Reflecting on one year since the invasion of Ukraine
In the early hours of February 24, 2022, a televised announcement by Russian President Vladmir Putin would ignite a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Citing his objectives of the country’s “demilitarisation” and “denazification”, his words signaled the siege of key Ukrainian cities by Russian military forces and upended the lives of Ukrainian men, women, and children.
The invasion of Ukraine spurred the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II, as accounts of murder, sexual violence and torture rose from captured cities, forcing millions to flee.
As an organisation dedicated to supporting women survivors of war we knew we had to act quickly to meet the urgent needs of Ukrainian women. Our sister organisation, Žene za Žene International, led the charge on our crisis response. Based just south of Ukraine in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the organisation pivoted in their normal operations, working to identify local partners, first in Poland and then in Ukraine to address women’s needs.
Seida Sarić, Director of Žene za Žene International is a survivor of the Bosnian War, which ravaged her country 30 years ago. She survived frequent bombings, explosions and living without food, water, and heat. Seida recalls her family burning furniture to deter the bitter cold, later resorting to books after their last piece of furniture was set alight.
“As you can imagine, the catastrophe of the Russian invasion reminds us of those days,” she says.
As part of our crisis response, we established the Conflict Response Fund (CRF) for Ukraine in March, to ensure that immediate support is given to women survivors grappling with the trauma of war. Seida and her team also traveled to the Polish-Ukrainian border to assess the critical needs of the women refugees.
“1.95 million [displaced] people are to go up to 5 million,” Belma Hadzimahmutovic, Žene za Žene International Programme Manager, said at the time of their visit. “Our hopes are that this situation turns well for all of them, that war stops tomorrow. But, according to our experience, it will last. And we should all help really, as much as we can.”
Žene za Žene International identified our first CRF priority partner in April: HumanDoc Foundation through “Bereginja” – the Mariupol’s Women’s Association, which offers Ukrainian women and children displaced in Poland safe spaces and art therapy to contribute to their healing process. Many of Bereginja’s executive members were also forced to leave their homes, including vice president Kateryna Shukh, who escaped from Mariupol to Poland through a harrowing 72-hour bus ride.
Upon extending our CRF to The HumanDoc Foundation in Poland, both partners have provided displaced women and children with safe housing, many of them receiving trauma-informed care and legal counseling. To prepare women for their new lives, they received instruction to learn Polish, and also received vocational training to become financially independent. Months later, we collaborated with Žene za Žene and D.O.M.48.24 on “Coworking for Cosmetologists,” a project launched for Ukrainian women to invest in their earnings by providing cosmetic procedures like facial peelings and cleanses.
As the war continued to rage in Ukraine, the Ukrainian army countered Russian forces to liberate captured cities. For women caught up in the aftermath, we partnered with The Andreev Foundation through our CRF. Originally a medical charity, the foundation also pivoted their operations to support women survivors of war. Co-founder Iryna Andreev felt a duty to contribute to Ukraine’s war efforts by helping women survivors of sexual violence who had lost the will to live.
Through our CRF, The Andreev Foundation received the funding and training to travel from village to village, seeking women who needed help after their communities were liberated from Russian forces. In 2022, women and child survivors of the war received psycho-social and socioeconomic support by the foundation.
Women for Women International remains dedicated to supporting these women as reports of missile attacks against villages and critical infrastructure, as well as disturbing reports of physical and sexual violence, continue to mount. Thanks to the help of our local partners and the support of our donors, Ukrainian women are receiving support to heal from their trauma and find hope amid the ongoing war.
The lives of millions of people from Ukraine have been shattered by the Russian invasion - but thanks to the healing power of art therapy, women still have hope.
In Mariupol, Olga sang pop and folk music with her group, Melody, who made it onto Ukrainian X-Factor and her husband was the Head of Mariupol’s orchestra. When war broke out, Olga made the perilous journey across the border to Poland with her son, Max, and her parents. Her husband stayed behind in Ukraine.
It has been 100 days since Russia invaded Ukraine. With each day that passes, more and more women are at risk of sexual violence. Olena Behnke fled from Ukraine two months ago. She now works for Women for Women International, supporting other women refugees. Read her blog as the war continues.