Ukrainian Women on the Front Lines

The way forward in Ukraine—and elsewhere—is through people power.

A woman walks past a damaged administrative building in the center of Kharkiv after a Russian rocket in Ukraine on Aug. 29, 2022. (Stringer / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Only a few months ago, it seemed Afghanistan was turning back the clock, some 20 years after the previous Taliban regime barred girls from school and women from work. Yet something had changed in those two decades: A generation of post-Taliban girls and young women had grown into a movement. We see it in impressive Afghan women leaders now in exile—former government ministers, ambassadors, businesswomen, scholars, members of parliament and civil society advocates—working nonstop through the trauma of displacement to fight for Afghan women. Inside the country, women are marching in the streets at tremendous risk to their safety. Afghan girls are protesting, furious at being forbidden to attend school and pursue career aspirations. Even Afghan boys are speaking out in support of a girl’s right to education.

Then, abruptly, news of Afghanistan was wiped off the media map by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Now war crimes and crimes against humanity fill the news, political dialogue seems hopeless and 7 million refugees—approximately 90 percent or more of whom are women and children—have fled across the borders into Europe.

Still, like in Afghanistan, resistance blossoms in Ukraine from a generation that’s enjoyed relative freedom and democracy. The miscalculation of Vladimir Putin, who seems to have assumed Ukrainians would welcome his armed attack, has led to more unity, a refusal to surrender the independence now permeating their national consciousness. Ordinary people, some women—making up an estimated 15 percent of Ukraine’s army—as well as men, have taken up arms, and the invincible Goliath has been resisted to an extent that seemed impossible to imagine.

Tragically, however, it’s rarely long in any armed conflict before we learn of the horrific sexual violence inflicted on women and girls. So stories have emerged from inside Ukraine of rape by Russian soldiers—often followed by murder. And outside Ukraine, although many countries are welcoming the refugees with needed relief, dangers await. Stories abound of Ukrainian girls and women being trafficked into the sex trade, lured in by men promising shelter and safety from the conflict. In the confused chaos at train and bus depots, exploiters can easily merge with crowds of well-meaning, legitimate aid workers and volunteers.

As Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), wrote for Women’s eNews:

“By mid-March, news emerged from Poland of pimps at the borders waiting for the desperate and disoriented Ukrainian women, offering them transport, work or accommodation. … In Berlin, pimps and traffickers dressed in orange vests, generally worn by refugee assistance personnel, held signs stating: ‘You can live with me.’ In the U.K., the government-sponsored ‘Homes for Ukraine’ program was dubbed ‘Tinder for sex traffickers’ when reports surfaced of men offering Ukrainian women a place to stay in exchange for sex.”

Again and again sexual violence is blatantly used as a weapon of war. We also notice the absence of women from peace negotiations in anything more than token numbers—or in the case of Ukraine, at all.

But we also see women regroup quickly, working to address the urgent needs that arise. To counter these brazen recruitment efforts into the sex trade, certain groups, including the U.N. Refugee Agency, are issuing warnings to women at the borders, sharing numbers for national hotlines and calling for government-led registries of refugees. In April, Sweden, the first country to enact a law that targets sex buyers as perpetrators of sexual violence and discrimination, arrested 38 men, 30 of whom had paid for sex with Ukrainian women, some of them refugees lured into local brothels.

At the global level, there is a standard crisis response, a massive industry that shifts to answer emergency needs. Hundreds of millions of dollars are raised by United Nations relief agencies from governments and private donors, and these funds are channeled to the international non-governmental organizations with which they work. The bureaucracy does provide life-saving relief, but too often in ways that are costly, inefficient and even disempowering to local populations, who become objects of aid rather than agents of relief.

There are notable exceptions. One is Donor Direct Action (DDA), a project of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute. The aim of the project is to redirect funds to women on the front lines of activism who can ensure that those funds are used for maximum impact. For instance, 100 percent of every donation to the DDA Emergency Fund for Ukraine gets to a Ukrainian refugee or a Ukrainian still in the country urgently in need of this support. Donor Direct Action has teamed up with its Latvian partner, Marta Centre for Women, which is working with local Ukrainian women’s organizations to get emergency assistance and medical supplies to those desperate for aid inside Ukraine, plus offering support to thousands of Ukrainian refugees in Latvia.

Similarly in Afghanistan, the Taliban has forced women’s shelters to close, yet some continue to secretly provide food and medical supplies thanks in part to DDA funding.

In the teeth of war, it’s hopeful to see people rising up, even in Russia, where some face arrest to publicly oppose the invasion. We watched as Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor at Russian state television network Channel One, unfurled a banner live on air proclaiming “NO WAR” in English and “DON’T BELIEVE PROPAGANDA. THEY ARE LYING TO YOU” in Russian, in an attempt to let millions of Russian citizens watching know the truth. In a prerecorded video she said, “It is only in our power to stop this madness. Take to the streets. Do not be afraid. They can’t jail us all.”

These growing demonstrations feel new, as does mounting expectation of accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court has launched an investigation, and we can hope justice will prevail. The way forward is through people power, and women are leading the charge.

This article originally appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.

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Jessica Neuwirth is a lawyer and international women's rights activist. She is one of the founders of Equality Now, an international women's rights organizations established in 1992, and the founder and director of Donor Direct Action, a project hosted by the Sisterhood Is Global Institute to support women's organizations around the world. She is the founder and president emerita of the ERA Coalition and Fund for Women's Equality.