Reports of rape by Russian soldiers in Ukraine are ‘tip of the iceberg’, experts warn

‘Sexual violence is used during conflicts to destroy not only the lives of individuals but entire communities,’ says campaigner

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Friday 01 April 2022 17:25 BST
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The United Nations estimates at least 1,119 civilians have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine
The United Nations estimates at least 1,119 civilians have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Reports of sexual violence against Ukrainian women carried out by Russian soldiers are likely to just be the tip of the iceberg, experts have said.

Ukrainian officials have announced they are looking into allegations including that a Russian soldier killed the husband of a woman called Natalya before two Russian troops repeatedly raped her in a village outside the capital of Kyiv.

Maria Mezentseva, a Ukrainian MP, has said there are other rape victims whose cases have not yet been revealed to the public. But the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has denied the woman, who has been given the fake name of Natalya to protect her, was raped by two Russian soldiers.

However, campaigners told The Independent reports of sexual violence against Ukrainian civilians do not capture the scale of the problem.

Nadine Tunasi, survivor champion for the British government’s preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, said: “Sadly, whenever men in uniform begin attacking civilians, it is inevitably women and girls who suffer the most and the conflict in Ukraine is proving no different.

“I know from my work with survivors how sexual violence is used during conflicts to destroy not only the lives of individuals but entire communities. It is therefore essential that measures are put in place to protect survivors and ensure that perpetrators are held to account.”

The United Nations estimates at least 1,119 civilians have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February.

Steve Crawshaw, of Freedom from Torture, told The Independent: “Sexual violence by Russian armed forces has been frequently reported during many of Putin’s military engagements, dating back to his brutal war in Chechnya where Freedom from Torture found the practice to be widespread.

“Growing reports of the use of torture and sexual violence by Russian forces in Ukraine are thus sadly unsurprising.”

Mr Crawshaw, a former war reporter who was previously The Independent’s eastern Europe correspondent, said: “The rules of war clearly state that there are no conditions under which civilians can be targeted and sexual violence or torture against civilians constitutes a war crime.

“To prevent further devastation, it is crucial that the conflict is brought to a swift end, abuses are investigated and perpetrators are held accountable.”

While Hillary Margolis, a women's rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, said “unfortunately, sexual violence is always a feature of war and far too often used as a weapon in conflict”.

“The fact that we are seeing initial reports of cases of rape by troops in Ukraine only indicates there are likely many more that remain unreported,” Ms Margolis told The Independent.

“It is essential that survivors of sexual violence have access to urgent post-rape care, including in wartime, and that investigations into potential war crimes in Ukraine include rape and other gender-based violence.”

It comes after The Independent reported at the end of February that increasing numbers of Ukrainian women will endure sexual violence wielded as a “weapon of war” in the wake of Russia’s invasion of the country.

Leading human rights organisations warned women are likely to be among those hardest hit by Russia’s “full-scale invasion” of Ukraine, noting they have already “suffered” badly during the bloody eight-year conflict between Russian-backed rebels in the separatist east of Ukraine.

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