Mariupol human rights activist reveals mass violence against women in Russian-occupied territories

·7 min read
The UN records cases of gang rape, torture, forced public undressing and threats of sexual violence in the occupied territories of Ukraine
The UN records cases of gang rape, torture, forced public undressing and threats of sexual violence in the occupied territories of Ukraine

Since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission has documented only 23 confirmed cases of sexual violence, mostly committed by the invaders in Ukraine.

Read also: Escape from hell: Women of Mariupol tell their stories of living under occupation and escaping the siege

However, volunteers and human rights activists working with victims say that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, there are hundreds of times as many victims, mostly women who may never dare to talk about their experiences.

The Women's Association Berehynia ("Caregiver") NGO in Mariupol works with these Ukrainian women and has been assisting their female compatriots on the contact line since 2015. For eight years, more than 37,000 women have been registered with the organization, to whom volunteers have provided full support – from removal from hotspots, legal, medical, and psychological assistance, to full social adaptation in a new place.

Today, activists from Berehynia work in Ukrainian-controlled territories, helping women escape the occupation, go through filtration camps, and settle in special shelters in Dnipro and Ivano-Frankivsk.

Maryna Puhachova, the head of Berehynia NGO, told NV about her work.

Over eight years of work, the Mariupol Women's Association Berehynya, led by Maryna Puhachova, helped 37 thousand women escape the war <span class="copyright">DR</span>
Over eight years of work, the Mariupol Women's Association Berehynya, led by Maryna Puhachova, helped 37 thousand women escape the war DR

NV: You have been working with women who have been affected by the war since 2015. How has the situation changed with the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion?

Puhachova: Now the traumas are completely different. Most women at that time were traumatized by the events, possibly experiencing psychological or even physical violence, but they were more stable because they knew that when they arrived in Kyiv or Dnipro, they would be safe. There is no such option now.

For example, I have a woman under my care who has lost her husband and grandson in Mariupol and now lives in Kyiv, but the recent shelling of the capital city brought her back to panic attacks.

NV: Has the number of women affected by the invaders' violent actions increased?

Puhachova: There are many more cases of violence now. It is difficult to say how many such cases there are in reality, because a woman does not always understand which criminal actions are taking place around her, and not everyone is ready to confess. It often takes the long work of a psychologist to reach that point, but at least 10-15% of the appeals concern this issue. And this is an impressive figure.

In addition, there are different facets in understanding violence. For example, there were cases when a woman in a filtration camp was forced to take off her clothes in front of men who touched her genitals. It may seem like psychological violence, but as a lawyer I can say that it is also sexual violence. And there are quite a lot of these cases.

Read also: Russia’s own women being raped by Kremlin’s troops

NV: Speaking of episodes of sexual violence, how often do you encounter rape victims?

Puhachova: As for rapes, we have only unconfirmed cases, which are difficult to prove, because the woman often refuses to go into detail. I have had cases only partially confirmed when there is only a medical certificate. For example, a pregnant woman does not want to tell where and under what circumstances it happened to her. We cannot record this as rape.

Therefore, we record it as a crime: women most often agree to a streamlined form of gender-based violence. But we have recorded only 11 such cases, although we understand that there are many more.

NV: Why is it difficult to record and prove these cases?

Puhachova: A woman often does not want to say anything, because on the one hand everyone sympathizes with her, but on the other our society is still prejudiced against such women. It remains quite patriarchal – for example, a woman decides to turn to law enforcement agencies, but the men there don’t take her story seriously. These cases also exist.

From our observations: if a woman from there has a daughter, she will hide the facts of violence in any way. And here it is very important not to put too much pressure on the woman, because in this state they can even commit suicide. In Bosnia, for example, it took 30 years before women reported violence.

There are also cultural and religious moments. The outskirts of Mariupol are a polyethnic and multicultural territory, there are small villages near Mariupol with Tatar and Greek populations, where some practice Islam. Women from there are generally against any publicity, and specific experience is required to work with these families.

Therefore, fixation (of the crime) is a very difficult moment. The mechanism is often as follows: women seek help from our organization, we also help to undergo a medical examination, it reveals physical signs of violence, but the woman refuses to comment on them. That is, even when the fact of violence is medically proven, a woman is often not ready to admit it.

Read also: Invaders abducting women with newborns, doctors from Mariupol to occupied Donbas, Russia

NV: Where are women most often subjected to violence and in which areas are they most at risk?

Puhachova: Cases of violence are particularly prevalent in filtration camps, where there is no representation from legal organizations. We do not have access to them, so we get all the information from those who went through these camps. Women stay there from a few hours to three months.

Some (filtration camps) are meticulous about men, and women are not affected at all, but there are those where everything is the other way around. The tendency is that the "DPR" representatives are the most cruel to women. They are followed by the Russian soldiers, but, oddly enough, there is no evidence of violent actions by the Kadyrovites (the personal troops of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov).

NV: In what conditions do women live in filtration camps?

Puhachova: It often depends on the occupiers. These are people (Russians) who received the right to use force: previously, they could not decide even their own destiny, but now they have the opportunity to decide the fate of others. It seems that a whole nation of teenagers has come to us, acting according to an incomprehensible logic.

For example, I have two families of the same composition and age who managed to leave for Poland – one had been kept in filtration for a month and a half, while another one had gone through it in three days.

It all depends on the shift. If there is someone on the Russian side who has been in the fighting, the attitude will be very bad, they are evil, because our soldiers have already "pinched" them.

But if the camp guards are new fighters who have just arrived from Russia with a brainwashed and belief that they are welcomed here, they will behave quite gently. Some sincerely believe that the woman is leaving the occupied territories just to sit out the shelling, and even advise them on how to get to their final destination safer.

But still the conditions in the filtration camps are almost prison-like – they provide little food, ask unpleasant questions, check mobile phones. I especially remember the situation where a five-year-old child that we rescued was given a glass of water, she drinks half, and gives the other back saying: "And this is for tomorrow."

Read also: Ukraine’s Internal Ministry identifies 13 victims of sexual violence in Kyiv Oblast

NV: How is it possible to help women who have survived violence under occupation and bring this problem into the public sphere?

Puhachova: Working with such women can take from six months to several years just to stabilize them. In addition, women are not ready to voice the facts to a man, so only the "woman for woman" technique will work here. So we really need training – there are women who are ready to work, but who need quality practical skills. For eight years, our organization has invested in the training of its consultants, but now we need to train an army of female consultants at the state level.