Trauma of Ukraine's Women Refugees: Rape, Trafficking & Poland's Sexist Laws

Poland's abortion laws are pushing doctors and volunteers to secretly distribute morning-after pills to survivors.
Deepa Parent
World
Published:

It is along the Ukrainian-Polish borders that the stories of sexual assault are coming to the fore.

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(Illustration: Chetan Bhakuni/The Quint)

<div class="paragraphs"><p>It is along the Ukrainian-Polish borders that the stories of sexual assault are coming to the fore.</p></div>

(Descriptions of sexual violence. Reader's discretion is advised.)

Oleksandra (name changed), a Ukrainian volunteer in Poland's capital city Warsaw, is confident that the cases of rape and sexual assault by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian women are 'massively underreported'.

"We've attended to tens and thousands of refugees in the past four weeks. It's too early to estimate how many of them were subjected to sexual violence but the numbers are high," she tells The Quint, claiming that she has met at least a dozen rape survivors since refugees started coming in.

Narrating a survivor's account, she says, "I met 29-year-old Olga (name changed) at the Hrebenne border crossing between Ukraine and Poland. She opened up to me when I spoke to her in Ukrainian."

Olga was allegedly sexually assaulted at gunpoint by two Russian soldiers at her home on the outskirts of Kyiv.

"As a native of Kharkiv, she spoke Russian fluently. After pleading with them to let her go, in Russian, she was left alone. Fearing they would come back, she left her home within minutes. She spent a harrowing 72 hours at a petroleum station until a group of volunteers helped her reach the Hrebenne border crossing."
Oleksandra

She adds that the woman's thighs were still bruised when she first met her.

A single mother, Olga's seven-year-old son is living with her parents in western Ukraine's Uzhhorod.

Trauma Faced by Ukraine's Women Refugees

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the number of cases of women being sexually assaulted in cities and towns across the country is on the rise.

On 27 March, Ukrainian MP Maria Mezentseva, in an interview with Sky News, cited a case from the capital city of Kyiv, where a Russian soldier had allegedly raped a Ukrainian woman in front of her child.

It is along the Ukrainian-Polish borders, however, that the stories of sexual assault are coming to the fore. It is important to note that rape, during a war, is considered a war crime.

Julia, a mother of two, and a native of Kyiv, who had fled the country two weeks ago along with her 71-year-old mother, too, narrated a rape survivor's account to The Quint. On 15 March, she arrived at the border and was waiting in the 'priority line', which first let the elderly, people with disabilities, and women with young children across the Polish border.

"I was standing next to a woman for two hours at the Medyka border, crossing between Poland and Ukraine. She did not speak a word till we reached the reception centre. She told me that Russian soldiers had raped her. She was from Irpin, and has two children. She didn't want to accept help from humanitarian groups in Poland because she was too traumatised," says Julia.

"When humanitarian workers tried to help her, she insisted that only female volunteers attended to her, and not the men. The sight of men scared her, not only for herself but also for her five-year-old daughter," claims Julia.

Apart from the trauma that comes with their homes and cities being bombed, staying hidden in bunkers for days and weeks, and leaving behind male members of their families who must fight the war, many Ukrainian women refugees are dealing with the trauma of being sexually assaulted.

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Polish Doctors, Volunteers Prescribing Morning-After Pills To Rape Survivors

Poland's stringent anti-abortion laws and the unavailability of morning-after pills along the Ukrainian-Polish border are pushing doctors and volunteers to mobilise and secretly distribute pills to survivors of rape – at the risk of being imprisoned.

In the past few years, Poland has witnessed massive uproars over its near-complete ban on abortions in the country – one of the most restrictive laws in Europe. Doctors who defy the law face a jail term of three years if they perform an abortion with a pregnant woman's consent.

"We're taking a colossal risk by making these pills available to survivors of rape. In Poland, these pills are only legal when there's a prescription. It's next to impossible for Ukrainian women refugees to get that prescription. Abortion is illegal in Poland," reveals a Poland-based gynaecologist who works with trusted volunteers to prescribe and distribute the morning-after pills.

"At first, we decided to provide these pills to Ukrainian refugees here in Poland but we've now sent the pills to victims still stuck in Ukraine, surrounded by Russians," he adds.

He confirms that it's getting harder for them to distribute these pills as the border control has tightened. He fears that unless the Polish government makes an exception of making these pills available to survivors of rape, there will be long-lasting consequences for these women.

In an exclusive interview with The Quint, Polish MP Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, says, "We have received reports of women being raped across the Ukrainian border by Russian soldiers. The women are scared, even after crossing the border, though they are safe here."

Oleksandra, who has been helping in the distribution of the morning-after pill, says, "In Poland, with abortion not being an option for survivors of rape, it's clear that the lives of women don't matter as much as a cell that hasn't even developed into a foetus yet. It's a huge risk that we're all taking but in the absence of a government that cares for cases like these, the survivors are only left with secret groups like ours who can help."

Polish Govt's Inaction Apparent, Lack of Coordination at Borders: Volunteers, NGOs

The photograph was taken at the Hrebenne border crossing.

Poland has received at least two million refugees from Ukraine and the country has been reeling under the pressure of handling this influx. With Ukrainian men staying back to defend their country, most of the refugees are women, children, and the elderly.

"You can imagine what will happen when two million people come to Poland. I see two related problems: the first is abandoned children. We are preparing special programmes for them. The second problem is trafficking," Polish MP Kluzik-Rostkowska tells The Quint.

An organisation that is working along the Polish-Ukrainian border is Fundacja Ocalenie, a Warsaw-based NGO. Kalina, a humanitarian worker from the NGO, narrates how when her team went to the border, they saw that there was no system in place.

"All the work to assist the refugees was done by volunteers and NGOs, not the government. I fear that with this lack of coordination between agencies and no plan in place, the risk of human trafficking is growing, especially for single mothers. We are dealing with a multitude of issues, such as sexual violence and racial discrimination, among others," she says.

Polish MP Kluzik-Rostkowska confirmed that the government was working with law enforcement agencies to help Ukrainian victims of rape. She says, "This is not just a Polish problem because some of these women are going to other EU countries, and they need all the help the EU can offer."

Mirroring MP Kluzik-Rostkowska's comments, Kalina says she hopes they would find a solution for the survivors. On the other hand, the gynaecologist, Oleksandra, and the volunteers are working round the clock to procure not only the morning-after pills but also to set up a team that can deliver life-saving medical equipment to the frontlines in the capital, Kyiv.

"If this government poses a problem in distributing the morning-after pills to the victims of rape in Ukraine, we will continue to provide them to women here in Poland, a problem no one is speaking about," says Oleksandra.

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