Care for Ukraine's wartime rape survivors

Russia’s use of rape as a weapon of war has spurred an army of Ukrainian experts to help heal those who suffered such trauma. Foreign donors are backing this compassionate outreach.

Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine, addresses members of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill July 20.

One of Washington’s political enigmas is why Congress shows such strong bipartisan support for Ukrainians in their war against Russia. One reason was on display Wednesday when Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, spoke on Capitol Hill. She had been invited because, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it, “many of us have heard horrific stories about the brutal treatment of women and girls by Russian forces.”

Ms. Zelenska, wife of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, did not disappoint. She highlighted the conflict’s harm to women and their daughters, example by example. “We are grateful, really grateful, that the United States stands with us in this fight for our shared values of human life and independence,” she said.

U.S. assistance to Ukraine is aimed partly at stopping Russian atrocities against civilians – including the systemic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war in areas under Russian domination. “With each day, the war crimes mount,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken July 14. “Rape. Torture. Extrajudicial executions. Disappearances. Forced deportations. Attacks on schools, hospitals, playgrounds, apartment buildings, grain silos, water and gas facilities.”

Yet international aid to Ukraine also supports care for rape survivors. For Natalia Karbowska, co-founder of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, sexual violence in this war is “the most hidden crime.”

The care is not so hidden. Telephone hotlines have been set up to provide assistance to victims. UNICEF has deployed mobile teams of trained counselors to support post-trauma recovery. Doctors Without Borders offers mental health consultations and psychotherapy. Most of all, Ukraine’s therapists and psychologists have volunteered their time and expertise to assist survivors of rape.

“During war, everyone has their own front, and this is ours,” one Ukrainian psychologist told The New Yorker.

Ukraine has “shown a strong desire to address the harms caused by conflict-related sexual violence,” says Esther Dingemans, executive director of the Global Survivors Fund.  Appreciation for that compassionate effort, as well as concerns about wartime rape itself, helps explain why so many countries are willing to assist Ukrainians.

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