Warning: This article describes graphic sexual violence.
Since the war in Ukraine began, reports of sexual violence perpetrated by Russian fighters slowly trickled out of occupied areas. Then, as Russian forces retreated from these regions at the beginning of the month, likely to refocus ground offensive elsewhere, official reports of sexual assault and rape have flooded in. The widespread accounts paint a horrifying picture of how Russian fighters are weaponizing sexual violence and adding to the terror of wartime.
The testimonies coming from Ukrainians include gang rapes, assaults taking place at gunpoint, rapes committed in front of victims’ children, as well as torture and mutilation. There have been several reports of Ukrainian women who were raped and then murdered by Russian forces.
One Ukrainian woman described on camera how multiple Russian fighters raped her after they rolled into her village with tanks. Another reported that two Russian soldiers murdered her husband on their front lawn and then repeatedly raped her in her basement with her 4-year-old son sobbing in a room down the hall. A group of 15 Ukrainian soldiers, all women, had their heads shaved and were forced to undress and squat for hours while in Russian detention. A dead Ukrainian woman was found in a cellar, shot in the head and naked except for a fur coat, with a used condom and condom wrappers around her.
In one of the most abhorrent testimonies, 25 girls and women, ranging from 14 to 24 years old, were locked in a basement and gang-raped repeatedly in Bucha, a city near the capital of Kyiv. Nine of the victims are now pregnant. “Russian soldiers told them they would rape them to the point where they wouldn’t want sexual contact with any man, to prevent them from having Ukrainian children,” said Ukraine’s ombudsman for human rights Lyudmyla Denisova.
World leaders have condemned Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, for the atrocities in Ukraine. President Joe Biden recently called Putin a war criminal, describing the actions of the Russian military as “major war crimes.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this month that the horrors in Bucha were “not the random act of a rogue unit” but a “deliberate campaign to kill, to torture, to rape, to commit atrocities.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded for the world to act in a powerful speech to the United Nations Security Council earlier this month.
“Women were raped and killed in front of their children. Their tongues were pulled out only because the aggressor did not hear what they wanted to hear from them,” he said after visiting Bucha, which has seen some of the most horrific violence. “Where is the security that the Security Council needs to guarantee? It’s not there. Where is the peace?”
Rape has been used as a weapon of war for thousands of years, but it’s not found in every conflict, according to Dara Kay Cohen, a professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and author of “Rape During Civil War.” For the past decade, Cohen’s work has focused on international relations, civil war and the dynamics of gender and violence in conflicts.
The Russia-Ukraine war, however, seems to be ripe for the abuse of sexual violence, Cohen told HuffPost. Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 were not allowed to leave the country because they will likely be drafted to fight, so the majority of people fleeing the country are women with children and unaccompanied minors. On the other side, about a quarter of the Russian military is made up of conscripts and there have been many reports that a large number of Russian soldiers don’t believe in the cause they’re fighting for. All of this could lead to a perfect storm of sexual violence in conflict.
HuffPost spoke with Cohen about how sexual violence is weaponized in conflicts and why armed groups sometimes commit these types of crimes — and what this means in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war. (This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.)
How is sexual violence weaponized in conflict zones?
There are a huge number of ways that rape is used in wartime. Feminist scholars have argued for a long time about the ways that rape can be used as a form of torture, as a form of humiliation, as a signal that the men of one group can humiliate the men of an enemy group with the message that they can’t protect their women from this terrible violence. It’s been used as a tool of genocide, it’s been used in the context of ethnic wars and non-ethnic wars.
But one important point is that rape in wartime is not ubiquitous — it does not happen in every conflict. Even within the context of the same conflict, some armed groups commit sexual violence and other groups do not.
One of the keys to understanding why rape happens in wartime is really focusing [on the armed groups themselves] rather than on the region of the world, the country, the level of democracy, etc. All those things might be contributing factors, but what I’ve argued in my research is that the most important part is understanding the armed group that’s committing the sexual violence.
What are some indicators that lead you to believe one armed group will commit a higher level of sexual violence than another?
One red flag is to look at recent history with these very same military forces. We know … that Russian forces and Russian-backed groups in recent years have committed sexual violence in places like Chechnya, Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. There is a history, a recent history, of this type of violence committed with these same groups.
Another red flag is about the composition of the armed groups themselves, the fact that there is conscription. Scholars of civilian victimization and wartime atrocities have found that armed groups that have committed substantial resources to political education use restraint when interacting with civilian populations.
Put simply, fighters who know what they’re fighting for or fighters who believe in the cause tend to not abuse civilians to the same extent. We know in Ukraine right now, some Russian fighters have no idea what they’re fighting for and may not believe in the cause very strongly.
One of the areas of concern for me and some of my colleagues has been because of what we know about the composition of the Russian forces. Not only are there conscripts, but there also are reports of forced recruitment — literal kidnapping. In other contexts, we have observed those conditions to cause an uptick in sexual violence. Armed groups that recruit their fighters through force are more likely to commit sexual violence.
There are also foreign fighters joining the fight in the Ukrainian conflict. That’s another correlate with increased atrocities including increased reports of sexual violence. When there are foreign fighters introduced into someone else’s war, we might expect that these groups suffer from low cohesion. And sexual violence is one consequence of that.
“Fighters who believe in the cause tend to not abuse civilians to the same extent. We know in Ukraine right now, some Russian fighters have no idea what they’re fighting for and may not believe in the cause very strongly.”
– Dara Kay Cohen
So sexual violence can be a sort of bonding mechanism for fighters in an armed group with low cohesion?
That’s correct. There’s a pretty large uptick in reports of multiple perpetrator rape or gang rape, specifically, in the context of wartime. Gang rape is a relatively rare form of sexual violence in peacetime, even in places where rape is quite common. Something like 70% to 80% of reported rape in conflict zones can be gang rape.
One of the key factors I found in my research is looking at the function of gang rape, the purpose of gang rape from the perspective of the perpetrating group. I found that gang rape helps armed groups that suffer from low cohesion to essentially overcome that problem. It’s a way of signaling virility and masculinity, which can create social bonds between members of armed groups — particularly members of armed groups that have been forcibly recruited.
That sounds relevant to our conversation about the war in Ukraine since about a quarter of the Russian army is made up of conscripts and there have been reports of foreign fighters joining the fight on both sides.
There’s a couple of important factors to keep in mind. One is that the people who commit multiple perpetrator rape are, I guess for lack of a better word, more normal or less pathological than people who tend to commit rapes on their own.
Many of the contexts I have studied, such as civil wars, these are just ordinary people. These are not criminals. These are not people with a thirst for violence in any way. They’re farmers, they’re students, they’re regular people that have been scooped up by armed groups and beaten and forced to join. It is those same ordinary people who go on to commit these acts of mass rape.
There’s a set of studies authored by [Joseph] Vandello on this concept called “precarious manhood.” Vandello and his colleagues argued that if masculinity is threatened, then one way of recovering from the blow of that threat is to perform a physical act, often a violent physical act. In my book, I argue that the act of being forcibly recruited is a major blow to one’s masculinity and one way of recovering that is to perform the ultimate act of physical, hyper-masculine violence: an act of sexualized violence.
There have been reports of Russian soldiers using sexual violence as a tool of genocide in Ukraine. Can you talk to me about that?
There is evidence that sexual violence has occurred during genocide, although it doesn’t occur during all genocides. We have some examples where sexual contact with the enemy other during a genocide is completely prohibited. It’s not that sexual violence did not occur during the Holocaust, but there were not reports of mass rape or anything close to the levels we knew to happen in other genocides like Rwanda or Bosnia. In the case of the Holocaust, there was a pollution taboo between Jews and Nazis. And, actually, that pollution taboo may have protected folks from being sexually violated.
One working hypothesis one of my colleagues [Yale professor] Elisabeth Wood proposed is that rape is actually more likely to occur during a genocide when there was a great deal of intermarriage before the genocide: when there’s close cultural ties between the groups, which seems to be the case in Ukraine and Russia.
In the context of genocide, scholars often study what was said to victims and survivors to try to understand the motivations for rape.
One of the most concerning reports I believe came out of Bucha where a group of women were [reportedly] held in a basement and raped repeatedly. There were 25 women and girls, and now nine are pregnant. Reports have suggested that the perpetrators told those women things like, “You’ll be raped until no Ukrainian man will want you” or “You’ll be raped so much that we’ll erase the next generation.” That was the implicit — if not explicit — message. Those are all very concerning signs of the genocidal use of sexual violence during conflict.
When we discuss rape in wartime, often we only discuss women as victims. Are the majority of victims of sexual violence in conflict zones women? Are there victims of other genders in these situations?
That’s a really important question. We know from reports that the majority of victims of sexual violence across conflict contexts are women and girls, but that does not mean that men and boys aren’t also victims of sexual violence. For a long time, scholars approached research on sexual violence assuming that perpetrators are men and victims are women. So, if you wanted to study the question of sexual violence and conflict, you needed to go talk to women. Period. Over time, as we have learned more about how diverse the pools of perpetrators and the pools of victims and survivors are, we’ve gotten much better at asking questions.
On a global scale, there are surprisingly large numbers of men and boys who are victimized by sexual violence in contexts of conflict. Really folks of all genders, although there’s diminishingly small evidence because we have a very incomplete evidence base when it comes to LGBTQ+ folks as victims of sexual violence.
In some contexts, sexual violence is even more highly stigmatized for men and boys, particularly if the perpetrators are also men. In some contexts, homosexuality is illegal or punishable by death. So, the ability to come forward and report those crimes is really restricted. It’s also the case that in some contexts, rape might be culturally defined as an act of violence that can only happen to women, so even if a man experiences rape it’s not defined as an act of rape.
What do we know about what happens to victims in the aftermath of conflict?
We know that surviving sexual violence in a conflict is traumatizing. It can have devastating consequences on survivors’ psychological health, on their relationships with their family members, on their relationships with their communities. It can be a terrible and terrifying form of violence to survive.
We also know that often it’s not the only thing that a survivor has experienced in conflict. There is a danger in … assuming it’s the worst thing … that can happen to a woman in wartime, because that ends up reifying these very patriarchal ideas about women’s sexual purity. It might be the worst thing on the individual level, but we shouldn’t always assume it’s the worst thing. There’s a real concern about creating a hierarchy of harms, as it’s called, and treating sexual violence like it is the ultimate harm that one can suffer.
Although women are disproportionately represented among victims of sexual violence, it’s not the case that all women experience sexual violence during conflict, even during mass rape wars. It’s still a relatively rare form of violence compared to forced displacement and other forms of violence that are likely to be much more widespread during conflict.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.