Culture 

Why the Russian Invasion of Ukraine Hurts Women the Most

HYPEBAE interviews Maria Mokhova for a look into what’s happening in Ukraine.

By
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On February 24, 2022, Europe’s first major war in decades began as Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. In an aggressive display of a brewing quest for dominance and total control, the Russian president violated Ukraine’s sovereignty, forcing nearly three million refugees, namely women and children, to flee their once safe homes, only to find devastation, destruction and sometimes death, while attempting to escape from war.

On March 6, Tetiana Perebyinis and her two children lost their lives to Russian mortar shelling, when crossing a bridge near Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. In an interview with CNN, Kherson resident Svetlana Zorina shares her knowledge of Russian soldiers raping women in Ukraine, but because of the emotionally taxing and traumatic nature of the crime, as well as our society’s unrelenting and dangerous reluctance to persecute sexual violence both in and outside of war, calls for justice have and may continue to be unanswered. In times of war and conflict, women are disproportionately affected, exacerbating gender inequities and violence in an already unequal society. Sima Bahous, the executive director of UN Women notes in an interview with CNBC, “ Women are not only victims in a crisis, but they are also carrying their families, their communities and their nations, from fragility to stability.”

The resilience of Ukrainian women during the current conflict offers a glimmer of hope as nearly 15% of the armed forces are women, higher than that of the United States. Civilians are also fighting back as a courageous woman threw a can of pickled tomatoes at a Russian drone, while an older woman gifted invading soldiers with sunflower seeds so that something fruitful might come of their deaths. Though women and young girls may be the most severely affected by the war in Ukraine, they may present the key to the country’s resiliency. While Putin hopes to position Russia as a traditionally conservative force to be reckoned with by invoking fear and stripping women and the LGBTQ+ community of basic rights, like marriage and protection against domestic violence, Pride festivals in Ukraine grow each year.

Though women and young girls may be the most severely affected by the war in Ukraine, they may present the key to the country’s resiliency.

We spoke to Maria Mokhova, the co-founder of Ukrainian PR and brand consulting agency White Rabbit, for an on-the-ground account of the current situation in Ukraine. What’s heartening to hear is an undeterred spirit for Ukraine’s autonomy and sovereignty. While Ukrainians will undoubtedly need to heal from the horrors they’ve suffered in the recent weeks, losing their country is not an option nor a thought. As Mokhova reassures me, “We will fight as long as we are here.”

Read on for our conversation with Mokhova. To donate or learn more about the current conflict in Ukraine, visit Help Ukraine Center’s website.

Reflecting on the history between Ukraine and Russia, what do you think ultimately led to the current invasion?

It comes down to the conflict between culture, values and ideology. Ukrainian people are very free-spirited and liberal in our nature. Because we’re openly kind and hospitable, Russians saw that and looked down on us as “stupid village people.”

During the 70 years in which Ukraine was under the Soviet Union, there was a very intentional erasure of our national identity. I was born in the same Russian-speaking city of Kryvyi Rih as our president [Volodymyr Zelenskyy], and growing up, there was an unspoken but understood sense that anything Ukrainian wasn’t cool. I think there’s a lot of disillusionment around our relationship with Russia, where they have always said that we were friends and brotherly, but brothers don’t take parts of your land, they don’t kill your people.

The fight between our values has just grown stronger as Ukraine is becoming more liberal and democratic, which Putin views as a threat because it’s becoming closer to the West, while Russia is getting worse and worse, more like a dictatorship and an autocratic kind of state. It feels like there is this pure hatred towards Ukrainians as the Russian army has orders to kill civilians, essentially massacring us because they’re using the false narrative that Ukraine equals Nazism.

Can you speak more about the refugee situation in Ukraine?

Right now, there are nearly 3 million people who have fled the country with some quite heartbreaking stories, where children sometimes have to go by themselves because their parents cannot go or are simply not alive. At the border, women are often tricked, and kidnapped basically into prostitution or sexual slavery. People do try to prevent it by spreading information about reliable ways to cross the border, but with the stress and trauma of the situation, with many refugees never having traveled abroad, many are in such a state of panic and loss they don’t really understand or don’t know what to do. People, sadly and cruelly, take advantage of them.

The horrible part is that there is allegedly an official internal statement at the United Nations preventing them from officially calling the Russian invasion of Ukraine a “war.” While there is the help of the Red Cross, there are some cities and towns that are in the state of humanitarian catastrophe and future disaster because there isn’t any food, water or shelter. Many volunteers who try to deliver humanitarian aid are being shot. The other day, people were trying to deliver food to the animal shelter, but were killed on the road. In another instance, there was a Red Cross van transporting women to the kindergarten, where two women were killed and another three were injured.

There have also been reports of women being raped. For example, like, three days ago, there was this wave of reports from one of the cities that 11 women were raped and six of them were murdered, but the authorities claimed that it wasn’t true because no one went to the hospital. But then again, I have a friend who confirms that she knows those women and I have no reason not to trust her. There are a lot of women who were raped and didn’t go to the hospital because of the horror of this experience, and because they know that probably no one will believe them.

What it’s like for you and other women who are on the ground as the war is happening?

From what I know, 15% of our army are women. We also have a thing called territorial defense where civilians organize themselves to patrol the city of the towns and villages, and now there are a lot of women there. While I personally and regrettably don’t have that kind of experience, [me and my team] try to deliver hygienic products to women in the armed forces.

What I also find interesting is historically, Ukraine is a matriarchal society, and I think that’s embedded into our national identity. In the 17th and 18th centuries, with men in the army, women were the heads of households. Even the Ukrainian word for Ukraine is a feminine noun. The symbol of Ukraine is a woman who is welcoming and hospitable, but when someone attacks her children, she turns into this fury that will have no mercy, and that will fight with such strength that you could have never expected from someone so kind and loving.

I’m honestly so surprised at myself and I’m extremely proud of my team for immediately turning our attention to spreading awareness and information rather than going about business as usual. I have so many friends and our influencers who are abroad, but organized a network to help refugees find accommodation, money, transport and food.

What do you want people to know most about the situation in Ukraine?

I want people to know that we’re not giving up. There is no one who is going to surrender or capitulate, or just give ourselves to the hands of terrorists. We will fight as long as we are here, and we hope that we don’t have to sacrifice the whole nation to stop the war. Morale is high, but once this is over, hopefully with Ukraine victorious, the trauma of the whole nation is going to have to be dealt with.

I’m lucky not to be harmed and the fact that my family is safe is pure luck. I had a panic attack today because of the sounds of the heavy wind and rain, so I think there is going to be a much needed period of healing for us afterwards, physically and mentally as a country. I’m sure that we’ll be able to do that, but first we need to win and for that [to happen], we need everyone in the world standing with us.

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