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Olena Zelenksa tells summit of sexual violence committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine    

01 December 2022

Simon Dawson/No 10. Downing Street

The Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, meets with Olena Zelenska, First Lady of Ukraine at the PSVI Conference at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre

The Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, meets with Olena Zelenska, First Lady of Ukraine at the PSVI Conference at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Ce...

THE plight of women in Ukraine who are being subjected to appalling levels of sexual violence was highlighted by the Ukrainian First Lady, Olena Zelenksa, who, in a visit to London, spoke out about the “huge numbers of rapes” by Russian soldiers of women and girls.

Addressing the Preventing Sexual Violence summit, the second such meeting organised by the UK, Ms Zelenska, said that there had to be a global response to sexual violence in conflict. Prosecutors are currently examining more than 100 possible crimes against women and girls by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, but this was a just a “fraction” of the number being committed, she said. Sexual violence is being used “systematically and openly” and stigma and fear prevented women and girls coming forward, she said.

At the end of the summit on Tuesday, a declaration signed by more than 50 countries included pledges for concrete action, including helping to support survivors through working with faith leaders to address the stigma attached to victims of sexual violence in some communities. The first conference, in 2014, led to a political declaration but little action.

The policy manager for World Vision UK, Erica Hall, said that there was so much stigma around sexual violence in conflict that it was impossible to know how many women and girls were attacked, and how many children were born as a result of rapes in conflict areas.

“There were an estimated 30,000 born during the conflict in Sierra Leone and a similar number born in Uganda. There will be a significant number in Ukraine because we are hearing that the incidences of sexual violence in Ukraine are very high, but it will take time for it to be known.”

A platform for action for children born out of sexual violence was launched at the summit. It seeks to ensure and protect the rights of the children.

Ms Hall said: “We launched a platform for action for children born out of conflict related sexual violence, to make progress on the issues they face. One action promised by countries is to review national guidance which, in some countries, can prevent mothers registering a birth without the father’s name. A mother who has been raped in conflict will not know her attacker’s name and this then becomes a barrier to the child’s own identity.”

While the war in Ukraine had galvanised interest and a desire for action over sexual violence in conflict, she said that the world must not forget victims in other conflict zones.

“In Europe, people are identifying more with Ukraine, so it brings it home more for people, but there is no attention on the rates of sexual violence in Afghanistan, in the DRC, or in Tigray in Ethiopia, where rates of sexual violence in conflict are high.

“We are also seeing an increase in the number of children targeted for sexual violence — children are being used as a way of demoralising whole communities, because, if you can’t protect your children, it is very demoralising.”

The co-founder of a community organisation in Northern Uganda, Watye Ki Gen (which translates as We have Hope), Angela Lakor Atim, spoke at the conference of her experience of sexual violence after being kidnapped at the age of 14 by the Lord’s Resistance Army. She eventually escaped, after eight years, to a rehabilitation centre run by World Vision.

She said that sexual violence against women and girls was on the increase in Uganda, despite laws in place to prevent it; one in four girls’ first sexual experience was against their will.

At the end of the summit, 50 countries and the UN agreed urgent action to end sexual violence in conflict, by signing up to a declaration, which recognised that men and boys also can be victims of sexual violence.

The countries committed to action to address triggers for sexual violence such as gender inequality, to removing the stigma faced by victims, and to making sure that national laws are in place to prosecute perpetrators. The declaration also promises “meaningful support” for victims, including tackling stigma by working with local faith leaders.

Around 40 countries, including Colombia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Japan, went further and set out national commitments on the practical steps that they would take to tackle these crimes and make a difference on the ground.

Nigeria has committed to champion the Murad Code, a UK-backed code of conduct, to ensure that the experiences of survivors of sexual violence in conflict are documented ethically and effectively.

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