An ode to mothers in Ukraine
As in America, Ukraine celebrates Mother’s Day this Sunday. But this year will be marked by sadness, sorrow and loss. Since late February, when Russia invaded its sovereign neighbor, bombing innocent civilians, turning millions into refugees and committing war crimes, Ukraine has had little to celebrate.
So, this Mother’s Day, let’s turn our thoughts to the women engulfed in a war they didn’t seek.
To the mothers of Ukraine trapped inside the country living in fear as missiles rain down on their towns and cities.
To the mothers outside the country who face dislocation and anguish awaiting word on friends, husbands, sons and other family.
To mothers crossing back across the border into Ukraine to check on relatives or to show defiance.
To mothers of young children who should be in school, or grown children who should not be at war.
Mothers often bear the brunt of conflict. According to UNICEF, the war has displaced nearly two-thirds of Ukraine’s children and killed more than 160.
Many Ukrainian women have delivered babies in dismal conditions. In the first three weeks of the conflict, more than 4,000 babies were born, according to UNICEF.
Remember the horrific images of a pregnant woman being carried out on a stretcher after the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol. Both she and her baby died.
Thanks to international humanitarian organizations, pregnant women are now getting nourishment and care. Premature babies are getting the help they so desperately need. Surrogate mothers are getting united with adoptive parents. But the process is slow and painstaking.
And then there is this: Like so many women in conflict zones, Ukrainian mothers are also experiencing the worst sin of war: rape. Experts in sexual violence and human rights are in Ukraine, gathering testimony from victims. According to reports from last month, 400 cases of sexual violence by Russian soldiers have already been reported to Ukraine’s ombudswoman for human rights.
One report by Human Rights Watch includes the story of a woman describing how a Russian soldier repeatedly raped her in a school in a region of Ukraine where she and her family had been sheltering on March 13.
According to a report by Amnesty International, rape takes place during war as soldiers who occupy a town or village encounter women. “Soldiers occupying conquered territory are removed from the moderating influence of their communities and families,” according to the report. “At the same time, they are surrounded by a civilian population which is seen as the enemy or as inferior.”
What is allegedly happening to women in Ukraine has happened in other conflicts: in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in Libya in 2011, in Congo (DRC), in Central America and throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East over many decades. A major study conducted by the United States Institute of Peace in 2013 entitled “Wartime Sexual Violence” explains that “rape is not an unavoidable collateral damage of war. Its victims – women and men of all ages – were not brought down by crossfire or an errant missile, they were intentionally violated.”
Women have a special responsibility to pay attention to what is happening to other women in Ukraine. Like many victims of war, they have little recourse and few resources.
Often our response is simply sorrow and horror. That is not enough. We need to press the United Nations and our own government to do more to combat the pattern of violence against women. We need more resources devoted to prenatal care, safe deliveries and aid for newborn children. And we need to close the skies over Ukraine to shield vulnerable populations.
Governments take their cues from citizens. Mother’s Day is a time to protest the situation in Ukraine — to speak out and speak up. It’s the least we can do.
Tara D. Sonenshine is professor of public diplomacy at The Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She has been a long-time champion of women’s rights.
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