Sexual violence in the conditions of war: a help algorithm

Sexual violence in the conditions of war: a help algorithm

Alyona Kryvulyak
Director of the Department of National Hotlines and Social Assistance

Sexual violence is a sensitive topic even in peacetime, but in times of war, the problem is exacerbated. With each news about the liberated territories, unfortunately, new cases of sexual violence by the Russian occupiers against Ukrainian women and men become known. 

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 

In times of war, the usual mechanisms for obtaining aid are not available. For example, in territories where hostilities are ongoing or under occupation, people are usually physically unable to go to a hospital, the police, the prosecutor's office, a human rights defender, or a psychologist. Or even get shelter in a shelter or move to a safe place to stabilize your condition.

The problem is complicated by the fact that the topic of sexual violence was and remains taboo in Ukrainian society. People affected by it are often afraid and ashamed to ask for help. 

Law enforcement officers of Ukraine have already started a number of criminal proceedings on rapes in Donetsk, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson regions. However, as long as part of the territory is occupied by Russia, Ukraine does not have the opportunity to obtain reliable information about the number of cases of sexual violence. During the full-scale war, 16 victims of rape by the Russian occupiers contacted our hotlines. However, these are absolutely not representative data. It is already known for certain that the rape of the civilian population is widely used by Russian soldiers as a means of waging war with signs of genocide. 

With each freed area, we will learn about new cases. More victims will be able to report such crimes when they are physically safe. It is extremely difficult for many to talk about it. Yes, out of 16 cases with which we worked in recent months, only three victims were ready to declare it officially. And this is clear: sexual violence is an extremely traumatic event, and the priority is the physical and emotional safety of a person.

One of the Ukrainian women, who was raped by the Russian occupiers in eastern Ukraine in 2015, dared to seek help only three years later. At the same time, it is worth noting: rape as a war crime has no statute of limitations, that is, if the victim officially declares it even after many years, the case can be considered at the International Criminal Court. 

Admittedly, when it comes to sexual violence during war, it is not easy to bring the perpetrator to justice. This is usually a long process. It is not always possible to seek help and identify the offender. In our experience, there is a case when the perpetrator was brought to justice after five years. For a woman who suffered from rape, this path was painful. And it would be incorrect to claim that it made her happy. Still, she said, she felt that the justice brought her relief.

According to the new norm of the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, rape victims will be interviewed once. This is an important innovation that meets international standards. After all, the need to repeatedly reproduce painful memories traumatizes even more.

Who is most likely to suffer sexual violence in wartime?

Mostly women. However, in reality, all civilians are at risk, regardless of age, gender, or other characteristics. Among the appeals with which we work, there are cases of rape of a minor girl, an elderly woman, a man, as well as women - in front of their own minor children, which is a sexual crime under both Ukrainian and international law, even if the children were not physically touched. 

It can be argued that the Russian army uses rape, in particular repeated and gang rapes, as another type of weapon against the civilian population of Ukraine. Several of the women we worked with mentioned that the rapes by the Russian occupiers were accompanied by terrible humiliations on the basis of nationality. There were threats to rape until the woman could no longer look at men, so that she could not give birth to a Ukrainian child. This greatly exacerbates the already excruciating pain of the experience. 

How to reduce the risk of sexual violence during war?

If possible, evacuate  

If a person is already in a zone of active hostilities or occupation or there is such a risk, it is very important to do everything to evacuate through the official "green corridors" of the Ukrainian authorities to safer territories. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. And it always hurts to leave your home, but rebuilding a home is easier than life. 

If you stay in a dangerous area

If people did not manage to evacuate in time and they are in an area where there are Russian occupiers, it is worth taking steps that will at least help reduce the risks. 

  • Group. It is advisable not to be left alone. It makes sense to live with several families. This does not guarantee safety, but it is easier emotionally and can reduce the risks of rape.
  • Try not to leave the shelter. Adhere to the mode of light masking, do not leave the house or shelter unless absolutely necessary, so as not to even catch the eyes of the occupiers. Unfortunately, there is still a risk that the occupiers will break into the residence or even the bomb shelter. However, every effort should be made to minimize any contact.
  • Avoid receiving humanitarian aid from the occupiers. In particular, the occupation authorities. Unfortunately, sometimes there is no choice. But this is extremely dangerous from the point of view of collecting personal data, manipulation mechanisms. Therefore, if there is access to help from Ukrainian volunteers or international organizations, it is definitely worth using it. 
  • "Clean" gadgets from personal information. Correspondence, photos, any personal and patriotic content should be deleted, because the Russian occupiers can check absolutely everything in your mobile phone.

If contact with the occupants is unavoidable

  • Accept that the forces are not equal. Even if you grab a kitchen knife or an ax, unfortunately, they are powerless against a machine gun. So don't even try to grab anything, because that can make the occupiers even more angry.
  • Force yourself to be as careful as possible. Try to be tactful, avoid pressure and insults (no matter how difficult it is to hold back). 
  • If possible, you should minimize the provision of information about yourself. However, if the occupiers demand to hand over the phone, show the house, and answer questions, there is no need to object. It's unpleasant, it's a gross violation of personal space. But when a soldier with a weapon is against a civilian, you will have to endure it in order to save life. 

If rape cannot be avoided 

In this case: 

  • Do not try to scare off the offender with fiction. For example, about AIDS or pregnancy, if it is not true. This will increase the risk that the occupier will decide to commit murder instead of rape.
  • "Freeze" yourself. If the rape is already taking place, the perpetrator temporarily takes control of the person's body thanks to the weapon, which is power by default. It is extremely painful. But no invader can master and break the spirit. It is difficult with the body and emotions, but you can work, you can help yourself and stabilize. The main thing is to save life, at any cost.
  • If possible, record the crime. It is very dangerous to do this during a rape (for example, turn on a video or audio recording). However, if possible, you can photograph the damage, save the clothes, and describe the crime after the perpetrators have left. It is dangerous to keep such evidence on the phone in areas controlled by the occupiers. Therefore, you should immediately send the information to the Office of the Prosecutor General (and later delete it from your phone): 
  • Contact a medical facility (if possible). To receive medical assistance, drugs to prevent unwanted pregnancy and venereal diseases, undergo a forensic examination.

If you are abroad 

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Russia, millions of Ukrainians have gone abroad, the vast majority are women and children. Dozens of countries from all over the world provide shelter to our people, and we are infinitely grateful to each and every one of them for their support. However, unfortunately, there are people who can take advantage of the vulnerable state of Ukrainian women. 

Human trafficking as a "business" is second only to drug and arms trafficking in terms of profitability. Therefore, there are risks when crossing the border, in particular, being affected by human trafficking, labor or sexual exploitation. Therefore, it is worth protecting yourself in this situation as well. 

  • Recruiters work on both sides of the border. That is, criminals can look for potential victims both on the territory of Ukraine and in the country of arrival.
  • If possible, join the group. Women who cross the border alone, as a couple or with children are primarily in the risk group.  
  • Do not give your documents to anyone except border guards. We are aware of cases when carriers in the border regions of Ukraine offer women traveling alone a place in a car to cross the border. Payment is usually not required, but they offer to give the passport "for convenience" - they say, to show all documents at the border at once and not waste time. It is better to refuse such offers, not to risk your safety. And if you still risk it, at least ask the person to show your document, take a photo of the license plates and send the data to your relatives and friends. If the carrier is against it, again, we strongly advise against using its services. 
  • Get help from trusted sources. Recruiters can either avoid giving information or be well-prepared and tell "legends" that they are volunteers, even show fake IDs. They can have a personal car or a whole bus supposedly for transfer. Therefore, both in Ukraine and abroad, you should seek help from volunteer centers that work officially. To do this, find the contacts of verified volunteers in advance, ask clarifying questions, check the websites of volunteer organizations, contact representatives of the state authorities of the country to which you are evacuating.
  • Have contacts of the embassy of Ukraine in the country of arrival. They actively work and help Ukrainian men and women, so you should contact them in any risky situation. 
  • Remember number 112 - a telephone number for calling emergency services in European countries and some others, where you can get help from specialists in different languages, including Ukrainian or Russian. 
  • Clarify information about the shelter. Especially if you are looking for it yourself, and not through the state authorities (although it is safer through the state authorities). It may seem that it is inconvenient to clarify the information - after all, so many people sincerely want to help, and such are really the majority. However, there should be no compromises in security matters. It is worth learning more about a person who is ready to provide shelter, look at documents or at least pages in social networks. Find out who are the members of the family with whom you are offered to live, where and under what conditions.   
  • Register in the country of arrival. Don't avoid it. Official status is very important for security abroad. You can get refugee status or temporary protection. The second option is usually more appropriate because it allows you to move to other European countries or return to Ukraine at any time.

How can people who have suffered sexual violence during war get help? 

Unfortunately, there are fewer opportunities than in peacetime. For example, some shelters for victims of violence were forced to evacuate to protect their women and children. In territories temporarily not controlled by Ukraine, the occupying power blocks access to national means of communication, blocks the work of mobile operators. That's why we have created maximum means of communication - not only through telephony, but also through e-mail and instant messengers.

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

Psychological, legal and informational assistance can be obtained from our National hotlines. In particular, we can provide support for victims of sexual violence. We help to communicate with state bodies, we can tell you where to get help - humanitarian, financial, medical, legal, etc. For example, if necessary, we will coordinate with our partners - "Doctors without Borders" or with the International Organization for Migration, which has a special shelter.

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

How to support a person who has suffered from sexual violence? 

In the conditions of war, when the occupiers have weapons and civilians do not, it cannot be about voluntary consent to sex. Weapons are power, and therefore a sign of coercion. A person without a weapon cannot defend himself in any way. The source of fakes that Ukrainian women themselves show affection for the occupiers is Russian propaganda. In no case should you accuse, condemn or harass people who have suffered from sexual violence. Even if there was no physical coercion (for example, beating or using a weapon). The responsibility does not lie with the injured person in any way - he has no choice and is forced to do what the occupier orders him to do in order to survive. 

Unfortunately, during war, any person can become a victim or a witness of sexual violence. There are cases when the Russian occupiers stage a rape "show" in order to injure not only the person himself, but also to intimidate those around him. 

In general, no one, except specialized specialists, was prepared to provide support to victims of sexual violence. However, if the injured person dared to tell about it, everyone can provide ordinary human support. 

Basic rules should be followed: 

  • Just listen. As much as needed. If a person dared to talk about such a painful experience, it is a great manifestation of trust, and it can already somewhat ease the emotional state. 
  • Careful with touches. A person traumatized by sexual violence may be afraid of any tactile contact, even from loved ones. Therefore, before holding hands or hugging, you must ask for permission to do so. 
  • Reassure: there is no fault of the injured person in what happened. For example, she may blame herself for not crying loudly enough, not asking to be let go, not calling for help, even not killing the abuser to defend herself. It is worth repeating, if necessary - several times during the conversation: the person had no opportunity to defend himself. All responsibility for the crime lies solely with the person who committed it. The main thing for the injured person is to survive at any cost.
  • Do not judge. For example, for the fact that a person did not evacuate in time or did not resist. 
  • Do not devalue. Regardless of gender, age, or any other circumstances, this is a very painful event. Advice about "forgetting", "getting distracted", "having fun" is inappropriate here; unfortunately, it's not all that easy until a person has survived and worked through the trauma.
  • Do not press. For example, it is not necessary to ask about the details, if the person himself does not want to talk about them. Investigators and prosecutors are forced to do this to help bring the offender to justice. And an ordinary person who is not a specialist can just be around. 
  • Ask how to help. And do exactly what the injured person is asking for. You can offer to seek medical help, find the contacts of a psychologist, report a crime (for example, go to the police together). However, you should not insist. If at this moment a person just wants to cry and to be held by the hand, do so.

The text was prepared by: Kateryna Majevska