Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me start with a short remark to show how times have changed. When I first met Olena in Riga in 2019, we were talking about healthy food for school children and about people-friendly cities. Now we are talking about war crimes. This is our new reality.
Thank you for inviting me! I know this conference is about law, about courts. But I am not a lawyer, I am a medical doctor, so I will talk about the medical side. I have been working with women for more than 30 years.
Right from the beginning of the war, Latvia provides support for both physical and psychological rehabilitation of victims, especially focusing on women and girls. Latvia has developed a centre in Ivano-Frankivsk as well as provided support for documentation of war crimes and advocacy for human rights. Latvia will continue to advance the globally accepted ‘Women, Peace and Security’ program at home and internationally.
Now to the medical side. Sexual violence has been terribly used as a weapon of war by men in countless cases.
Perpetrators use it to suggest power and dominance, but in reality, it is a characteristic of cowardice and intellectual neglect.
This global and timeless problem has been present in many conflicts, such as the brutal invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, the rape of German female refugees by Russian soldiers, and the sexual violence that took place in the Nigerian civil war as well as the Vietnam war. So we see this problem is global.
Acts of war, such as the destruction of hospitals, schools, and critical infrastructure, aim to threaten and demoralize populations. The same is true for sexual violence.
Most victims of sexual violence in war are women and girls. Of course, men and boys can also be victims of sexual violence in war, though to a far lesser extent than women and girls.
Firstly, let us use the accurate term for the event in question. There is no ‘special military operation’ happening in Ukraine, but war. A war that includes sexual violence and rape.
Victims should not be ashamed of what they have had to experience. The perpetrators, however, should be truly afraid of justice and the punishment they are due. Punishment may come quickly, but it may take time too. For example, more than 70 years after WWII, court proceedings against war criminals are still being held in Germany.
Allow me to mention some medical considerations of sexual violence, although I know my list will not be complete.
There are both visible and invisible consequences. There are short-term consequences and consequences that stay with the victim for life. There are deeply personal consequences and there are consequences for society as a whole. And there are consequences we can treat, and those which are fatal.
The visible marks of sexual violence and rape include a variety of injuries, including swelling, bruises, wounds, hematoma, tears, bleeding, fatal bleeding, fractures, nausea, vomiting, and concussion.
The invisible marks may include shame, anger, disgust, fear, and humiliation. These are the primary emotional stages, but they may be followed by more severe and longer-lasting mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, panic, suicidal tendencies, aggression, sleep and eating disorders, and emotional withdrawal from their former life or unpredictable flashbacks.
The short-term consequences are painful physical injuries that can be cured, but the life-long consequences might include sexually transmitted diseases, like syphilis, gonorrhoea or HIV that could cause chronic pain, infertility, destroyed personal dreams, a life-long dependence on medication, medical treatments, hospitalization, and death.
A particularly significant life-long consequence of rape may be unintended pregnancy if abortion is unavailable. Every pregnancy should be a welcome and joyous occasion. The parents-to-be should be able to love their child from the beginning. No new life should be created where there is hate and humiliation on one side and fear and disgust on the other.
The consequences for society after the brutal rape of women might be the loss of their participation in civil society, the loss of their creativity and commitment in professional life, the loss of their energy to raise and educate their children. I don’t like speaking about people as human resources for a state’s economy, but women suffering severe mental health issues after experiencing sexual violence are painfully missed in building and changing the social, cultural and economic future of a nation.
I am absolutely aware that my list of consequences is entirely incomplete.
But I have tried to describe what might follow a crime that may have only lasted a few minutes. It may be immediately forgotten by the perpetrator, but could have life-long consequences for the victim.
Therefore, it is undoubtedly necessary that the war crimes committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, including the sexual violence and rape of Ukrainian civilians should be brought to national and international courts. The victims deserve justice.
It is not an excuse to be drunk, it is not an excuse to be frustrated by one’s own miserable life, it is not an excuse to feel betrayed by one’s command. There is no excuse for sexual violence and rape, and there never will be.
Nowadays we understand that victims deserve the help. In former times or in some other countries victims are still told to forget, to keep silent and to carry on with their lives. And many of these women do carry on, but it is never again a truly fully life. Victims deserve the help they need, both physically and emotionally.
The help should be offered in an unbiased and empathetic manner. It should be available as soon after the crime as possible. It should be available close to where the victim lives and offered by qualified professionals, hopefully in the victims’ native language, which is very important to the victims.
On the other side, the perpetrator, but also the higher-ranking commanders, should all know that their punishment is coming, sooner or later.
Before I finish, I would like to mention another Russian war crime. It was already mentioned yesterday and it is very painful. It is the deportation and forced Russification of Ukrainian children. This is not a physical rape, but rather a mental and emotional one.
Sadly, we Latvians know what deportation means. In 1941 and 1949, Latvian children suffered deportation to Siberia. Now a very thick book has been published in Latvia, called ‘Children of Siberia’. It is full of sad stories of lost childhood, stolen opportunities for education, about lost parents and siblings.
The Russian authorities should not be so sure that these children will forget their origins. Many neuroscientists suggest that early childhood experiences are stored in our brains throughout our lives and can be reactivated in unpredictable circumstances. We all know how smells, sounds, music, pictures bring back long-forgotten memories – so-called déjà vu and flashbacks.
The fate of these Ukrainian children will not be forgotten.
We need more women to be part of peace talks. And we need more men to speak up against sexual violence in war. Look at this panel – we are all women talking about sexual violence. We also need men to speak up and condemn sexual violence.
Again, thank you for inviting me. I think this conference is an important step forward towards condemning sexual violence.
Thank you, Olena – you are my personal hero – and all participants!