Russians are using rape as a weapon of war. What is the world doing for Ukrainian women?
Ukrainian women are being raped, then escaping to countries where abortion is outlawed or curtailed.
There is little question at this point that Russian soldiers are carrying out war crimes in Ukraine, including rape. Sexual violence is part of Russia’s “military strategy” in Ukraine, Pramila Patten, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, told AFP last month. “When you hear women testify about Russian soldiers equipped with Viagra, it’s clearly a military strategy,” she said.
There have been hundreds of reports of soldiers raping and torturing women and children; the youngest reported case was of a four-year-old, and the oldest 82.
More than 7.7 million Ukrainians are now scattered across Europe, having fled the Russian invasion, of whom about 4.5 million are registered for various protection schemes. Most have ended up in a handful of nations nearby: Poland (5.4 million), Hungary (1.2 million), Romania (1 million), Slovakia (690,000), and Moldova (573,000). Close to 90 percent of these refugees are women and children.
But what happens when women raped in conflict escape to nations that restrict women’s rights, including abortion?
In Poland, where the largest number of Ukrainian refugees have landed, abortion is broadly illegal; there is an exception for rape and incest, but even in those cases the abortion must be completed within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and Polish law requires rape survivors jump through a series of hoops, including documenting and reporting the rape and getting a certified letter from a public prosecutor. These requirements are so onerous that Poland only permits an average of three abortions in case of rape every year; in 2021, the Ministry of Health recorded zero.
"The rape victim has to explain who, where and how," Krystyna Kacpura, president of the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa), a Polish reproductive rights organization, told journalist Patrick Adams. "Of course, for Ukrainian women who were raped by Russian soldiers, this is impossible. And anyway, many of them are so traumatized that they will not speak about it at all —not even with us.”
Even Polish women who speak the language and ostensibly understand their country’s legal system can’t get abortions when they’re impregnated by rape. For refugees, it’s an even more daunting task. If you’re a rape survivor pregnant from the attack, and you’ve fled your home into a neighboring country, not only has the clock been ticking — it can take months or more for refugees to find a place that feels even a little bit settled — but you have no idea how to navigate a new set of laws and bureaucracies, especially those that operate well outside of refugee resettlement operations. The women who have fled Ukraine are overwhelmingly doing so without male partners and many are coming with children, which means even something like going to the police station or a health care facility means leaving your traumatized kids alone in a refugee center or other strange place full of strangers in a strange land, or bringing them along to hear Mom tell police officers or prosecutors something no mother wants their scared children to hear — and that lots of rape survivors, traumatized by the attack, don’t want to share with a bunch of strange men.
Poland is an outlier among European countries. But accessing abortion care in the other nations to which refugees are fleeing isn’t easy, either. In Hungary, a new law forces women seeking abortions to listen to “fetal vital signs” and has counselors try to dissuade women from ending their pregnancies
What this means, in practice, is that Ukrainian women raped in war are not getting the care they need.
I’ve reported extensively on how women raped in conflict are almost universally unable to get safe abortions, even though it’s now very easy to deliver abortion care to refugee settings. But over and over again, we see the same pattern: Soldiers use rape as a weapon of war; some number of women get pregnant from those rapes and want abortions; those women cannot get abortions; the world shrugs.
Reproductive rights activists are stepping up in Poland, trying to get abortion-inducing medications to women in need. But the Polish government is also prosecuting them.
The US government, even under Democrat Joe Biden, simply refuses to budge on this issue. With the swipe of a pen, Biden could clarify that the Helms Amendment — a long-standing law that bars US funding from paying for abortions overseas — does not apply to rape survivors, and could roll out efforts to make sure that women raped in conflict can access safe abortions via USAID. Like the Obama administration before, though, the Biden administration refuses to take even this tiny step. The EU could step in, too, and demand that all member states uphold fundamental human rights, including the right to legal abortion and contraception.
Refugee women deserve access to health care, including abortion care, wherever they end up, and a Ukrainian woman raped in war shouldn’t see her options change if she winds up in Moldova instead of Poland. Care for refugees is not just the responsibility of the nation hosting them, and the rights of refugees are not solely contingent on the laws of the host nation. This is not a problem the global community can kick down the road: Women who are pregnant from rape need abortion care right now, and every day that ticks by is a day that those women’s rights and bodies are violated all over again.