Content warning: violence against women, sexual violence.
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion on Ukraine in February 2022, it created the fastest growing European refugee crisis since the second world war. Millions fled to the country’s western borders, seeking safety and a home in Poland, Romania, Moldova, Germany, France, the UK and elsewhere.
In times of trouble, the hope is that people reach out the hand of friendship. But some saw an opportunity to harm and exploit women and girls at their most vulnerable.
The Ferret has been investigating claims of coercion, trafficking and abuse by women’s organisations who have documented cases where traffickers present themselves to young women as boyfriends, promising safety and the chance to start a new life in a new country. Having tricked their victims into trusting them, they traffic the women and girls across borders, into a life of sexual violence.
Support organisations say some women are raped by up to six different soldiers, resulting in unwanted pregnancy and trauma.
Inna – whose real name we are not using in order to protect her – was just a teenager when she fled her home in Ukraine and met a man offering her a relationship and a fresh start together. She believed they were in love, but his promises turned out to be lies. Shortly after meeting him Inna was trafficked, drugged and sold into sexual exploitation.
“It is known as the ‘boyfriend model’,” explains Nastya Podorozhnya, a Ukrainian journalist and activist living in Krakow, Poland, and founder of grassroots feminist organisation Martynka. It was at Martynka where, having escaped her abusers, Inna found a sanctuary. “We hear a lot from women who are made to believe they are in a relationship with a man who then assaults them”.
Arriving in Poland, Inna became a refugee again, this time aged 19 and pregnant with her first child.
“We had to organise an escape plan for Inna to get from where she was trafficked and to Krakow,” says Nastya. “Now Martynka will have its first baby.”
Nastya was first alerted to the scale of the humanitarian crisis brewing on her doorstep in the immediate aftermath of the full-scale invasion by NGO workers she was interviewing about the situation facing Ukrainian refugees coming to Poland.
“They started talking to me about trafficking and how the problem was huge,” she says. Data on the scale of trafficking is hard to come by, due to the hidden nature of the crime, but according to the EU Common Anti-Trafficking Plan, launched months into the full-scale invasion, the threat of trafficking in persons was considered “high and imminent“. The US State Department confirmed that trafficking “likely worsened after Russia launched its all-out war against Ukraine in February 2022”.
“They explained that what was happening in the first few weeks of the full-scale invasion was Easter and Christmas combined for traffickers,” says Nastya.
“There was so much chaos in those early days,” she continues. “People not knowing what to do. You might not be experienced enough to know not to give your passport to someone, you might not know the rules of safety – plus gender socialisation, especially in Eastern Europe, means women are told not to be assertive, not to question people.”
Recognising that Ukrainian refugee women and survivors of trafficking would need to access support from fellow Ukrainians, Nastya and her sister set up Martynka. A family affair, Nastya’s sister designed the logo – an illustration depicting a girl based on Nastya’s niece.
The organisation provides access to Ukrainian-language psychotherapy for refugee victims and survivors of sexual violence, as well as sharing safety advice, practical resources to help refugees navigate their new home, and information on sexual and reproductive health.
“We made online content and put stickers in public bathrooms,” Nastya explained. “We set up a hotline for women and girls to call. Now we have grown to operate a safehouse for women like Inna. She is one of the bravest women I have talked to over this last year and a half.”
The work is not easy. “Trafficking survivors are a hard group to target for help, and to reach,” she continued. “They have a lot of trauma and so we help them to speak to Ukrainian and Russian language psychologists. We have to meet them where they are on their journey.”
That journey can include the decision whether to travel outside of Poland to terminate a pregnancy. Inna chose to keep her baby, but many of the women arriving from Ukraine into Poland are looking for information about reproductive healthcare – not easy in a country where those providing abortions outside the legal exemptions face lengthy prison sentences.
In contrast to Ukraine, where abortion is available on demand, Poland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Women, girls and pregnant people can only access terminations in cases of threat to the mother’s life, and rape or incest. Martynka operates within Poland’s strict laws to help women answer questions about their reproductive rights, offering accurate and legal information.
For women fleeing Ukraine into Poland, and who are pregnant as a result of rape being used as a weapon of war, the chance of accessing an abortion without legal documents proving they have been the victim of sexual abuse are slim.
Dr Erika Silva, sexual and reproductive health and rights advisor for the Ukrainian response in Plan International Poland, arrived in the country not long after the start of the full-scale invasion. Her remit was to partner with local organisations and develop a sexual and reproductive health strategy, to help refugee women and girls access sexual and reproductive health services and information, and mental health support, with a focus on survivors of sexual violence.
“At the start of the full-scale invasion, we were seeing women with unwanted pregnancies who had been raped, sometimes by four, five or six soldiers,” said Erika. “They were raped in their homes, and they were raped while escaping the war travelling to other countries.”
The testimonies Erika heard from women were harrowing.
“Our partner spoke to one woman who told us she just wanted to cover her face because she was raped in front of her kids,” Erika continued. “She told us how she just wanted to cover her face so she [could] explain to her children that ‘it wasn’t me there’, it was just the circumstances.”
In the first two weeks of April 2022, just two months into the conflict, the Ukrainian Ombudsman received 400 reports of rape committed by Russian soldiers. The United Nations has accused Russia of using rape as part of its military strategy, while testimonies from women in liberated territories such as Bucha and Izyum demonstrate the terror of sexual violence – and the process of becoming a refugee can intensify the trauma.
“Sometimes they rape them, women and men,” says Elena Sulima, who works for the ZMINA Human Rights Centre in Ukraine, which provides support to victims of war crimes, including those living in formerly occupied territories, and people incarcerated by the Russians.
The details of these horrific crimes seem incongruous, shared as they are in a park in the shadow of Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko National University. Pairs of men are playing chess on the surrounding tables, and children are playing, but the shadow of war is never far away – Shevchenko’s statue is wrapped in sandbags to protect it from shelling.
“We document war crimes committed in liberated territories,” Elena explains. “When I talk to people, I try to support them psychologically. Many of them have been tortured, beatings, electric shocks, including to the genitals. Many of them have experienced sexual violence. They need emotional support so they can rehabilitate into society.”
“This happens to them, they then have to run for their life, they have to find a shelter, they have to make sure the kids are okay,” Erika explained, outlining the journey refugee women were making. It is only once they and their families are safe, that they realise they can now turn their attention to looking after themselves, she says.
That often means dealing with consequences of becoming pregnant as a result of rape. Plan International and its partners are able to provide limited information on sexual and reproductive health, including referring women to doctors so they can access emergency contraception on prescription. They support women who wish to continue their pregnancy, linking them up to maternal healthcare services. And they give victims and survivors information about sexual and reproductive health, within the limits of Poland’s laws.
“One woman told our partner that she could not tell her husband she was pregnant because he would reject her,” Erika continued. “She was depressed, she was saying how can I tell my husband I have the child of his enemy, the enemy he was fighting back home. They then face this barrier – abortion is available in Ukraine and more flexible, but it is only available in the Polish health system under extreme circumstances.”
Even accessing emergency contraception requires a prescription by a doctor. “By the time women realise they are pregnant, it could be too late for emergency contraception and even more difficult to prove that the pregnancy was a result of rape,” Erika added.
She told The Ferret of one woman who was pregnant following rape, and whose mental health had disintegrated so much that she was permitted an abortion, after the Ombudsman intervened. It was felt continuing the pregnancy would endanger her life. But such exemptions are rare, and the process of accessing the care is often re-traumatising, while Ukrainian women do not know how to navigate a new health system.
The health needs of rape victims and survivors go beyond reproductive healthcare, however. Those raped as a weapon of war also need psychological and practical help – something which psychologist Kateryna Shukh is determined to provide through her organisation Bereginia, working in partnership with Poland’s HumanDoc Foundation. A refugee herself, Kateryna fled her home in Mariupol and now lives in Warsaw, where she offers counselling, art therapy and practical help to those fleeing the war and its crimes.
“A lot of women are not ready to talk about it,” Kateryna tells The Ferret. “I have different ways of helping women to start talking. We can start by discussing what gender-based violence is, what gender-based violence looks like in wartime. Sometimes people are not really sure what to call it. It is my task to give them a huge support, to let them know that a crime has happened and it is not their fault”.
“Many women feel that they are alone with their pain,” she adds. “When they hear other women have had similar experiences, they start to open up”.
Back in Krakow, and Martynka is eagerly awaiting the birth of Inna’s baby. But Nastya Podorozhnya is worried about the future the child will be born into. As the war in Ukraine continues, more women are in urgent need of the care and support they offer – but international attention is turning away to other conflicts, other crises.
“We are still in a super unstable position, still in the same emergency, but there is less funding, less attention,” Nastya said. She admits it would be easy to “feel demotivated, but I don’t. Because the work of being a refugee-for-refugee organisation motivates me.”
The travel for this article was funded by the Justice for Journalism Foundation’s investigative grants programme.
It is part of our Mind the Health Gap project, funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator – a fund supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.