A Weapon of War? Some Reflections on Sexual Violence during the Russian War in Ukraine — Marta Havryshko in Conversation with Regina Mühlhäuser

A Ukrainian woman mourns as the apartment building behind her burns. Image courtesy of the Associated Press.
In the days and weeks following Russia’s February 2022 invasion and military occupation of Ukraine, scholars with expertise on the region weighed in on the ongoing crisis. Their meditations, insights, and professional experiences are collected here as the “Ukrainian Dispatches.” The New Fascism Syllabus‘ “Ukrainian Dispatches” series is being coordinated and edited by Jennifer Evans, Brian J Griffith, and Sophie Wunderlich.

A Note from the Authors:

We first met each other at the 2015 conference “Against Our Will – Forty Years After: Exploring the Field of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict” in Hamburg, Germany,1 and we stayed in contact ever since. We both work on sexual violence during World War II and we collaborate with other researchers and NGO professionals in the “International Research Group ‘Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict’.” Soon after the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Marta decided to protect her son and flee the country. When she arrived in Hamburg on 12 March, we immediately started talking about sexual violence: against Ukrainian refugees in the border regions and in the countries in which they found temporary shelter, but also in the warzone back in Ukraine. At the time there were only few indications pointing to this form of violence in Ukraine. But in the past weeks the subject has become more and more visible. We believe it is important and necessary that sexual violence receives this attention. At the same time, however, we are worried about the ways this violence is being represented. Who speaks about it and who remains silent? Which aspects are brought forward and what remains in the dark? In order to share some of our observations and concerns, we decided to document some of our conversations in written form. The result is a momentary snapshot in an ongoing development. Nevertheless, we hope to contribute to a better understanding. The following exchange took place on 20 April 2022.

Content Notice:

In the following paragraphs, Marta Havryshko and Regina Mühlhäuser explicitly describe situations of sexual violence.


Regina Mühlhäuser:

In the past weeks, more and more testimonies and reports on sexual violence in the war zone have been published—via social media, in newspapers, and reports. Women who fled from eastern Ukraine, from Kyiv, Mariupol and other places, to western Ukraine, Poland and other countries, have reported what they heard and experienced. You are closely following these stories. What is your assessment of what is happening?


Marta Havryshko:

I think we can observe something right now that we have seen in many wars throughout history: All over the world soldiers commit sexual violence along with other kind of crimes and atrocities such as looting, beatings, torture, and murder. And Russian soldiers have a long record of sexual crimes ‒ during World War II, in Afghanistan, during the Chechen Wars and during the invasion of Donbas in 2014. Now in the occupied Ukrainian territories, they also commit rape and other forms of sexual violence. The majority of victims are women, but girls, boys, and men also suffer from this form of violence. In most of the cases sexual violence is directed against civilians, but there are also reports that female soldiers are falling victim to sexual torture.

Most of the rapes we are seeing in this war up to today are “public rapes.” What do I mean by that? That family members or other people who are sheltering at a place—for example in houses, basements, or schools—are forced to witness the victims’ humiliation. For the perpetrators it seems to be very important to demonstrate to others what they can do. Hence, one aim of these “public” rapes seems to be to intimidate the Ukrainian population, to spread fear and terror—not only to the ones that actually experience these horrors but also to the people who witness them and hear about them. They are sending a message to the whole community: “We are powerful, we can and will punish you for your resistance against us, for not celebrating us as ‘liberators.’” Also, these rapes communicate to Ukrainian men that they cannot protect women and children, that they cannot protect their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers.

What is more, these kinds of rapes say a lot about the perpetrators themselves: They express their feeling of contempt for Ukraine, for the Ukrainian people. In fact, they seem to be a way for Russian soldiers to justify their actions. I heard about cases in which Russian soldiers entered private houses, tied the women who were there to the furniture and forced them to watch their children being raped. In one case the older sister of a girl approached the Russian soldiers and asked them: “Please take me instead of her. I am older.” But the soldiers replied: “No. You should watch what we are doing to your sister. Because we will do the same to all Nazi whores.” This story reveals the impact of Russian propaganda. This propaganda says that there is a genocide by Ukrainian neo-Nazis against Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, and that the Russians came to protect and save all Russian speakers. This ridiculous identification of Ukrainians with Nazis impacts the Russian soldiers’ behavior and their cruelty towards Ukrainian civilians. They use this propagandist language when they justify their actions. For them, Ukrainian women are fascist women, they are wives, daughters, sisters of fascist men. Through the rapes they affirm and strengthen this idea. Through the rapes the Ukrainian women become the enemy ‘Other.’

And the Russian army command condones their behavior. The soldiers are looting, they take many things, jewelry and flat screen TVs, and also clothes, even worthless rags. This is a sign that their morale is very low. And in the same spirit they also rape women. And their commanders allow them to loot and to rape. Sexual violence is a reward for the soldiers, to lift their mood.

In short, I believe that in this sexual violence in warfare is a weapon. Why? Because first of all we have a lot of testimonies of rape in all of the Russian occupied territories. These are not only individual actions. Second, most of those cases of rapes are public rapes. The soldiers want to spread terror, they want to spread fear. Third, it is obvious that those soldiers don’t believe that they will be punished. The army command tolerates their actions. Even though Russia officially denies everything.


Regina Mühlhäuser:

What you describe shows that rape is not a “by-product” of this war, but an intrinsic part of the belligerent action. However, I think it is necessary to emphasize that there are risks in using the term “rape as a weapon of war” nowadays. Because different people—depending on context and interests—mean very different things by it.

For instance, in Time magazine, British MP Alicia Kearns (who advocates for an independent body to investigate sexual violence in Ukraine and other wars) argued that “low-ranking and mid-ranking commanders […] order their men to commit rape.” Where does she get this from? What is her evidence for this assumption? Research on other wars indicates that sexual violence is usually not explicitly ordered. Regarding the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1992 to 1995, for example, there was and is the widespread perception that Serb commanders explicitly ordered their men to rape. To date, however, there is no evidence of that. Rather, the sources suggest that the ways military commanders treat this kind of violence—how and why it is tolerated, accepted, facilitated and encouraged, and how it becomes part of military calculations—is much more complicated. It is thus very difficult to hold commanders accountable.2

What I want to emphasize is that using the term “rape as a weapon of war” runs the risk of simplifying and thus mystifying why soldiers commit sexual violence. Sexual violence appears to be condemned only insofar as it is part of a larger military plan. The fact that many soldiers may simply be taking advantage of the opportunity is not reflected in the “weapon of war” narrative. The whole complexity of the phenomenon—how gendered dynamics, individual bodily and psychological realities, societal and cultural conditions, political and economic structures generate, foster and shape the perpetration and the experience of sexual violence—becomes invisible.


Marta Havryshko:

I see your concern. And, indeed, I have not seen any evidence that indicates that the Russian army command explicitly orders their men to rape. But I believe that they turn a blind eye. For instance, we know of a case in Bucha where 25 women and girls aged 14 to 24 were held in sexual slavery in the basement of a building for several days. We must assume that the soldiers could not have sexually enslaved these women without their commanders knowing. They were surely aware of this and they tolerated it.

This can also be observed with regard to other crimes. For example, when the Russian army shells maternity hospitals, kindergartens, and schools. There are many stories of people who were victimized when they attempted to run away. There is one case when Russian soldiers opened fire on a civilian vehicle near Nova Kakhovka. The family inside consisted of five people, including a 6 year old girl and a 1.5 months old boy. All of them were killed. And we know about similar cases in other regions. This type of a crime could not be so widespread if Russian commanders are not tolerating it. And sexual violence falls in line with all of these other brutalities.

At first the Russians denied everything. They even denied that these crimes were committed by their army. “It’s a lie,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters at the end of March. But we have a lot of evidence. And this evidence reveals the brutality of Russian warfare. The mass graves in Bucha where hundreds of civilians were killed serve as just one of many examples. As of today, as we speak, the Russian army has killed approximately 200 children in Ukraine, and hundreds have been injured.  Also, children’s bodies have been discovered, nine years old, ten years old, half-naked or completed naked, with their hands bound, their genitals mutilated.

What is more, sexual violence is not only directed at civilians. On 2 April, fifteen Ukrainian female soldiers were liberated from Russian captivity. And they related how they survived sexualized torture in detention: Their heads were shaved and they were forced to undress and do squats in front of their male counterparts.

And when I see all of these different cases I think that it reveals that sexual violence is one of the unofficial strategies of the Russian army to spread terror and fear, to make Ukrainians give up, to force Ukrainian authorities to agree to any Russian terms of surrender in order to put a stop to these unspeakable horrors. The Russian army uses this cruelty and brutality in order to scare, terrorize and, ultimately, to pacify the Ukrainian people, and to break our collective will for resistance. In this sense I speak about sexual violence as a weapon of war.


Regina Mühlhäuser:

When I listen to you, the old question comes to my mind: Why is sexual violence such an effective means to terrorize a population, especially in comparison to other forms of violence? Researchers have argued that this is related to the fact that this violence disrupts the family and the society, that it sows mistrust and leads to an alienation of partners, families, and social groups.

To this day, the idea that women who have been raped are ‘dishonored’ and ‘defiled’ is very common. As Gaby Zipfel has noted, rape victims are often accused of being complicit in their own victimization. For instance, it is suggested that “she asked for it” or that “she would never admit it, but secretly she did enjoy it.” As a consequence, the victim is denied sympathy and a clear classification of this form of violence as crime.

Only when the perpetration of sexual violence is extremely brutal and is accompanied by other forms of violence is it unambiguously established as an unwanted, negative experience and as a war crime. By implication, we must thus ask ourselves whether most of the stories of sexual violence that are publicly told right now are so gruesome precisely because there is no doubt that they will clearly be understood as crimes. And then we must further ask ourselves whether there might be less “spectacular” cases of rape happening right now—that is, cases that are not accompanied by this horrific excessive violence—which the victims cannot report because they must fear being suspected of complicity.


Marta Havryshko:

I am sure there are many things going on right now that we don’t know about, that will only come to light later, after the end of this war, or perhaps never.

But let me stress your first question: Why is this violence so particularly effective? I think we can already see that this violence causes mistrust in Ukrainian society. And this also has something to do with the prewar period. Rape culture was and is heavily present in Ukrainian society, as in many other societies around the world. Before the war, we were not very open to speak about sexual violence in the public sphere. For example, when the #MeToo movement started, many public figures in Ukraine, such as famous writers, began poking fun of the women who spoke up. And when we had our own flash mob #IamNotAfraidToSpeak, we feminists were astonished by the reactions of many men who mocked the women who chose to reveal their stories of abuse and trauma. Indeed, we are lacking a substantial, open discussion about sexual violence in different spheres of life—in academia, in schools, in church, in the armed forces and so on. It therefore does not come as any surprise when we currently observe in social media that every post about a case of sexual violence in the Russian occupied territories has dozens of comments by ordinary people who engage in victim blaming: “What did you expect? You didn’t you leave the territory …” “What did you expect? You didn’t hide your daughters …” “What did you expect? You let them into your house and brought them tea …” Sadly, there is a lot of victim blaming going around right now.

There is a recent story published by a feminist journalist, Victoria Kobyliatska, who spoke to a woman who was raped. This woman lives in a small village in the countryside and she told Kobyliatska that she would not go to the police or apply for psychological support. Her main worry is that she is pregnant as a result of the rape and that she wants to terminate her pregnancy. She blames herself for not resisting the perpetrator, even though experts say that it’s a normal reaction in a violent situation and, in fact, a survival strategy, because the victim can never know what the offender will do to her and her beloved ones in they put up any resistance. So it is even harder to see that this woman suspects that the people in her local community might not support her but, rather, might even question her behavior.

Some women also report that other women tell them how to behave in order to avoid rape by Russian soldiers: “You should hide, you should wear rags, you should smear your face and body with feces, you should pretend you are mad or you should pretend that you are sick.” This actually reminds me of women in World War II. For my project on gender and violence during the Holocaust in Ukraine, I conducted many interviews with eye-witnesses. One of my respondents told me: “When the Germans started to rape women, some older women refused to go to the underground shelters. They put on very old, dirty clothes and they screamed ‘krank, krank’ [sick, sick].” And nowadays some women make oral statements, sometimes even written notes, on how to behave in situations of war-related sexual violence which sound quite similar. As a matter of fact, this also creates an atmosphere in which victim blaming is justified and even encouraged. “If you follow some basic rules,” the logic appears to be saying, “you will not be raped. But if you are raped, you should question your behavior.” These women are traumatized, but they cannot speak openly about it, because they must assume that even their relatives and their friends will blame them, at least partially.


Regina Mühlhäuser:

I never thought about it in this way. When I studied these kinds of stories in World War II, I always thought about such measures as a method for women and girls to protect themselves, and in that sense as empowering actions. But you are right: At the same time, this also insinuates that it is the responsibility of the victims to prevent rape.


Marta Havryshko:

Feminists in Ukraine are trying to deal with this problem of victim-blaming. For instance, some feminist journalists recently wrote an article focusing on the question of how to investigate and represent sexual violence in the media, how to approach victims-survivors, how to lead the conversation with them, and how to avoid using these allegedly “hot topics,” which are only intended to illustrate their own views and interests anyway. They ask all journalists to think about the victims as they would their loved ones.

Also, some human rights organizations have developed leaflets for victims of sexual violence: What can you do if you are pregnant? What medicine can you take if you contracted a sexually transmitted disease? Their recommendations are very practical, developed and presented in a sensitive manner. Furthermore, those leaflets also provide phone numbers for organizations that specialize in assisting victims of sexual violence, for women’s rights organizations, and for special law enforcement units. I heard that most survivors try to seek help from established women’s rights organizations, because these organisations have worked on sexual violence for a very long time, and their members are trained well and know how to talk to the women without inflicting additional blame, shame, or fear.

Indeed, not all support mechanisms for victims of sexual violence are this professional. After the first reports of rape began emerging in March, a psychological assistance service for victims of sexual violence was established on 1 April, with the support of UNICEF. However, victims of sexual violence in Ukraine, by and large, have not been willing to talk to these psychologists. And indeed, some of these psychologists have behaved a very unprofessional manner—for example, in revealing information about their client’s stories to the general public. Consequently, rape victims are afraid that they will be identified by their relatives or friends.

As many victims of sexual violence had to leave their homes in eastern Ukraine and fled to western Ukraine, there is an increasing demand for support in this latter region right now. In Lviv, for instance, the women’s rights organisation “Women’s Perspectives” organizes workshops for training psychologists on how to speak with victims of sexual violence.

But we also observe additional problems. Some Ukrainian rape victims have fled the country and are now in Poland. But in Poland you cannot easily get the “morning after pill” in the pharmacy. What is more, abortion became largely illegal after a ruling of the Polish Constitutional Court in January 2021. Since then, you may terminate your pregnancy when you are raped, but only if you have filed a police complaint. Most Ukrainian war refugees, however, do not report what happened to them. Last but not least, they don’t have enough strength to deal with all the legal questions. There are also some feminist initiatives that help with organizing abortions, but it is not always easy for Ukrainian survivors to get access. This can be a horrible situation for many victims. For one thing, there are women who are afraid of the discrimination that awaits them when they bring home an “illegitimate” child. They are afraid that their husbands, families and communities will learn that they have been raped, and that they might be ashamed and direct their anger against them, not against the perpetrators. In addition, some women might also fear that they will not be able to feel love for this child, that they will not be able to behave like a caring mother. Indeed, when a woman bears a child conceived after rape, she is faced with many negative emotions and memories.


Regina Mühlhäuser:

The situations in which victims of sexual violence find themselves is terrible and difficult in itself, under “normal” circumstances, but even more so in an ongoing military conflict. What are the conditions under which those who are affected can relate and discuss their experiences right now? Do women share their stories with their friends, in feminist circles, via social media? Do they report what happened to them?


Marta Havryshko:

Some women share stories about their own experiences as well as the experiences of others with people they trust, in particular with other women: family members, friends, women that host them in their homes or support and assist them, and sometimes even with strangers. For example, my mother, who lives near Lviv, meets a lot of internally displaced persons. Among them are women who openly talk about sexual violence in the Russian-controlled territories. Other women prefer to use indirect speech, saying, for instance: “I had to leave Bucha because I have two daughters,” thereby conveying that they wanted to save them from rape.

Some women who experienced sexual violence also report to official bodies like the Ukrainian police. And most of the information that is made public comes from Ukrainian official bodies—the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, Lyudmyla Denisova, the Prosecutor General, Iryna Venediktova, and the local authorities. Some cases are described by Ukrainian and foreign media outlets. And in addition, evidence is collected and revealed by NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch. Still we must assume that many of the victims prefer to remain silent and that this violence is still underreported.


Regina Mühlhäuser:

If we assume that many of those who are victims of sexual violence perpetrated by Russian soldiers are not authorized to speak, that they might feel it is safer for them to remain silent, then we must also assume that the situation is even more precarious for women who have experienced sexual violence in other constellations, i.e. where the perpetrators were not Russian soldiers. We know this from other wars, for example in the former Yugoslavia or in Rwanda. Gorana Mlinarević has recounted that a ‘Croatian’ woman who was raped by a ‘Serbian’ man and a ‘Serbian’ woman who was raped by a ‘Croatian’ man can feel solidarity and support for each other. But if a woman was raped by a man from her own group, she can hardly count on receiving any solidarity within her group. These kinds of cases are actively silenced.3 Do you see similar problems in Ukraine?


Marta Havryshko:

Yes, and I do think it is necessary to monitor all the different constellations of sexual violence in order to understand what is going on. For instance, when the war started, some cases were made public where civilian men had sexually assaulted women in bomb shelters. But nobody wants to hear those stories, no media will provide any space to reflect on them. People who try to publish them independently will be accused of working for the enemy, of dragging down our spirits … I believe that this will be another consequence of this war, that some women will be silenced, because their stories do not fit into the hegemonic narrative, that is, that the rapist is always the enemy soldier.

In fact, we also know about cases of sexual violence by Ukrainian soldiers. In the conflict in Donbas, since 2014, some cases where Ukrainian soldiers sexually assaulted and raped local women have been made public. For example, some members of the infamous “Tornado Unit” were accused of rape and other crimes in 2016. But lawyers and human rights activists noted that Ukraine is not very successful at trying and convicting its own militiamen, despite there being plenty of opportunity to do so. It seems as if some judicial bodies consider the fact that the defendants fulfilled their military duty in Donbas as a mitigating circumstance. This was, for instance, the case when a war veteran who was charged with the rape of a teenage girl in Kyiv was sentenced only to two years of suspended imprisonment and a small fine (3,000 hryvnias, approximately 100 Euro).

In addition, similar to other armies around the world, we can also see in the Ukrainian army that female soldiers suffer from sexual harassment and violence by their male comrades, and face huge difficulties when seeking justice.

But all of these constellations don’t receive any attention—they are silenced, and I am afraid that the groups and agencies that are now beginning to document sexual violence in this war will only look for cases of sexual violence perpetrated by Russian soldiers.


Regina Mühlhäuser:

What is speakable and what is silenced, when, and why? In the past years, we have often talked about the “communicative rules of sexual violence” with regard to World War II. Acts of sexual violence during World War II encompassed a variety of constellations—in Europe as well as in Asia. To begin, the perpetrators were German and Japanese soldiers or their respective allies. But, secondly, they were also members of the Allied armies—Soviet, American, British, and French soldiers—as well as members of partisan and resistance groups. And we know that, thirdly, also civilian men, including men who belonged to the groups that were persecuted by the Germans and the Japanese, committed sexual crimes. Many of such acts of sexual violence were directed against the respective enemies, but members of one’s own collective could also become victims. When do these constellations become a subject of public discussion? Who speaks about it? Who remains silent? And why? The answers to these questions always depend on political conditions and interests at a certain point in time.


Marta Havryshko:

Yes, and I believe we can currently observe a shift taking place in Ukraine. Do you remember when you told me that you gave a lecture on sexual violence by members of the Wehrmacht and SS at the 2013 conference “Central and East European Women and the Second World War” in Kyiv? At that time, everyone thought it was a great subject, while, on the other hand, there were disagreements about whether to, as well as how to, address sexual violence by soldiers of the Soviet army. Today, however, everybody wants to draw up parallels between the Red army soldiers of World War II and the Russian soldiers of today. But no one wants to talk about the Wehrmacht, the SS and their local collaborators in the Holocaust, i.e. Ukrainian policemen, anymore. Why? Because many people now see Germany as an ally. So they don’t want to bring this to the table. I was, for instance, recently asked by Ukrainian media to give an interview about sexual violence in Ukraine during World War II. When they sent me their questions, I saw that there was no single question about the German army or the persecution of the Jews. All question were about Red Army soldiers.


Regina Mühlhäuser:

Interesting, I experienced something similar, but in a completely different context. I was asked in an interview for the German news agency RND whether I thought what is happening right now in Ukraine was comparable to World War II. And I said that I don’t think such comparisons are particularly meaningful. If I were to make a comparison, however, I would want to compare the behavior of the Russian army today with the behavior of the German army in World War II. Both armies made a surprise attack, invading a sovereign neighboring country in violation of international law, both armies conscripted very young men and so on. After this was published, I received several e-mails from German men, even a university professor, accusing me of wanting to be politically correct, but actually just being naive. Because the Russian army today, so goes their argument, would behave similarly and just as “uncivilized” as the Red Army in World War II. Here, historically deep-rooted German anti-Russian resentments come to the fore, for which the current war simply appears as a confirmation—and in particular the perpetration of sexual violence which is seen as evidence for a particular kind of uncivilized-ness.

What this illustrates is that sexual violence is a politically contested issue and a crucial element of memory politics. And what disappears in these processes, again and again, are the voices of the victims themselves. This is not about them. They are not asked; they are not listened to. Their stories disappear in the respective nationalist meta-narratives.


Marta Havryshko:

Indeed, the whole debate about sexual violence in the war in Ukraine right now should be more victim/survivor-centered. What we see now are efforts to collect evidence for future trials to persecute the perpetrators. This is, of course, very important. But what about the well-being of the survivors? That should also be a primary concern. Money and resources should be offered to improve their situation.

I watched the UN Security Council session on accountability for conflict-related sexual violence, which was held on 11 April 2022. Almost all speakers from all the different countries, the representative of UNICEF and so on mentioned sexual violence in Ukraine. On the one hand, it is very good that these gendered sufferings are noted, and that they are even discussed in terms of crimes against humanity and so on. The British ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, for example, already stated on 3 April that Russian soldiers are committing rape as ‘weapon of war’. In fact, an initiative led by the United Kingdom wants to establish some kind of special, independent body to investigate this violence in Ukraine. So this question is on the table on different political levels, which is a good thing.

At the same time, however, the support for victims is really not well established. There is a lack of trained specialists for providing them with psychological support, a lack of specialists who are trained for collecting evidence without retraumatizing survivors, a lack of state-run shelters for rape survivors and their children, and so on. I think we really need to work harder in building systems and procedures for approaching victims, for supporting them, for providing them with psychological and medical support. And this also has to do with the establishment of special types of support for children. You might have heard about the case of a six year old boy who had to watch the gang rape of his mother. He stopped talking. Kids like him also need support and assistance, because they are secondary victims of sexual violence. What we need to do is think more about providing help for victims-survivors and their loved ones.


Regina Mühlhäuser:

I think an approach like that of Medica Mondiale—a feminist NGO that cooperates with partner organisations in conflict zones in order to support and empower local women and support structures—is particularly instructive.

Regarding the investigation efforts, we have to keep in mind that it will be extremely difficult to document and prosecute this kind of violence, even more so in the midst of an ongoing war. The prosecution of sexual violence in international and internationalized courts in the past 20 years has shown how difficult it is to conduct such proceedings in a way that leads to a conviction of the perpetrators and, at the same time, to protect the victim-witnesses. As Gabi Mischkowski and Gorana Milinarević argue, the reasons for this are manifold. The first one that comes to my mind is that it is difficult to prove sexual violence beyond doubt. This violence often takes place in private, without third party witnesses. Now, one might want to object that many rapes in Ukraine are “public rapes.” But we have seen something similar in Bosnia Herzegovina. Here, too, “public rapes” were considered as evidence for their strategic function. In fact, however, not a single eye witness was found who would testify before the ICTY.

Moreover, there is usually no evidence that this violence was ordered (which, as I already mentioned above, it is usually not). On the contrary, the responsibility of military commanders is legally difficult to establish.

Another problem is how the testimonies of the victims are generated. Investigators are often fixated on the issue of sexual violence. But the women who testify as victim-witnesses have experienced quite a lot of things, sexual violence being only one instance of war-related violence. This fixation on sexual violence, and the way the interviews take place, can thus lead to a retraumatization. In general, many people taking statements have not been trained in how to deal with victims of sexual violence, how to protect them, and how to conduct the interviews in a way that the statements will hold up in court. The British Initiative for an Independent Commission of Inquiry has announced its intention to abide by the new Murad Code, which seeks to create legal standards for questioning and protecting victims. However, this approach remains impartial and problematic. In the drafting process there have been feminist critiques that the code focuses merely on the individual situation of a survivor and “does not address the institutional, government, and professional reform necessary to protect survivors from the potentially negative consequences of documentation.”

It is also often the case that very different organizations take witness statements in the course of investigations—local NGOs, police, international investigators from different countries, and so on. Since memory is not fixed, it regularly happens that statements contradict each other, for instance with regard to the time of the crime or the colour of a nearby house, etc. To us, these factors might not seem relevant, but contradictions in these details make such statements useless in a court of law.

In order to deal with these and many other problems, researchers like Kirsten Campbell argue that we need to reconceptualize international criminal justice “so that it transforms, rather than reproduces, gendered injustices.”


Marta Havryshko:

I share your concern. I believe that victims are likely to be exploited in the process of such investigations. In particular because they are traumatized not only by sexual violence, but by losing their home, losing their loved ones, etc. This is why we need to closely observe these documentation and prosecutorial efforts. There should be different feminist groups, and in particular local feminist groups, in Ukraine that are involved in these investigations. And there needs to be a mechanism that enables these groups to put pressure on investigators and prosecutors. Only then will it be possible to have a successful outcome and to protect victims of sexual violence.


Regina Mühlhäuser is a Senior Researcher at the Hamburg Foundation for the Advancement of Research and Culture and an Associate Researcher at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research

Marta Havryshko is a Researcher at the Ivan Krypiakevych Institute of Ukrainian Studies in Lviv and a Guest Researcher at the University of Basel



  1. Some of the discussions and results of the conference are published in Gaby Zipfel, Regina Mühlhäuser, Kirsten Campbell (eds.), In Plain Sight: Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2019).
  2. Barbara Goy, Michelle Jarvis, Giulia Pinzauti, “Contextualizing Sexual Violence and Linking it to Senior Officials. Modes of Liability,” in Serge Brammertz, Michelle Jarvis (eds.), Prosecuting Conflict-Related Sexual Violence at the ICTY (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  3. Gorana Mlinarevic, “Nationalism and the patriarchal order,” in Zipfel, Mühlhäuser, Campbell (eds.), In Plain Sight, p. 341–34.

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