Ukrainian women and girls are at huge risk of exploitation – here’s how we can help

Grief takes many forms. For the women of Ukraine, they are grieving the loss of the lives – lives they had only a couple of weeks ago. The loss of jobs, peace, a homeland; everything they have been forced to leave behind, or seen destroyed. The husbands, sons, brothers and loved ones that they might never see again. And the grief for those they have already lost.

In a matter of hours, everything that was foundational has gone. Lives changed in an instant, never to be the same again. How do you grieve so much at one time? How do you continue to move forward into another bomb shelter, into another city or another country? The women of Ukraine are showing the world their extraordinary courage, strength and determination to protect their country and their children.

But all of this comes at a huge cost, to them and to the next generation. Whilst women and girls make up around half of displaced people globally, we’ve seen in recent crises that women and children are disproportionately represented amongst those forced to flee, such as the 70 per cent of displaced Syrians.

Prior to this conflict, 56 per cent of internally displaced people inside Ukraine were women and girls. Now, these numbers are thought to be considerably higher, due to men being unable to leave and choosing to stay and protect their country. Women, children and the elderly are now almost exclusively displaced, and we are also seeing high numbers of unaccompanied children.

This places women and girls at much higher risk of sex trafficking and sexual abuse. Being in the Europe offers no extra protection, as sex trafficking into Europe remains high. Even before this conflict, areas of Eastern Europe posed high risk to women falling victims to human trafficking.

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In Bosnia and Herzegovina, World Vision runs anti-trafficking projects preventing gangs infiltrating migrant camps to pick up highly vulnerable migrant children. We know how this happens and how to stop it, but we remain extremely concerned that the huge exodus from Ukraine provides rich pickings for this disgusting trade.

Recent research conducted by World Vision showed direct correlation between the level of women’s empowerment and child-wellbeing. When women are disempowered and denied opportunities, their children’s education, nutrition and mental health plummets and their vulnerability to abuse soars.

So how do we tackle this? Firstly, we must start talking about these issues. We must recognize the threats of trafficking and abuse happening right on our doorstep, and speak out about them now. We need to recognize that the loss of so much and the subsequent impact of on mental health is not just an issue of a few weeks or months, but will leave intergenerational scars. We need to plan and resource accordingly.

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It is also critical in all of the international community’s response to Ukraine that we elevate women’s empowerment and protection and not just consider it an add-on or a “nice to have”. Most importantly, we need to recognize that women’s empowerment means safety from child violence. To take child wellbeing seriously, it is imperative that women’s empowerment is also prioritized.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day and the amazing women around the globe making profound changes, we must also grieve with the women of Ukraine, we must amplify their voices and we must act now to prevent further trauma, trafficking and disempowerment, both to protect them to protect the generation to come.

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Eleanor Monbiot OBE is currently serving as the regional leader for Middle East and Eastern Europe for World Vision

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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