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Her Journey to Safety: The Threat of Sexual Violence Against Women Refugees

Globally, the UNHCR estimates that 35.3 million refugees are displaced by war, conflict, and persecution.             

Women and girls account for fifty per cent of refugees. For women, the challenges already created by their status as refugees are exacerbated by a high risk of sexual violence. If seeking asylum from conflict-affected communities where rape and other forms of sexual violence were enabled by cultural or traditional norms, safety is a possibility, but never a promise.  

In Ukraine, a woman’s journey as a refugee begins due to the ongoing war, after her home becomes one of multiple Ukrainian cities captured by Russian soldiers, as news of mass murder, torture, and rape spread throughout her neighborhood.   

Conflict and Displacement 

As the war in Ukraine rages, life for many civilians is spent sheltering from constant bombings. In Russian-controlled regions, women are attacked and raped in their own homes by armed soldiers. One woman was raped repeatedly near Kyiv, then questioned by the authorities about why she didn’t resist. 

“We never find any women who said ‘no’ to the Russian soldiers. That’s because they are dead.”  

-Anna Orel, Rape and Shame: Consequences of the War in Ukraine 

For many women, seeking safety away from the war she will require traveling to Warsaw, Poland. This journey will create another dimension of vulnerability and risk that Ukrainian women as in a country under siege, she is one of millions of women refugees living with the constant threat of sexual violence.   

“After a month and a half, I had to make a big decision. It would be risky, but I felt if we didn’t leave right then, it might become impossible to survive.

-Nastaysia, My Name is Nastasiya: The Road to Survival 


To reach Warsaw, women must undergo a harrowing journey through Russian-controlled territories including Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, to reach the Poland-Ukraine border. At every roadblock and security check point, being able to pass through, even with the appropriate documentation, is not guaranteed.  

“Quite frankly, some of the sections we passed through were especially dangerous; we literally had to run right under a hail of fire. I told my kids not to look up so they wouldn’t see all the shells flying by. “ 


Women, namely those traveling alone and with dependents, face a heightened risk of sexual harassment and violence by soldiers and local civilians alike in their bid to pass through the check points and roadblocks. Human traffickers and men posing as volunteers to provide support for refugees in their journey may also target women for rape and robbery, preying on their vulnerability as they escape the war.  


At the Poland-Ukraine border, the difficult journey seems to have an end . Yet women refugees, especially those arriving to Poland alone, must be mindful of sex traffickers lurking at the border to abduct women arriving from Ukraine. The perpetrators, both men and women, use deception to abduct women refugees by offering transportation or work. 

Ukrainian Refugees
Ukranian refugees safe Poland. Credit: WfWI.

The search for housing and a job to rebuild their lives will also mean avoiding traps set by traffickers and predators for sex work. For women seeking employment, predators may offer official job vacancies with the intention to sexually exploit them.  

This means that even as a survivor of war who has traveled thousands of miles from home to reach asylum in a different country, safety is under constant threat as they navigate life as a woman refugee. After the journey, they are still not safe.  

“We know this war isn’t over, but nobody knows when it will end.  It’s very difficult.” 

-Olga, Music, Friendship and Sorrow: Twelve Months as a Refugee from Ukraine 

After war broke out in Ukraine, Women for Women International partnered with the Human Doc Foundation and Bereginya in Poland through our Conflict Response Fund (CRF) for women survivors of the war. Our CRF provides the financial support for Ukrainian women refugees to receive legal support, assistance with locating housing, and vocational training to supplement their job search. They are also offered psychological consultations, including art therapy, to cope with the trauma of their experiences. To date, over 500 women have been reached by our partner organizations.  


Learn more about our work with women from Ukraine and our conflict response partners in other countries.  

determined wfwi trainer
Conflict-related sexual violence is a growing threat and must be eliminated. Support women survivors who are overcoming unspeakable trauma to build a better future for themselves and their families.