In other cases, to collect evidence it is worth: 

  • Write down the circumstances under which the sexual violence occurred. Because of the trauma, important details can be forgotten, which will complicate the process of bringing the offender to justice. In particular, it is important to write down: 
      • all known information about the offenders (number, names, callsigns, appearance, uniform, weapons, vehicles, content of conversations between themselves and with management, etc.)
      • date and time of the crime
      • crime scene (address or mark on the map)
      • other known cases in the region
  • Keep the clothes that the person was wearing at the time of sexual violence. Traces of the offender's DNA may remain on things.
  • Make photo and video recordings of injuries on the body.
  • Write down the data and contacts of possible witnesses.

It is dangerous to keep this information in a notebook or on the phone if the affected person is in a war zone or occupation zone. If possible, you should immediately send it to the Office of the Prosecutor General (and later delete it from your phone):

by phone 0 800 507 001

by phone 096 755 02 40 (Viber, WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal) 

through the site  

via Telegram bots: @stop_russian_war_bot or @war_crime_bot

by e-mail

Where to get psychological and legal help in case of sexual violence?

0 800 500 335 (from stationary) or 116 123 (from mobile)


Telegram NHL116123

Messenger lastradaukraine

Skype lastrada-ukraine 

National hotline for children and youth

0 800 500 225 (from stationary) or 116 111 (from mobile)

Telegram CHL116111

Instagram childhotline_ua

Facebook childhotline.ukraine

National Police 


Office of the Prosecutor General: 

by phone 0 800 507 001

by phone 096 755 02 40 (Viber, WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal) 

through the site  

via Telegram bots: @stop_russian_war_bot or @war_crime_bot

by e-mail

Government hotline 

15 47

Contact center of the free legal aid system

by phone 0 800 213 103


In case of departure abroad - embassies of Ukraine in the countries of presence and local law enforcement agencies.

How will the occupiers be prosecuted?

According to the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, a number of criminal proceedings regarding the sexual crimes of the occupiers have already been opened. Massive and systematic investigations and trials of war criminals usually begin after the acute phase of the war is over. A common practice is the creation of special hybrid courts with the representation of national and international judges, which pass sentences for the commission of war crimes. 

The question of where criminals will serve their prison terms is currently open and depends on many factors. For example, whether Russian soldiers guilty of war crimes against Ukrainians will serve their sentences in local prisons, or whether Russia will extradite them depends, in particular, on whether the political and legal regime there will change. Whether third countries will extradite such persons to Ukraine depends on extradition treaties. 

Psychological function of justice

According to international standards (EU standards and according to the Istanbul Convention), a victim of sexual violence should be interviewed once. After all, repeated questioning at various stages of the investigation and court process leads to repeated traumatization. And currently, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine is also trying to implement such an approach (previously, law enforcement agencies in Ukraine did not follow it). 

It should be recognized that bringing the perpetrator to justice when it comes to sexual violence as a war crime is a complex and lengthy process. Is it always worth starting this path, because a person has already gone through an extremely traumatic experience? It is impossible to answer clearly. The priority is human safety, physical and psychological. At the same time, research shows that the highest level of emotional stability and recovery is shown by those victims who take a proactive position, in particular, in the desire to bring the perpetrator to justice. Justice also has a psychological function: it helps stabilize a person's condition.

The text was prepared by: Kateryna Majevska