“It’s a sin for me to complain.”
These are the words used by 33-year-old accountant Alyona Zub-Zolotarova in a recent interview with the New York Times describing her plight in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of her hometown Iprin, a small city located northwest of Kyiv in Ukraine.
Zub-Zolotarova had fled the city with her eight-year-old child upon the Russian attack, but her husband had had to stay to fight in defence of his homeland.
She is lucky to be hosted by what she termed a “wonderful Polish family” that gives her food and a warm place to sleep. Albeit luckier than many other Ukrainian women who have been either besieged in attacked provinces or stranded in tunnels or on borders, Zub-Zolotarova cannot live with the anxiety of being away from her husband, home, and normal life.
“I’m very worried about the people who stayed in Ukraine, who don’t have food, who are being shot at,” she told the New York Times. “My husband stayed in Kyiv to defend his right to live in his country. We have to be strong for his sake. I pray all the time. But I don’t have the right to cry.”
Zub-Zolotarova’s worries are certainly not unfounded. People who have remained under siege for two weeks in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol are still having a hard time. Or at least such was the account given by 37-year-old Daria Peshkova, who managed to flee Mariupol with her two children aged eight and 14.
“Please, I beg you, convey the message that all of this happened on March 5,” she told the New York Times. “That was a long time ago now. Now it is a catastrophic situation in Mariupol. People, to get water, they take water from the radiators, from the pipes that heat the radiators. That’s how they make tea.”
Although Ukrainians are all paying a heavy price for the war, women seem to be bearing the brunt of the conflict.
“The war has had massive consequences on Ukraine, and women and girls are bearing a disproportionate burden,” writes Akkanksha Khullar, author of a special report entitled War’s Gendered Costs: The Story of Ukraine’s Women published by the India-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
But this “gendered cost” is not unique to the war in Ukraine: women and girls have always been at the frontline of wars and conflict and have been hit worst by them throughout history, both in the short and longer terms.
This has already been the case in many conflict zones such as the Sahel in Africa, Tigray in Ethiopia, and Afghanistan, where women have reportedly been subjected to violence.
“Women and girls have their health and safety, their human rights, and their futures placed at unbelievable risk during conflict,” wrote Khaniya Mlaba in a report for the Global Citizen Organisation.
Women and girls are usually the most affected by sexual and gender-based violence during conflicts, and they are always most at risk of being exploited and mistreated. They also frequently lack access to food, water, sanitation, healthcare, and education.
Such gendered suffering has been entering the media limelight now that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict grinds on with no sign of abating.
GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE: In addition to gender-based violence, there are reports that women in conflict zones may also be subject to sexual exploitation, trafficking, and transactional sex.
According to the Global Citizen Organisation, “war and GBV are undeniably interlinked, with women and children being exposed to physical, verbal, sexual, and psychological abuse in times of conflict.”
The Organisation outlines these forms of violence and how they are being used “as a tool in war” to impose hegemony, weaken families, and conquer resistance. “In Afghanistan, where the Taliban violently took over the nation in 2021, women and girls were already exposed to GBV as a by-product of the group’s previous rule and violence experienced in the nation,” it said.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in 2020, 87 per cent of women in Afghanistan had experienced at least one form of GBV, and 62 per cent had experienced psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.
The UN has also warned that refugee camps are not always safe for women and girls, saying that an estimated one in five female refugees living in humanitarian settings have experienced sexual violence.
In the case of Ukraine, the UN has estimated that more than half of all those either fleeing the country or are displaced – almost 1.5 million – are women.
According to figures provided by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), “as of July 2022, at least 65 per cent of women are still trying to find safety in different parts of Ukraine.” The IOM speculates that these numbers are only expected to “increase significantly” in the coming months as the offensive continues.
Yet, it is not the displacement alone that increases the security risk for Ukrainian women and young girls. “As thousands of refugees seek shelter and safety, the danger of women being trafficked heightens as they look for help for themselves and their children,” the Global Citizen Organisation warns.
“Exploiting their situation and vulnerability, traffickers offer transport, work or accommodation, thereby luring women to leave with them,” writes the ORF report. “These situations could lead to sexual exploitation where women are forced to trade sex for shelter, transport, or safety.”
The ORF report states that “since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there have been reports of women being raped following the execution of their husbands, and of women being raped in front of their family members – a deliberate tactic to tear apart the fabric of the Ukrainian family, break the spirit of the women, and instill a sense of hopelessness and despair”
Child marriage is also considered a “by-product of war,” as the Global Citizen report shows.
“As war and conflict result in declining economies and disrupt access to food, child marriage is seen as a desperate solution for financial stability for families,” it says.
SUFFERING POVERTY: In all wars and conflict zones, violence usually leads to the destruction of infrastructure and facilities, including hospitals and clinics, and reducing access to needed healthcare.
This is usually compounded by the loss of important facilities that leads to a shortage of electricity, water, and sanitation and disrupts supplies.
“This puts women and girls at significant risk as, with a lack of sexual and reproductive healthcare, there’s a higher potential for unintended pregnancies as well as the spread of disease and infection,” says the Global Citizen report.
In Yemen, for instance, figures provided by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimate that the war there has destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure, leaving only 20 per cent of healthcare facilities still able to provide maternal and child health services.
“As a result, a woman in Yemen dies in childbirth every two hours, with the causes almost always being preventable,” the UNFPA said.
Women in Ukraine are exposed to similar risks. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that at least 64 hospitals and healthcare facilities have been bombed and shelled in the country.
“On 9 March, a maternity hospital in Mariupol was bombed, resulting in the death of at least one pregnant woman and her unborn child,” the WHO said.
About 265,000 women were reportedly pregnant when the war erupted, and it has severely affected the care they receive due to the destruction of medical facilities and shortage of supplies.
“In the past six months of the war, pregnant women in Ukraine, shielding from Russian bombardment and to protect their babies, have been reportedly giving birth in subway stations, underground shelters, basements and bunkers,” the ORF said.
More alarming perhaps is the fact that nearly 80,000 women are likely to give birth in the next three months in Ukraine. “If these expectant mothers continue to be deprived of critical maternal health services, they will be forced to give birth in difficult conditions, endangering their own life and that of their child,” it warned.
Maternity care aside, women generally have more burdens in wars, which usually lead to the destruction and closing down of schools, hospitals, childcare and elderly centres. When there are food shortages, it is usually the female members of the family that cut down their own intake to save food for other members of the household.
“This trend has become glaringly visible in Ukraine, driving worsening malnutrition and anemia among women and young girls,” the ORF noted.
Women often are the ones responsible for relocating and protecting families and making sure that everyone is safe, including children and the elderly, and as a result it is mostly women and children that can be found in refugee camps. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that more than half of the world’s 80 million displaced people are women.
The UN also points out that “conflict situations have a tendency to reflect sexist gender norms, where women are expected to flee conflict, and men are expected to fight on the front lines, leading to a situation where women are responsible for feeding, housing, and protecting their families.”
“This leaves them little time, if any, to care for themselves,” the ORF warned. “Compounding the care burden are other consequences of war, such as strained community resources, high demand for volunteer work, and the absence of men. The ongoing war in Ukraine has brought about a shift in gender roles where more and more women, in the absence of their husbands, are emerging as heads of household.”
But despite their significant role, women remain largely marginalised on the political level, and that can make their needs largely unattended.
“At the formal decision-making level, the centralisation of power and increased role of the military have only made it more difficult for women to exert influence in political and administrative decision-making processes,” the ORF lamented. “Women’s lack of participation has further failed to ensure that their needs and priorities, including of those most vulnerable and marginalised, are being given adequate attention and thereby mitigated.”
Meanwhile, girls are given less priority than their male counterparts in terms of education, and this is further compounded in times of wars.
The Ukraine’s Education Ministry has announced that over 1,800 schools and universities have been damaged or destroyed since the Russian invasion, while “other schools are being used as information centres, shelters, supply hubs, or for military purposes by both warring parties.”
Although millions of boys and girls alike have missed out on their education over past months, the US-based Save the Children organisation says that “in areas of conflict like Ukraine, girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys.”
“The Covid-19 pandemic has already shown how educational disruptions make it more difficult for girls to return to school once the crisis dissipates,” the organisation explained.
“Some children have turned to online schooling initiated by the Ministry of Education,” the ORF added. “Girls, however, are finding it difficult to even engage with these online sessions due either to increased care burdens at home, the unwillingness of parents to allow them to do so, or the lack of access to digital means.”
“I write TV shows. But now I feel like I’m a character in one of them,” 46-year-old Ukrainian television screenwriter and journalist Vika Kurilenko told the New York Times. As a mother of three, Kurilenko had to flee a small town northwest of Kyiv that was under Russian assault for the safety of her children.
“I don’t want to be a refugee somewhere in a foreign land,” she went on. “I’ll miss my home. I’ll miss my things, our photographs, pictures of my parents. I left my diaries, my children’s toys, my dresses.”
Such agony is probably shared by millions of other displaced women in conflict zones who are still waiting for their voices to be heard.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly