Like many of you, I’ve found myself glued to the news of Putin’s horrific and unconscionable war on Ukraine these past few days. I’m feeling grief for the people of Ukraine, anger that autocrat Vladimir Putin holds the power to once again unleash terror and destruction, and powerlessness to do much beyond doomscrolling, and donating to humanitarian and local assistance groups (see below for recs for the latter).
Memories of Ukraine are flooding in. The first time I was in Ukraine was in the summer of 1984; I was studying Russian at Leningrad State University, and we took a group trip to Kyiv and Lviv. Both cities were a breath of fresh air in Soviet times: green and relaxed. Kyiv featured a large, beautiful beach on the banks of the Dnipro River, where families and young people spent their summer weekends. There was even a small restaurant in Kyiv that served reasonably good pizza—a rare delicacy in the Soviet Union!
At the Open Society Foundations, the Public Health Program I led worked closely with the International Renaissance Foundation, the fittingly named Ukrainian organization in our network. Providing clean needles and methadone treatment for persons who use opioids, using legal strategies to stop discrimination in healthcare, ensuring access to palliative and hospice care, supporting persons with disabilities to live independently―that was our agenda! I’ll always remember the large international meeting we organized in Crimea in 2010 to strategize on health and human rights. We had a farewell group dinner at a spectacularly located Tatar restaurant, where we sat on Kilim rugs under the stars and sang songs from our countries of origin.
Our Ukrainian colleagues were deeply committed to the democratic transformation of their country, and looking forward to a European future. And Ukraine was changing, becoming a more open society, with free and fair elections, an independent press, and less corruption. It still had a way to go on many fronts including women’s rights (e.g., even today, only 12% of parliamentarians are women), but there were determined feminist groups working on the ground, and many other civil society organizations. That’s what Putin could not bear—a freer and more open Ukraine just beyond his borders.
I’m also feeling compassion for my Russian friends who in no way support this criminal war, and who are outraged and ashamed. I felt the same way when the US invaded Iraq on made-up grounds in 2003. I am in awe of those Russians who are marching and protesting against the war in Russia, in the face of severe repression and state violence.
No one can fail to notice and praise Europe’s outpouring of solidarity for Ukrainian’s refugees, which stands in stark contrast with the violence, racism, and Islamophobia inflicted on Syrian and African refugees by many of the same governments. It’s now clear we are perfectly capable of treating all refugees the way we treat Ukrainians, with respect and decency, rapid intake, minimal paperwork, easily available work visas and strong support to integrate quickly. Let’s call on all governments to do so: and yes, UK, US and Canadian governments, this means you.
I can't bring myself to glorify war, even the necessary and brave war waged by Ukrainians to defend their country and democracy. War is hell, and it is a special kind of hell for women and children.
Today’s wars are waged in and around cities, increasingly affecting civilian populations, often deliberately, despite what the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the laws of war say. In 2021, The Lancet launched a new research series on the impact of war on the health of women and children.
Their first conclusion: the indirect effects of armed conflict on civilian women and children are far greater than its direct effects on combatants. The study found that women and children make up 75% of people who are forced to flee because of armed conflicts worldwide: in 2017, this amounted to 51 million women and children who have run for their lives, leaving everything behind. We are seeing that play out in Ukraine in real time: hundreds of thousands of women with small children in tow, traveling and waiting for hours in freezing temperatures.
The study also looked at those who cannot escape armed conflict: they are often the poorest and most vulnerable, including the elderly, the sick and those with disabilities. The authors of the review estimate that 630 million women and children lived in zones of armed conflict in 2017 (including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine, Somalia, Nigeria, Myanmar, Pakistan, India, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Eastern Ukraine…). The numbers are simply mind-boggling.
The study found that malnutrition and infectious disease caused by the conflict are lethal to children: about 7 million infants and more than 10 million children under the age of five died from the indirect consequences of fighting across Africa, Asia and the Americas between 1995 and 2015.
For women, violence is the greatest immediate danger. Women who flee are subject to sexual violence and exploitation throughout their journey. Women who remain in conflict areas experience much greater rates of interpersonal violence than those in non-conflict areas. This is a worldwide problem, but it was documented in Ukraine by Amnesty International in its report Not a Private Matter: Domestic and Sexual Violence Against Women in Eastern Ukraine issued in 2020. Amnesty investigated the situation of women in the Ukraine-controlled regions of Donetsk and Luhansk affected by the armed conflict with Russia since 2014. They found much higher rates of domestic and interpersonal violence than in the rest of Ukraine, as well as impunity related to the presence of the military in theseareas. Interpersonal violence tends to remain high, even after conflict ends. Ukraine is now awash in weapons and soldiers; this war will inflict long-term violence to Ukrainian women.
Women in conflict areas often lose access to reproductive health services. They end up delivering babies in bomb shelters, or dying in childbirth. About 80,000 women will be giving birth in Ukraine over the next three months, at a time when Russia is bombing hospitals and maternity wards. Women and girls in conflict areas face unwanted pregnancies and cannot access abortion easily. Adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to rape and sexual harassment.
Photos of women in the Ukrainian military have been circulating on social media (some of which are staged photos of members of right-wing militias, but that’s another subject…). I have not reposted those pictures, and not only for that reason. The military everywhere remains a deeply patriarchal institution. Women in Ukraine’s armed forces make up 10% of personnel in uniform, and have been allowed to serve in combat positions since 2016. (The corresponding figures for the US military are 16%, and 2016 is also when they were allowed to serve in combat). As this article explains, Ukrainian women in uniform have had to fight hard for recognition and equal professional opportunities. No doubt they also have to deal with the sexual harassment and violence that is all too common in themilitary, and that American servicewomen have been trying to address for years, with limited success. One in four American servicewomen has experienced sexual assault in the military.
Women in the Ukrainian military reminded me of “The Unwomanly Face of War,” the extraordinary book by Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian-Ukrainian writer who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Between 1978 and 1985, Alexievich interviewed hundreds of women who had served in the Soviet Army during the Second World War, and she managed to publish some of these interviews at the time despite Soviet censorship. These women had served as snipers, fighter pilots, battlefield surgeons, machine gunners, truck drivers, and in many other “unwomanly” roles. Many of them had enrolled as very young women, eager to join the war effort after Nazi Germany launched a devastating attack on the Soviet Union. They were largely forgotten and written out of history after the war. In the preface, Alexievich explains why she wanted to write their stories: “Everything we know about war we know with a man’s voice. We are all captive of men’s notions and men’s sense of war. Men’s words… Women’s stories are different and about different things. Women’s war has its own colors, its own smells, its own light, and its own range of feelings. Its own words.”
Alexievich weaves the first-hand accounts with her own reflections on war and on the place of women in Soviet society. The book is poignant, gripping, horrifying, full of humanity and often funny details: “ …I turned out to be the smallest of the company, 1m53 [5 feet tall], shoe size 35 [US size 5], and naturally, military industry did not provide us for such tiny sizes…I put the boots on and off without unlacing them, and they were so heavy that I dragged my feet on the ground as I walked… The commander saw me marching and called me out. ‘Smirnova, what kind of step is that? Haven’t you been taught?... Put in three extra turns of duty…’ I turned to go and fell down. I fell out of my boots… My feet were all bloody blisters. The company shoemaker, Parshin, was ordered to make me a pair of size 35 boots out of an old tarpaulin.” (Nonna Alexandrovna Smirnova, antiaircraft gunner)“I remember us lying somewhere in a wheat field; it was a sunny day. The German submachine guns go rat-a-tat-tat—then silence. All you hear is the wheat rustling. Then again the German submachine guns go rat-a-tat-tat… And you think: will I ever hear again how the wheat rustles?...” (Maria Afanasyevna Garachuk, paramedic)
If you want to help the Ukrainian people, here are trusted organizations. Many groups are fundraising for Ukraine, but I am recommending groups that are already active on the ground in Ukraine and neighboring countries, and that have experience in humanitarian assistance, emergencies or war, including with a specific focus on women:
UNFPA (UN agency focused on sexual and reproductive health, already present in Ukraine, experienced in providing services and supplies in refugee settings)
Urgent Action Fund (women’s fund focused on emergency support for women’s human rights activists, working in partnership with the Ukrainian Women’s Fund for years)
International Committee of the Red Cross (neutral international humanitarian agency tasked with safeguarding the 1949 Geneva Conventions; already present in Ukraine, protects those affected by armed conflict, secures water, food, medicines, humanitarian corridors, decent treatment of prisoners of war)
World Health Organization Foundation (fundraising arm of the World Health Organization, has already shipped plane loads of vital medical supplies to Ukraine; WHO is already present in Ukraine)
International Rescue Committee (long experience in refugee crises, present in Poland, with a focus on women and children in this crisis)