A Ukrainian women in a school gymnasium in Przemysl, Poland, set up for refugees, March 8, 2022 (Markus Schreiber/AP)
Ukrainian refugee women are speaking of rape. by Russian troops. Neighboring Poland, where more than 2.1 million Ukrainians have fled, has tough anti-abortion laws.
In Warsaw, I listened to first-hand accounts from Ukrainian women who face the traumatic combination.
Originally written for The Quint:
“Oleksandra”, a Ukrainian volunteer in Poland’s capital city Warsaw, is confident that the cases of rape and sexual assault by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian women are “massively underreported”.
“We’ve attended to tens of thousands of refugees in the past four weeks. It’s too early to estimate how many of them were subjected to sexual violence but the numbers are high,” she says, adding that she has met at least a dozen rape survivors since refugees began arriving.
The volunteer explains, “I met 29-year-old ‘Olga’ at the Hrebenne border crossing between Ukraine and Poland. She opened up to me when I spoke to her in Ukrainian.”
Olga, a single mother, was allegedly sexually assaulted at gunpoint by two Russian soldiers at her home on the outskirts of Kyiv.
“As a native of Kharkiv, she spoke Russian fluently,” Oleksandra says. “After pleading with them to let her go, in Russian, she was left alone. Fearing they would come back, she left her home within minutes. She spent a harrowing 72 hours at a petroleum station until a group of volunteers helped her reach the Hrebenne border crossing.”
Olga’s thighs were still bruised when Oleksandra first met her. Olga’s seven-year-old son is living with her parents in Uzhhorod in western Ukraine.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine February 24, the number of cases of women being sexually assaulted in cities and towns across the country is on the rise.
On March 27, Ukrainian MP Maria Mezentseva told British TV of a case from Kyiv, where a Russian soldier had allegedly raped a Ukrainian woman in front of her child.
But it is along the Ukrainian-Polish borders, that the stories of sexual assault — a war crime — are coming to the fore.
Julia, a mother of two and a native of Kyiv, fled the country two weeks ago with her 71-year-old mother. On March 15, she arrived at the border and was waiting in the “priority line”, for the elderly, people with disabilities, and women with young children.
I was standing next to a woman for two hours at the Medyka border, crossing between Poland and Ukraine. She did not speak a word until we reached the reception center. She told me that Russian soldiers had raped her. She was from Irpin, and has two children. She didn’t want to accept help from humanitarian groups in Poland because she was too traumatised.
When humanitarian workers tried to help her, she insisted that only female volunteers attended to her, and not the men. The sight of men scared her, not only for herself but also for her 5-year-old daughter.
Poland’s Abortion Ban
Poland’s stringent anti-abortion laws and the unavailability of morning-after pills along the Ukrainian-Polish border are pushing doctors and volunteers to take the risk of imprisonment, secretly distributing pills to survivors of rape.
Polish authorities have provoked controversy and protests over their near-complete ban on abortions, one of the most restrictive laws in Europe. Doctors face a prison term of three years if they perform an abortion with a pregnant woman’s consent.
A Poland-based gynecologist, who works with trusted volunteers to distribute morning-after pills, says:
We’re taking a colossal risk by making these pills available to survivors of rape. In Poland, these pills are only legal when there’s a prescription. It’s next to impossible for Ukrainian women refugees to get that prescription.
At first, we decided to provide these pills to Ukrainian refugees here in Poland but we’ve now sent the pills to victims still stuck in Ukraine, surrounded by Russians.
He says it is harder to get the pills to refugees as the border control has tightened. He fears that unless the Polish Government makes an exception for rape survivors, there will be long-lasting consequences for these women.
Oleksandra, who has been helping with distribution of pills, explains:
In Poland, with abortion not being an option for survivors of rape, it’s clear that the lives of women don’t matter as much as a cell that hasn’t even developed into a foetus yet. It’s a huge risk that we’re all taking but in the absence of a government that cares for cases like these, the survivors are only left with secret groups like ours who can help.
Dealing With A Crisis
Polish MP Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska summarizes, “You can imagine what will happen when two million people come to Poland. I see two related problems: the first is abandoned children. We are preparing special programmes for them. The second problem is trafficking.”
On the border, Warsaw-based Fundacja Ocalenie, is trying to deal with the crisis. Kalina narrates how when her team went to the border, they saw that there was no system in place.
All the work to assist the refugees was done by volunteers and NGOs, not the government. I fear that with this lack of coordination between agencies and no plan in place, the risk of human trafficking is growing, especially for single mothers. We are dealing with a multitude of issues, such as sexual violence and racial discrimination, among others.
Polish MP Kluzik-Rostkowska confirms that the Polish Government is working with law enforcement agencies to help the rape victims: “This is not just a Polish problem because some of these women are going to other EU countries, and they need all the help the EU can offer.”
Meanwhile, the gynecologist, Oleksandra, and the volunteers are working round the clock to procure not only the morning-after pills but also to set up a team that can deliver life-saving medical equipment to the frontlines in the capital Kyiv.
Oleksandra says, “If this government poses a problem in distributing the morning-after pills to the victims of rape in Ukraine, we will continue to provide them to women here in Poland, a problem no one is speaking about.”