“I am not a beauty for you”: Russia’s use of sexual violence as a weapon of war against Ukraine
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Across the Ukrainian city of Lviv, red posters and billboards have appeared depicting a woman standing above Russian President Vladimir Putin, pointing a gun into his mouth as he kneels below her. Between the two figures is a caption that reads “I am not a beauty for you”. This is a direct response to Putin’s quoting of Soviet-era punk-rock lyrics just days before his invasion of Ukraine: “You sleep my beauty, you’re going to have to put up with it anyway.”
Putin’s sexualisation of the war is nothing new, in the same way that Russia’s widespread use of rape as a weapon is nothing new. Rather, this pattern has always been a part of human history, present in historical examples from Ancient Greece to “The Rape of Berlin” at the end of the Second World War. The sexual violence being committed againstUkrainian women by Russian soldiers in the ongoing war reflects how women’s bodies today still represent a “battlefield” for competing male forces, despite thousands of years of progress and modernisation. A clear reason for this would be the promotion of male dominance and militarised masculinity within the army, which, along with factors such as peer pressure, contribute to the widespread use of rape as a tactic of war. However, the acceptance of this military tactic often stems from the normalisation of sexual violence against women during times of peace. Pornography sites, which habitually represent a peacetime celebration of male dominance over women, have recently seen an explosion in searches for “war”, “refugee” and “Ukrainian girls”. The increasing demand for this material fuels the normalisation of violence against women and the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, seen presently in the Ukrainian war, as well as during the Bosnian war twenty years previously.
In April this year, a story emerged from the Ukrainian city of Bucha where 25 women and girls were kept in a basementand systematically raped by Russian soldiers, with at least nine of them being forcibly impregnated as a result. These images are frighteningly similar to those that emerged from Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina during the 1990s, where rape was used as a weapon of war and genocide. In these cases, sexual violence was used to ethnically cleanse territories, forcibly impregnate enemy women, destroy cultures, humiliate communities, and torture women. This was enabled through systematic and policy-like attacks: rape camps, sexual slavery and forced marriages. Following the reports of mass rape during the genocides, the words “never again” were ushered by the international community— a direct mirror of what happened following the Holocaust and Nuremburg trials. But despite the efforts of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda (ICTY and ICTR) to prosecute rape as an act of genocide, a war crime and a crime against humanity, impunity remains the norm when it comes to prosecuting sexual violence.
The reports that emerged from Bosnia and Rwanda regarding the tactical use of sexual violence installed fear into women all over the world. Fearing the possibility of rape is something that women deal with on a daily basis, with these fears exacerbated by the outbreak of the Ukrainian war. Vera, an 83-year-old retired teacher, is an example of a Ukrainian woman left “neither dead nor alive” after a Russian soldier broke into her home and raped her. Her testimony is representative of what a number of survivor’s experience, and it is crucial that in 2022 women like Vera get the justice they deserve.
Already, non-governmental organisations are beginning to collect testimonies from women in the hope that they can be used as evidence in a war crimes tribunal. Kira Rudyk, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, is one of the many women gathering information and names of perpetrators. Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba argued that international law “is the only tool of civilisation that is available to use to make sure that in the end, eventually, all those who made this war possible will be brought to justice.” But in these attempts to find justice, it is important that crimes of sexual violence do not get swept under the rug, as has been done with past conflicts. Ukraine is urging the International Criminal Court to set up a separate tribunal for crimes of a sexual nature to ensure this. By independently investigating wartime rape, the ICC would demonstrate a will to bring the perpetrators to justice, which would show a clear progression since the ICTY and ICTR. In these examples, women were failed by the international community, but as preparations are being made to prosecute war criminals before this war is even over, there is a chance that the voices of Ukrainian women will be heard, and justice served. For too long, rape has been used as a weapon of war and genocide, but through international justice, a message can be sent that women’s bodies no longer constitute a battlefield for competing male forces.