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15. June 2022 - News

Ukraine: How we support women and girls in the region

End of February 2022: Russia starts its war of aggression against Ukraine. Reports of sexualised wartime violence begin to increase. medica mondiale is in contact with local women’s rights activists. What do the women and girls in the region need most urgently? What could long-term support look like, in spite of the acute risks? Our first joint project starts in May.

Fighter jets, tanks and invading infantry with heavy weaponry are threatening the Ukrainian population. At the start of May, the United Nations estimated there were some 13 million refugees or displaced persons, the majority of them women and children.

At particular risk: Women and children in flight

We know from 30 years as a women’s rights and aid organisation that war encourages sexualised wartime violence and an increase in sexualised violence in general. Women and children seeking refuge are particularly vulnerable and in need of protection. As the war begins, women’s rights and aid organisations in Ukraine and its neighbouring countries are flooded with enquiries, requests for assistance and documentation requirements. They are working under very difficult and sometimes overwhelming circumstances. Their calls for support reach us via various channels.

A trauma-sensitive support network for women and girls

Together with the network Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE), medica mondiale works quickly to draft the outlines of a project that could provide the most effective support for the work of women’s rights organisations and activists in the region. The objective: Rapid and trauma-sensitive offers of assistance for women and girls which also empower those receiving the support. In addition, there is a dialogue with the women’s rights organisations about their other, acute needs, such as medicines and sanitary products, that medica mondiale can fulfil unbureaucratically via its Emergency Fund.

Strengthening female psychologists and social workers in the region

Staff at the WAVE member organisations in Ukraine and the neighbouring countries need support, so medica mondiale and WAVE have been working together on this since April. The measures include training on our stress- and trauma-sensitive approach STA and its application when counselling survivors. Another component is coaching in self-care and staff-care. The participants here are primarily psychologists, social workers and legal experts who were already working in the field of gender-based violence and women’s counselling before the war.

The first training and coaching sessions have already taken place. A longer series of training is currently being planned. It will be adapted to the specific needs of the women’s rights organisations in the region and offered in cooperation with our partner organisations from Southeastern Europe. Medica Zenica and Medica Gjakova will be able to incorporate their experiences from their countries of war, the consequences of war and the ways to deal with these. The costs of this coaching and training will be borne partly by WAVE and partly by medica mondiale from our Emergency Fund.

Activists: A mix of exhaustion, fear and confidence

In May, the first coaching session was conducted by Maria Zemp, who has been a specialist adviser on trauma to medica mondiale for many years. She reported how challenging it was to conduct the sessions with the activists as a video conference while in the background sirens could be heard and the participants sometimes had to quickly rush to safety in the basement. Additionally, many of the women had exhausted themselves in the first phase of the war as they attempted to help women and children by, for example, providing alternative safe spaces:

“In places, the female activists had opened up a new safe house every week in order to offer the women and children safety and shelter. They helped the women cope with the new daily routines. And they consoled them when they were experiencing anxiety and loss. Women affected by sexualised violence found solidarity and psychosocial support.”

It was encouraging and impressive to hear of the strength with which the activists did everything possible to be a support for people affected by violence.

Tangible sources of strength for the supporters

According to Zemp, it is now important for the counsellors to keep a better eye on their own resources and ‘recharge their batteries’ frequently, in order to be able to keep their own lives going in spite of the war happening around them, in turn enabling them to keep on supporting the women and girls in the long term:

“What the supporters need from us now are spaces of trust where they can stop for a short moment, look inwards, and share amongst themselves. We can remind them of the practical tools that can help deal with states of exhaustion and despair. We take a joint look at their sources of strength and how they can empower each other.”

Gradually, they are realising how much staying power they are going to need and they have asked us to put in place long-term support.