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The war has worsened disparities for women in Ukraine


Women and children make up an estimated 90% of the millions of people who have fled Ukraine since the war there began in February. A report titled "Rapid Gender Analysis Of Ukraine," published this month by the humanitarian group CARE and U.N. Women, showed how the war is disproportionately burdening women. NPR's Anya Kamenetz is in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. She's been looking into this and speaking to groups there who are advocating for women, and she's with us now to tell us more. Anya, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And before we begin, I do have to let people know that the conversation we're about to have will include discussion of sexual violence. So if it's not appropriate for you at this time, we invite you to step away for a couple of minutes. Having said that, Anya, can you give us some background here? What were some of the conditions for women in Ukraine before the war?

KAMENETZ: Yes. So Ukraine was a place with plenty of existing gender inequities, kind of like the United States or pretty much anywhere. But what people tell me is that things were actually getting better. So Ukraine's version of the #MeToo movement in 2017 was called I'm Not Afraid To Say, and it focused not just on rape and sexual harassment, but also domestic violence at home. And partly as a result, in 2019, a new law took effect that actually criminalized domestic violence for the first time and established things like shelters and hotlines and essential registry for offenders.

MARTIN: For the first time?

KAMENETZ: Yes. Before, domestic violence was just a civil offense.

MARTIN: So what's happening now?

KAMENETZ: So you can see that on the one hand, women are leaders in this country right now. They're leading in the government with figures like the prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, who's indicting Russians for war crimes. They're leading humanitarian efforts, and tens of thousands are in the military. And on the other hand, Michel, women are also bearing the brunt of this war in so many ways.

MARTIN: Well, of course, one way that we've certainly been hearing about this is that so many women and children have fled or been driven from their homes.

KAMENETZ: That's right. Families are being separated, partly because of the martial law that requires that men ages 18 to 60 stay in the country. And, you know, being a refugee or a displaced person is really hard in a lot of ways. In cities like Lviv, where I've been this past week, that have taken in a lot of displaced people, you know, there's just too many people, not enough jobs, not enough apartments. People's lives are in limbo. And also, even for people who were employed before the war, there's a dilemma that may be familiar to our listeners from early COVID times. The schools are online only, child care centers closed. So even if you could find a job, you can't go out to work. And overall, from elderly women to young mothers, the broadest and deepest impact of this war is economic.

MARTIN: But how is all this playing out for people mentally and emotionally?

KAMENETZ: To learn about this, I reached out to La Strada Ukraine, one of the best-known feminist organizations in the country. They operate a national hotline for the prevention of domestic violence, trafficking and gender discrimination. And domestic violence has always accounted for the majority of their calls, and that's still true now. But Yuliia Anosova, an attorney for the organization, told me the nature of some of these reports has changed. Yes, you still hear about men attacking their female partners, but also...

YULIIA ANOSOVA: We receive calls from parents who commit domestic violence against their children and who did not do it before the war. And they're calling us because they want to know how to stop to do it.

KAMENETZ: So, Anosova says, picture a family, she said, that's stuck in a bunker. The sirens are going off night and day, and the mother just snaps.

MARTIN: I think we can all picture that.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. And so La Strada does refer people to counseling for this remotely. And another situation related to domestic violence that Anosova described particular to the war is men - and even some women, she said, who've joined the war effort - threatening their partners with their weapons. And in general, she says, sometimes the stress of combat can be transferred into abusing family members.

MARTIN: So, Anya, what other issues are women calling in to the hotline about? I think we're all starting to hear some really disturbing reports about war crimes.

KAMENETZ: Yes. This is a tough one. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is among those who have publicly accused the Russian army of using sexual assault as a weapon systematically in this war. And there have been several hundred such reports since the 1 of April across the country. Anosova at La Strada particularly told me that they have received a handful of such reports called into the hotline.

ANOSOVA: From 24 of February until today, there were, like, 12 calls reporting 16 victims. So in some calls, there are more than one victim.

KAMENETZ: And of course, we should say, Michel, that NPR can't independently verify these reports. They are all anonymous. But what she said was that the survivors ranged in age from 12- or 13-year-old girls up to women in their 50s and at least one boy of 19 years old. And there's certain patterns. For example, often, these are happening in private homes, and the soldiers are in groups.

ANOSOVA: Sometimes it's gang rapes, so when a few soldiers are participating. Sometimes it's one soldier participating and others watching, encouraging him to do it.

KAMENETZ: So this is one of the reasons that Anosova and others believe that this is a strategy that's being used deliberately to terrorize entire populations. And I can tell you, Michel, that it's working. Even in the relative safety of Lviv, where I spent the past week, women are having nightmares about this.

MARTIN: It's very disturbing. As we said, we've been hearing some really disturbing reports about this kind of conduct. So do these groups say that something can be done about this? Or what do they say can be done?

KAMENETZ: Well, as I said, they're offering mental health counseling. They're also offering advice on how to go to a hospital or otherwise document these crimes. Of course, there's very little opportunity for women while they're in occupied regions to get any kind of police help. But documentation can help for the future. In the long term, you know, feminists within Ukraine told me they want resources. They want international support and recognition that the impact of this war doesn't fall equally on everyone as they try to rebuild.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Anya Kamenetz in Kyiv. Anya, thank you so much for this really powerful reporting.

KAMENETZ: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZMINE SULLIVAN SONG, "LIVE A LIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.