How to help victims of sexual violence during war
This war is unprecedented in scale, brutality and number of victims. However, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is far from the first example of the aggressors using sexual violence as a method of terrorizing the civilian population. When the first news about the victims began to appear, my team and I thought about what mechanisms exist to help people recover. We became interested in the experience of other countries that experienced various forms of armed conflicts during the last few decades. Any available information was sought on ways to respond to sexual violence in wartime, evidence-based practices in victim assistance, awareness campaigns, etc. And it became a great discovery for us that there are no proven methods in the world that have been worked out by international organizations and can be applied locally. Why? Because the topic is very stigmatized. It is not customary to talk about such things. The question arises – how to help the victims? Psychologists say that staying traumatized is not the same as living with trauma. In the first case, a person cannot go beyond a terrible experience. And the second means the opportunity to live a quality life further, but this is almost impossible without outside help. The earlier a person begins to receive psychological support, the higher the chances of recovery. Unfortunately, people who have experienced such a traumatic experience are not ready to tell, remember and relive those emotions. In addition, they fear the condemnation of society. As a result, there is a closed circle where a person cannot recover due to his unwillingness to speak. In addition, as long as victims remain silent, it is impossible to collect evidence of guilt and bring criminals to justice. Sexual violence during wartime is a war crime that should be punished accordingly. As of January 2023, the Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine recorded 155 cases of sexual violence committed by the Russian military against Ukrainians. According to the Ukrainian Helsinki Union, there may be more than 100 times more of them. However, justice will not be restored without the testimony of the victims. From the experience of communications in the field of health care, in particular mental health, we understood how important it is for the first time to give people their bearings after what they have experienced. In the summer, we launched the “Dali Ye” information platform, where we collected answers to questions that are not allowed to be discussed publicly, but which are vitally necessary: how to prevent unwanted pregnancy and diseases after rape, how to provide medical care in conditions of occupation, how to punish offenders and restore justice, what to do if you witness violence, where to seek legal and psychological support, how to master your emotions and find the strength to move on. During the work on this platform, it was found out that there are organizations working in Ukraine that are called to take care of victims of sexual violence in conflict conditions. All of them have one thing in common – practically no requests for advice and help. I would really like for Ukraine to become another one of the list of countries where the topic of sexual violence is dismissed from the agenda simply because it is difficult to talk about it, and Ukrainians who have suffered from the Russian military will never receive all the help they need. You can react to it in different ways. The first method. You can tell loudly and in detail the shocking stories of people who have gone through a difficult experience. Does this help anyone recover? No. Does it reduce stigma in society? Also, no. Method two. You can stop talking about sexual violence during war altogether. Delete this topic from the information space and pretend that the problem does not exist. The victims are unlikely to be indignant, so society will soon forget about everything. In Ukraine, since the beginning of the war, we have seen the first scenario in action, which only exacerbated the situation. And after a number of blood-curdling stories, suddenly the topic of sexual violence during the war simply disappeared from the infofield. When we started an information campaign in the summer in support of the “Dali Ye” project and began to turn to various media – print, online, television – no one was ready to cover this topic. Thus, Ukraine moved to the second version of the development of the event. But there is a third way. Talking about sexual violence during war to support people to tell them they are not alone is critical. That the state and the whole society supports the victims and will do everything to bring the culprits to justice. You just need to build communication so as not to cause harm, but to support. Balanced, tolerant and, above all, with respect for the person. And it is also necessary not only to communicate, but also to develop a system of providing assistance on the ground, to teach doctors, psychologists, social workers how to interact with people in the de-occupied territories, what to pay attention to, how to help, where to refer… Will the third way work? I really hope so. Recently, we presented the project “Embroidered with pain”, which talks about the problem and tells the collective stories of people who survived sexual violence in the war through the ornament of a Ukrainian embroidered towel. In this way, we raise the topic at the level of society, but the presentation itself has a psychotherapeutic effect, because looking at a towel with a story, there is an opportunity to both read the real one and see your own. Moreover, so that those who have experienced sexual violence, after visiting the site, will see that they are not alone and find an opportunity to seek help, without delaying the experience of loneliness for years. Soon, an exhibition of embroidered towels will appear at the railway stations of large cities of the frontline regions: Sumy, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Odesa. Crowded places are deliberately chosen. The more people look at this issue from a different angle, unobtrusively and ethically, the faster we will overcome the stigma. Through the artistic project “Embroidered with pain”, we would very much like to draw the attention of society to an extremely difficult topic. But we understand that our efforts alone are not enough. The state should be actively involved in the process of developing solutions to support victims of sexual violence during war. And also to build a clear line of communication in society, so that this topic sounds correct and professional. We are convinced that a number of specialized organizations are open and ready to continue working together on the topic of sexual violence during the war to help Ukrainians recover and move forward. Natalya Olbert-Sinko, managing partner of One Health consulting agency, specially for UP. Life Publications in the “View” section are not editorial articles and reflect exclusively the author’s point of view.
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