Olena Zelenska said Russian soldiers are perpetrating sexual assault “systematically and openly” in her home country, and urged other nations to take action at a conference in London.
Content note: this article contains references to rape and sexual assault that readers may find upsetting.
Russian troops are using rape and sexual assault as a “weapon” in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s first lady, has said.
Speaking at a London conference that marks 10 years of the UK government’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, Zelenska said that sexual assault was being perpetrated “systematically and openly” by Russian soldiers invading her country.
Shockingly, Zelenska stated that Ukraine has evidence suggesting that Russian troops have openly discussed this assault with their family members back home over the phone.
“Sexual violence is the most cruel, most animalistic way to prove mastership over someone,” she told the conference yesterday.
“And for victims of this kind of violence, it is difficult to testify in war times because nobody feels safe.
“This is another instrument that they are using as their weaponry,” she added. “This is another weapon in their arsenal in this war and conflict. That’s why they’re using this systematically and openly.”
Zelenska urged countries to “recognise this a war crime and to hold all of the perpetrators accountable” through a “global response” to these atrocities.
“We see that Russian servicemen are very open about this,” she continued. “They talk about it over the phone with their relatives, from phone conversations we’ve managed to capture.
“In fact, the wives of Russian servicemen encourage this, they say, ‘Go on, rape those Ukrainian women. Just don’t share this with me; just don’t tell me.’”
The first lady said that prosecutors in Kyiv were investigating more than 100 potential crimes by Russian soldiers, but suggested that this represented “just a small” proportion of the number of such attacks being committed in Ukraine.
Sexual assault against Ukrainian citizens was described as the “most hidden crime” of the conflict by Natalia Karbowska, the co-founder and director of strategic development for the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, at a United Nations security council meeting in June.
Karbowska said that the full scale of the violence is not known, as many victims will remain silent, and stated that attacks have also been committed against men, boys and people of other gender identities.
A further UN report presented in October concluded that Russian forces have committed war crimes including rape, sexual violence, torture and summary executions. Russia has repeatedly denied allegations that its army has targeted civilians during the invasion, which began in February this year.
Speaking to the Evening Standard earlier this week, Angelina Jolie, who co-founded the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, called for Vladimir Putin’s troops to be held to account for the abuse they have perpetrated in Ukraine.
“The rapes reported during the invasion of Ukraine follow a familiar pattern: soldiers move into a civilian area and attack and abuse women, out of a sense of impunity and entitlement, and to shatter families and whole communities,” she said.
“The people who carry out these abuses feel untouchable. Not enough has been done by the international community to attach a significant cost to these crimes. As a result, each time there is a new conflict, civilians pay the price.”
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