By Victoria Pardini
“I want this war to be over. I want all of us to rebuild our societies. We are a force that can do that, and we will do that; we are doing it. But I think we also need to see the bigger picture, that women in the world, and now in our region, are not protected from violence – any form of violence,” said Marina Pisklakova-Parker, Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Every Woman Treaty, during a recent Wilson Center event on Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian women’s voices in the anti-war movement.
Pisklakova-Parker was joined by five additional experts from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus to discuss the Russia-Ukraine war at one month of fighting, women’s activism leading the anti-war movement, and solidarity between the three countries despite a conflict that has divided citizens in Russia and Ukraine.
Anti-war Protests in Authoritarian States
There is a very real danger for women who participate in anti-war activism in authoritarian countries like Belarus and Russia. Those who oppose the war in Russia can be detained for up to fifteen years on the basis of disseminating false information and discrediting the armed forces, said Alena Popova, a Galina Starovoitova Fellow at the Wilson Center and vocal anti-war activist.
Women detained in recent government protests have experienced torture and harassment by police following their protests, she said. Since the start of the war on February 24, an estimated 15,418 people have been detained across Russia for protesting the invasion. A separate issue is the effective and efficient propaganda machine run by the Kremlin, as many Russian citizens today support the war because they are not receiving an accurate picture of what is happening in Ukraine, said Elena Servettaz, a Russian journalist and head of press for the newly formed True Russia foundation.
In the two years since nationwide protests against Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko began, state-sanctioned brutality against pro-democratic and anti-war activists has become the norm, said the panelists from Belarus. “It feels like dictators were just practicing in Belarus to see how many people they can imprison, how many people they can injure—or even kill—with no consequences whatsoever,” said Alisa Grinshpan, an activist and member of the BySol solidarity movement. These same tactics have also been used against Belarusian citizens who opposed the war in Ukraine, she said.
Still, those in the country continue to demonstrate against the war. Marina Mentusova, a co-founder of the Women in White protest movement in Belarus, is working with women in the country to dissuade their husbands or sons from fighting in the conflict on the side of Russia.
Women and Wartime Violence
“The war in Ukraine has been and will be catastrophic for women and girls across the region. Accounts are horrific, and despite the profound pain this conflict has caused, we in the region are coming [together] in solidarity,” said Pisklakova-Parker. Indeed, reports of sexual violence toward Ukrainian women have been steadily climbing since the beginning of the war. As Russian forces retreat from regions after weeks of occupation, including the Kyiv Oblast, horrifying stories have emerged on the toll the war is taking on civilians, and women in particular.
In Ukraine, one in three women already report experiencing physical and sexual violence, and experts presume that the war will only heighten this problem for both external refugees and the country’s more than 6.5 million internally displaced persons. Additionally, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that 80,000 women will give birth in the next three months in Ukraine, but without proper medical care because of the conditions of the war.
“Putin would probably be horrified if he learned how many people in the world, who speak Russian, do not want to be associated with a Russian Federation who bombs residential buildings, children’s hospitals, and maternity wards in a neighboring country in their name,” said Servettaz. In the first month, there have been 121 deaths of children and millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee, said Yulia Sergeieva, a Ukrainian human rights activist who fled the country at the start of the war. These numbers continue to rise with the most recent count at 4.5 million Ukrainian refugees and 1,793 total civilian deaths.
Which Measures can be Adopted to Make Change?
Despite the very real dangers and atrocities already occurring due to the conflict, the panelists did offer several signs of hope and solidarity. While all the panelists agreed that sanctions were necessary, they also noted that unilateral sanctions have been shown to be especially harmful to vulnerable groups. Targeted sanctions are therefore needed to decrease the undue burden on women and children affected by economic blockades in the region, said Grinshpan.
There is also a need for increased protections for all journalists, who are effectively criminalized within Russia if they do not support the Kremlin’s agenda, said Servettaz. Enforcing special immigration statuses for journalists impacted by the conflict would ensure their protection against retaliation in Russia, she said.
In times of tension and conflict, collaboration between women across multiple nationalities is a critical step forward toward solidarity and eventual peace, agreed the panelists. “I strongly believe in our sisterhood and I’m totally sure that if we unite all the female projects, feminist projects, and women initiatives, we can win,” said Popova.
Ultimately, while citizens of authoritarian countries are not responsible for the war, now is the time for these citizens to come out in support of anti-war efforts to move toward peace, agreed the panelists.
“The regimes of Putin and Lukashenko are to be blamed, but every citizen of Russia and (Belarus) should have an active position. Otherwise, not having a position is sharing in the crime,” said Sergeieva. “I’m very grateful for the women who stand here today and are not afraid to speak out. It will take time, it will take victims, but it is the only way to change this situation.”
Additional Resources: Panelists mentioned several impactful projects to support female refugees, including the Help to Leave Project, the True Russia Foundation, and the BySol Foundation. Popova also pointed to a newly published list of measures to support both refugees from Ukraine and anti-war activists in authoritarian countries.
Sources: Human Rights Watch, NY Times, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations (OHCHR), OVD-Info, United Nations, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Photo Credit: Protest against war in Ukraine and Russia’s invasion. Damian Lugowski/Shutterstock.com.
This post first appeared on New Security Beat.