*Trigger warning: deals with sexual violence*
*Mila is not her real name*
In March this year, Mila was raped repeatedly by a young soldier after Russian forces took control of her village. He’d been drinking heavily and was part of a group that shot her friend’s husband in front of her. Mila believes her assailant was around the same age as her 19-year-old son.
It wasn’t until the area was liberated a few months later that the whispers began. Some people in the village, about an hour’s drive from the capital Kyiv, questioned the veracity of Mila’s story. There were rumors that she’d gone willingly with the soldier, that she wanted to have sex with the Russians. Later, when Mila gave evidence to the Ukrainian authorities about her ordeal, the police wanted to know why she hadn’t fought back. “Why didn’t you resist?” They asked.
It’s not uncommon for women in rural areas of Ukraine to face first sexual violence and then gossip, shame and humiliation. According to our Ukrainian partner, The Andreev Foundation, victim blaming is widespread and support for survivors is scarce.
Even though the United Nations has only verified a few hundred cases of sexual assault since the start of the war, they believe the real number to be far, far higher. According to the UN Representative on sexual violence, Pramila Patten, Russian forces are using rape as a “deliberate tactic to dehumanize the victims”. Such is the stigma of sexual violence in Ukraine, though finding women who have survived such assaults requires patience and dedication.
Our partners in Ukraine run a crisis hotline for women to call, and some cases are referred to them by the General Prosecutor. Mostly though, we operate small groups of psychologists with The Andreev Foundation who travel to formerly occupied towns and villages. There, local people will often point out the houses of women known to have been attacked.
“We never find any women who said ‘no’ to the Russian soldiers,” says Iryna Andreeva, who is the Co-Founder and Director of Andreev Foundation.
“That’s because they are dead.”
Once our partners have located survivors of often brutal sexual violence, Women for Women International helps to rebuilds their shattered lives, offering small group and individual trauma counselling sessions, gynaecological referrals and other basic care.
Anna Orel, from the Andreev Foundation says it’s important that the women do not feel under any pressure to share their stories at first. “We gain their trust and wait till they are ready. We want them to know that we are on their side.” She says.
In some villages though, even being abducted doesn’t stop local tongues wagging. One woman receiving psychological support from our counsellors recounted how she had been taken at gunpoint by Russian soldiers to Belarus where she was subjected to repeated sexual assaults. Months later, after she was freed, she told friends that she & her husband were expecting a baby. It hurt her to hear that people did not believe he could be the father.
Whatever the rumours are, Mila is not going to stay silent. She has told her story to our counsellors and even a foreign journalist. She feels strongly that if she didn’t speak out, she would not be able to recover from the psychological damage her ordeal has caused. When she is strong enough, Mila hopes to leave her village behind and join her son in Germany.
She is hoping that other women will follow her example, step forward and ask for help, unashamed and certain that they are not to blame for what has happened to them.
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My name is not Nastasiya. It is too dangerous to tell you my real name. My husband is a soldier in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Every day he is fighting for the survival of our country. We have lost our home, our city, and many of our neighbors, but we will not lose our spirit.