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Ukrainian refugees
Refugees fleeing Ukraine arrive at a train station March 8, 2022 in Zahony, Hungary. (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

UN Warns Women and Girls in Ukraine Are Paying 'Highest Price' for War

"We see with every passing day the damage done to the lives, hopes, and futures of Ukrainian women and girls," said one U.N. official.

Julia Conley

The United Nations' annual Commission on the Status of Women opened Monday with a warning that women and girls in Ukraine are paying "the highest price" for Russia's invasion of the country, as millions of people are forced to flee the country and those who have remained face daily intensifying violence.

"All crises and conflicts exact their highest price from women and girls; from Myanmar to Afghanistan, from the Sahel to Haiti, from Palestine to Syria, to Somalia, to Yemen, to Ethiopia," said Sima Bahous, undersecretary-general and executive director of U.N. Women. "The horrifying war in Ukraine now joins this list."

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported last week that women and girls make up 54% of people in need of assistance in Ukraine, including cash assistance, food, support for healthcare and education services, water and sanitation, and shelter assistance as some towns have seen 90% of residences damaged by shelling.

"It is of critical importance that we integrate a gender-responsive approach in all our efforts to respond to the conflict in Ukraine."

U.N. Women has also reported that women and girls make up the vast majority of the nearly three million people who have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24.

Last week, Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić noted in a statement that "war is always associated with distinct forms of violence against women and girls."

"As they try to escape conflicts, women and girls become even more vulnerable, threatened by violence, sexual assault, and rape," said Burić. "Women and girls fleeing the conflict require specific support and protection."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said earlier this month that the government has heard "numerous reports" of Russian soldiers sexually assaulting women.

CNN also aired an interview with Svetlana Zorina, a resident of the southern city of Kherson, in which Zorina claimed at least one girl she knew had been assaulted.

"Our resistance now is to just sit at home and take care of ourselves," she said.

The country's health ministry reported three days into the conflict that at least six women had given birth in bomb shelters set up in subway stations and hospital basements.

More recently, Russian forces drew international outrage when they bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol—one of dozens of confirmed attacks on healthcare facilities in Ukraine.

"We see with every passing day the damage done to the lives, hopes, and futures of Ukrainian women and girls," said Bahous on Monday. "I reiterate our solidarity and support and I pray that all those who are experiencing conflict will soon know peace."

In addition to wreaking havoc on the lives of civilians in Ukraine, Bahous noted, Russia's assault is expected to have reverberating effects on women and girls around the world as it threatens food security.

As Common Dreams reported last week, the war between Russia—the largest wheat exporter in the world—and Ukraine, the fifth largest, is expected to seriously affect dozens of countries across the Global South which heavily rely on the two country's supplies.

The conflict is "a stark reminder of the interconnectedness of the global challenges we face," said Bahous.

"The war in Ukraine, between two wheat- and oil-producing nations, threatens food security and access to essential services the world over," she said. "This too, will impact women and girls the hardest."

Like the climate crisis—the main focus of this year's Commission on the Status of Women—the food security crisis that is likely to arise as the result of the war will disproportionately harm "those who are already being left behind," said the undersecretary-general.

"Female-headed households; rural women; women who cannot access land; young girls who must walk further to fetch water in times of drought and missing school to do so; older women; women without access to finance" are likely to suffer most as food supplies are slashed, she added.

Fifty-four member states of the U.N. signed a statement Tuesday at the meeting, calling on Russia to end its assault, which has killed more than 600 civilians so far, and reaffirming their "full support to Ukraine and its people, in particular the women and girls of Ukraine."

"It is of critical importance that we integrate a gender-responsive approach in all our efforts to respond to the conflict in Ukraine," said the member states. "We must ensure that local civil society organizations, including women's movements and women's rights organizations on the ground have the resources to play the decisive role in meeting the rights and needs of women and girls and shaping gender-responsive solutions."

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