Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

SVAC Explainer: Wartime Sexual Violence in Ukraine, 2014-2021

| February 2023


Russia and Ukraine have been at war since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and further invaded Ukraine’s Donbas region. In February 2022, Russia escalated the conflict, launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the months since, fighting has spread across the country as Russian forces attempt to expand their control. In late September 2022, Russia staged referendums in four parts of occupied Ukraine – the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk regions – in which these regions voted in favor of joining the Russian Federation. These referendums were widely condemned as a sham, a violation of international law, and a move designed to further Russia's annexation of the region.

Throughout the war, there have been numerous reports of sexual violence being used in the armed conflict. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), the main armed actors in the conflict are the Ukrainian Government, led by President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy; the Russian Government, led by President of Russia, Vladimir Putin; and two Kremlin-backed separatist groups in the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk: the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People's Republic (DPR). These two separatist groups are supported by the Russian Government both politically and with material resources. The LPR and DPR are currently occupying parts of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts which together are referred to as the Donbas Region, and which the United Nations considers to be a part of Ukraine's territory.

Using insights from the Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict (SVAC) dataset, this policy brief outlines key trends in the use of sexual violence in Russia’s war against Ukraine between 2014 and 2021, describing the reported perpetrators, where it occurred, and what forms it took. The SVAC dataset tracks reports of sexual violence in armed conflict based on information from the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, using coding rules that require the following: the sexual violence must be clearly related to the conflict and attributed in the source document to a specific conflict actor. Due to these coding rules, not all references to sexual violence in the source documents are included in the SVAC data.

Between 2014 and 2021, the SVAC data include 11 distinct descriptions of reported sexual violence in Ukraine that meet the project coding criteria. During this period, all four main armed actors were at some point reported as perpetrators of sexual violence, including forced prostitution, sterilization, abortion, rape, sexual mutilation, and sexual torture.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Zodgekar, Ketaki. “SVAC Explainer: Wartime Sexual Violence in Ukraine, 2014-2021.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 2023.

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