Why Widespread Sexual Violence Is Likely in Ukraine

Sexual violence has not received much attention in the coverage of the war in Ukraine. However, reports of cases of sexual violence by Russian or pro-Russian soldiers are just starting to appear.

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Some human rights organizations in Ukraine have already warned about this risk. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba recently claimed that Russian soldiers have committed rapes. Norway’s representative Mona Juul recently issued a warning about sexual violence in Ukraine in the UN Security Council. As a researcher on wartime sexual violence, this warning is merited.

Research on wartime sexual violence suggests that a wave of cases of sexual violence is likely underway in Ukraine. These are the main reasons why research indicates we can expect a wave of cases of sexual violence:

1) States are frequent perpetrators of sexual violence

Although violence by rebel groups and terrorist organizations might get more attention, we know that states are frequent perpetrators of sexual violence in war. Governments rarely outsource sexual violence to militias or others for plausible deniability—they model it. There is no expectation that Russia is an exception.

2) The Russian military has a history of abuse

Systematic data on conflict-related sexual violence shows that Russian militaries have a recent history of sexual violence.

The US State Department, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have each reported that Russian militaries committed sexual violence during the annexation of Crimea and the war in Chechnya. Human rights groups have also reported that sexual violence has been quite prevalent in the Donbas region. Putin’s characteristic rape rhetoric, which is often indicative of a rape culture, is one indication that sexual violence is expected to escalate.

3) Young Russians were forcibly recruited into war

The most alarming factor that makes sexual violence likely is that many of the Russian forces may have been recruited by force or otherwise compelled or fooled into the war.

Systematic research clearly shows that one of the more robust predictors of sexual violence during war is if the soldiers are forcibly recruited. Such organizations have an inherent lack of cohesion. They often try to overcome this problem and socialize reluctant soldiers through gang rape.

We also know that government militias that recruit children are more likely to commit sexual violence. This is likely connected to the coercive recruitment practices of such organizations, but the presence of young, impressionable and insecure recruits in the ranks could also play a role. In 2015, Russia established the so-called Yunarmia — a youth army of thousands of soldiers — and has pressured orphans and other vulnerable young people to enlist. Several news reports indicate that Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine were unaware they were going to war and anecdotal information indicates that a majority of them are forcibly recruited orphans and vulnerable youth.

Media reports now suggest that soldiers not only have low morale but might even be sabotaging the war effort, and that Russia is planning to enlist convicts to fight in the war. If young, forced recruits are indeed a significant share of the Russian forces, we can assume a high risk of sexual violence.

4) Reasons for restraint are weak

Sexual violence is not ubiquitous in war. The prevalence of abuse varies substantially between armed groups and conflicts. It can occur on a massive scale, as happened during the war in Bosnia, in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, against the Rohingya in Myanmar, and by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but some armed organizations show high levels of restraint.

Political education has been shown to predict restraint in the use of sexual violence. However, this is because restraint occurs when fighters know why they are fighting and believe in the cause. Although Russian troops might have been indoctrinated with the justification of war from the Kremlin, meeting with reality in Ukraine will likely shatter whatever illusions the troops may have had.

5) The war has entered a different phase

Sexual violence and battle-related deaths are not necessarily highly correlated. This is perhaps because sexual violence occurs when the most intense killings and bombardment has died down and the troops come into closer contact with civilian populations and start to hold territory. In this phase of the war, sexual violence is particularly likely — behind the front lines, during occupation, and also perhaps by opportunistic predators assaulting or exploiting vulnerable populations on the move.

What to do?

Sexual violence constitutes perhaps one of the most hidden forms of wartime violence. It is notoriously difficult to document in a systematic way in part because survivors feel shame and stigma. Reports of sexual violence might therefore take more time to appear than reports of other aspects of the war but might be more likely to surface in the current phase.

Prevention of sexual violence in Ukraine will be difficult. However, documentation needs to be actively sought out, and refugees should be systematically screened for information about sexual violence by trained professionals. This way, evidence of war crimes can be collected so that those responsible can eventually be held accountable. Sexual violence should be addressed in all discussions of ceasefires, peace agreements, and support to Ukraine. Survivors are going to need medical, financial, and also moral support. The abuses they have suffered should be considered like other war injuries—as a badge of honor, not a source of shame.

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