War leaves Ukrainians at risk for sexual violence


Eastern Europe


A local at the scene of a destroyed residential building following a Russian missile strike in the outskirts of Kyiv. Photo EPA, Sergey Dolzhenko

When Russians took over the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, 26-year old Olha knew she was trapped. As she lay tied up and detained on the table, she began to wonder what would come next. Around eight or nine days as a prisoner of war, her Russian interrogator began to hurl curses into her face. After throwing a jacket over her, seven men filed into the room.

As Olha now shares her story to a state investigator and to the New York Times (NYT) she stands among the thousands of Ukrainian women who have been victims of sexual torture and rape. A UN report also revealed that more women are being used as “weapons of war” among Russian forces.

“We are finding this problem of sexual violence in every place that Russia occupied,” said Anna Sosonska, who is a prosecutor and investigator at the Prosecutor General’s office. “Every place: Kyiv region, Chernihiv region, Kharkiv region, Donetsk region and also here in Kherson region.”


In a Kherson basement, where many women such as Olha were detained, a message with a cross carving is a stark reminder of the torture. The wall’s message reads, “Oh, God, give me strength”. In one corner, bottles that were used as urination receptacles still lay in a pile.

According to the UN report, which was referenced by NYT, the victims have ranged from 4 to 80 years old. Dozens of cases involving sexual violence have been reported. However, the true numbers are likely much, much higher.

In the 17-page report, there are several cases where Russian commanders raped and sexually abused women, children and men. An 83-year old woman recalled that she was raped by Russian forces in front of her physically disabled husband. In the Chernihiv region, a unit commander sexually abused a 16-year old and in another home, soldiers raped a mother in front of her 3-year old son.

Blame and shame

“This experience is very shameful for me and I am extremely scared and intimidated,” one victim told the UN Commission. As psychologists work with survivors, many come with blame and shame.

“All victims with whom I am working are blaming themselves for being spotted by perpetrators and being raped,” one psychologist said in the report.

Although much of the human rights offences have been committed by Russia, the UN is investigating two possible war crimes on the Ukrainian side. Even as survivors learn to live with the scars of abuse, justice has yet to be seen on both sides.

“I used to want to find those who were responsible and kill them. But now I want the guilty to be put on trial and I want the truth to come out,” a stepfather said in the Commission report.



Subscribe for an update, and receive a documentary and e-book for free.

Choose your subscriptions*

You may subscribe to multiple lists.