Finding dignity in documenting wartime rape

Reports of mass rape by Russian forces in Ukraine have led to mass reporting of this war crime, helping to lift many rape survivors.

French investigators listen to Ukraine's top prosecutor, Iryna Venediktova, in the town of Bucha where Russia forces allegedly committed mass atrocities.

The war in Ukraine may be the first time in history that a common weapon of war – systemic rape, mainly of women – has been so well documented during the conflict itself. Conducted by multiple organizations, the capturing of the accounts of rape survivors is aimed mainly at possible prosecution of Russian forces for acts of mass sexual violence.

Yet the investigations could be having a more immediate and even healing effect. They may be lifting survivors by affirming their inherent dignity as individuals worthy of justice, with the added effect of de-stigmatizing wartime rape.

“Prosecution is also a form of prevention and can help to convert the centuries-old culture of impunity for these crimes into a culture of deterrence,” Pramila Patten, the United Nations special representative for sexual violence during conflict, told the U.N. Security Council on April 13.

“Survivors,” she added, “must be seen by their societies as the holders of rights that will be respected and enforced.”

The groups collecting evidence of rape in Ukraine range from the International Criminal Court to the office of the country’s top prosecutor. A France-based group called We Are Not Weapons of War plans to offer a digital tool that will allow survivors to report atrocities themselves. In mid-April, Britain and Canada launched a new global standard on humane ways to gather information from survivors of conflict-related gender violence in order to lessen the risk of trauma. 

On April 3, Human Rights Watch was the first group to report that Russia is using rape as a weapon of war against Ukraine. Only 14 years ago, the U.N. Security Council declared that rape and other forms of sexual violence during a conflict constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The U.N. is supporting Ukrainian survivors in other ways. It has opened dozens of shelters, crisis rooms, and care centers for displaced women and survivors of violence. Lithuania has donated contraceptives to Ukrainian women.

Over the past three decades, various global campaigns against wartime rape have shifted attitudes to make it easier for survivors to report this crime. While prosecutions of such acts remain rare, survivors are being treated differently, turning feelings of loss and disgrace into empowerment and grace.

Wartime rape is being seen less and less as collateral damage of a conflict and more as a necessary focus in trying to end a war. And that focus starts with respect for the dignity of survivors.

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