Why we need feminist solidarity with Ukraine
Feminist Fightback has been in touch with feminists from Ukraine to find out more about the gendered effects of the war and how to build a feminist anti-war movement. In this article we provide what we hope is a useful – though extremely disturbing – overview of the situation and make some suggestions for practical solidarity from the UK.
Sexual violence, including rape, as a weapon of war appears to have been deployed on a vast scale. Most notably, there are numerous reports coming out of the liberated territories north of Kiev of Russian troops having committed rape and other forms of sexual violence. Women and girls have been gang raped; raped before being executed; raped in front of their children; and in the town of Bucha 25 women aged 14 to 25 were kept in a basement and repeatedly raped.
Women who have become pregnant after being raped are often unable to get an abortion. Although abortion is legal in Ukraine, the war makes it extremely difficult to access this medical service and some women are even struggling to get emergency contraception. Those seeking refuge in Poland come up against its almost total ban on abortion. Although abortion in Poland is still technically legal in the case of rape, a criminal investigation has to occur in order for a termination to be permitted. Even if this were not logistically impossible given the fact that the rapes took place in a war zone, participating in an investigation would further traumatise the women involved.
Women living in the conflict zones and women refugees are extremely vulnerable to sexual coercion – whether this takes the form of survival sex or more systematic exploitation by criminal networks. In cases where women have chosen to sell sex, the fact that they are operating in a society in extremis means that the options available to them are severely restricted and it’s much more difficult to exit dangerous situations.
In Britain, punitive immigration controls are making the situation worse. Instead of opening the borders to refugees, the government has grudgingly supported a ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme that requires Ukrainian refugees to be ‘matched’ with a sponsor in Britain. Although some checks are being carried out by local councils, the scheme is under-resourced and relies on informal communication networks such as Facebook. As a result, the ‘the robust mechanisms that have been developed through other resettlement programmes’ have been dangerously undermined. Women refugees are therefore particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and harassment from their hosts, or being forced to undertake unpaid domestic labour in return for housing.
None of the disturbing scenarios discussed above are unique to the war in Ukraine. Gendered violence in its many forms has also been a feature of women’s experiences in the recent wars in Syria and Afghanistan for example. Women from all over the world currently navigating Britain’s draconian immigration system face similar risks. Many people have made the point that had the majority of the Ukrainian population not been white, the horrifying situation that they are in would have received far less attention in the press and provoked far less of a public outcry. Feminists need to keep opposing all immigration controls and speaking out against all forms of militarised violence and imperialism.
The conversation, however, cannot end there. The specific form of Russian imperialism, and the fascist tendencies of the Putin regime, need to be grappled with and confronted. The Left in Britain needs to listen the criticisms of some comrades in post-soviet nations who have deplored our relative silence (and even equivocation) on Ukraine because it doesn’t fit with a reductive and binary understanding of the West versus the rest.
Understanding the distinctively gendered impact of the invasion of Ukraine offers one important perspective on the significance of Russia’s position within the geopolitical sphere and its relationship to the rise of the far right – from India, to France, to the US, to Britain. Vladimir Putin’s tweet in which he expressed sympathy with JK Rowling when she was allegedly ‘cancelled’ due to her trans-exclusionary views, may appear absurdly trivial in the context of the war crimes outlined above. But it is revealing of particular kind of far right mobilisation of the culture wars that has gender politics at its heart.
Russia’s 2013 laws banning the ‘promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors’ (which effectively inhibits all representations of non-heterosexual relationships in the public sphere) added to legislative discrimination against LGBTQ + people, and generated an upsurge in violence from homophobic vigilante groups. These homophobic laws have spread to Crimea and the so-called “People’s Republics” Russia’s particular brand of anti-queer and anti-feminist fascism is especially worrying when combined with its aggressive expansionism. It threatens to spread to its other neighbours and has already had wider reaching consequences: in Syria and the Donbass region, for example, which have been under de facto Russian control since 2014. The militarisation of these societies has made violence against queer people the norm (often endorsed by government representatives) and has even led to cases of homophobic and transphobic shootings and torture. In Chechnya, the pro-Russian government orchestrated a reign of terror against queer people in 2017 – imprisoning them, torturing them and forcing them to ‘denounce’ other homosexuals.
The gendered impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, therefore, should not simply be understood as the inevitable outcome of all wars, regardless of context. In fact, it has a very particular set of implications. Homophobia and misogyny are central to Putin’s signature brand of authoritarianism alongside its racism and nationalism. They are not simply a vestige of out-of-date socially conservative attitudes, but rather turbo-charged and modernised as a way to fuel support for aggressive imperialist expansionism.
However overwhelming the situation is – both in terms of the enormity of the violence generated by the invasion of Ukraine and the complexity of the political context – the solution has to start at the grassroots. There are a number of Ukrainian feminist organisations who have been providing much-needed support for women and queer people affected by the conflict. Many of them are also grappling with the difficult question of what anti-militarist feminists should do in a situation where, for those who remain in Ukraine, armed defence is the only way to protect yourself against violence and death. For example, Oksana Dutchak, a leftist and feminist who recently fled Ukraine, argues along with many other people on the Ukrainian left that the most important thing the West can do to support them is to ‘supply weapons and enforce sanctions.’
We have decided to feature small grassroots organisations here – most of which have been recommended to us by a comrade involved in the Filma: Feminist Film Festival. These organisations urgently need funds and political support from feminists in the UK.
- Feminist Workshop is an NGO based in Lviv. It is currently working with other feminist organizations across Ukraine, especially in hotspots, to support women of vulnerable groups and evacuate them to the western part of Ukraine.
- Freefilmers is an intersectional-feminist filmmaking collective. Since the war it has directed all its energy towards providing immediate support for underground artists, queer activists and neurodivergent people affected by war. This is entailed the transportation of humanitarian aid, medical supplies and equipment to the regions most affected by war and taking refugees back to safer places.
- Sphere (Сфера) is a feminist and LBT organisation working in the Kharkiv region, currently providing mental health support and delivering aid to women (including those who have suffered from sexual violence).
- ReSew is a Kyiv-based queer-feminist sewing cooperative that makes clothes accessible for trans* and non-binary people. Since the war its workshop has become a shelter, and its members respond to urgent needs of people in the vicinity, helping them with food, water and relocation. They are also sewing essentials for territorial defence forces and armed forces.
- ZBOKU creates and researches sexual and gender dissent in Ukraine. For the past 6 years, they have been supporting queer and trans* communities in a rented basement. This basement has been recently used as a bomb shelter and as a temporary shelter for those in transit.
The featured image is from the article Five Dead Naked Women in the Street: Bearing Witness in Ukraine. The photo is of five naked dead Ukrainian women on the side of the road.