Youn the early days of May, in the third month of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a mother in her early 40s crossed the border into Poland, seeking safety for herself and two teenage children. Her secret also included a confession: Russian soldiers attacked her village and raped her.
She didn’t want anyone to know what happened, according to the Polish NGO that came to her aid. Her husband is currently serving in the Ukrainian military. After arriving in Poland, she discovered that she was pregnant. However, it was not easy to obtain an abortion in a country where there is a complete ban and navigate this territory in a different language.
“She called me crying, ‘please take it out of me, help me,’” says Krystyna Kacpura, president of the Foundation for Women and Family Planning (Federa), a Polish reproductive rights organization. Federa managed to arrange a rare medical abortion in Warsaw for this woman, thanks to a minor exception in the law regarding rape. “She was so afraid her husband and children would find out. But we managed to do it all in secret,” says Kacpura.
More than 6 million Ukrainians, mostly women and children, have fled their country since the war began, creating Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War Two. Poland has taken the lion’s share, earning praise from Western powers, even as that generosity has raised uncomfortable questions about its treatment of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa.
However, as the conflict continues and the Russian soldiers’ sexual violence against Ukrainian women and children escalates, more Ukrainian refugees will be forced to seek out emergency contraception or abortion services in Poland. The country’s reproductive rights campaigners and providers of abortion advice are working in overdrive to navigate some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws.
“We are shocked by the number,” says Kacpura, referring to the amount of people seeking Federa’s help.
Others reporting an identical increase are other abortion-rights organizations. Calls and messages to Women on Web’s Polish Branch have increased by almost a third. They provide abortion pills until 12 weeks after the due date. “We do not judge people’s circumstances and we do not ask how they became pregnant,” says Executive Director Venny Ala-Siuara, from its headquarters in Montreal, Canada.
Allegations have emerged of a systemic, coordinated campaign of sexual violence by Russian forces in Ukraine, according to Kateryna Busol, a Ukrainian lawyer specializing in international human rights and an Academy Associate at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Program in London. Numerous investigations by various groups, such as the International Criminal Court and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe into evidence of atrocities and rape are ongoing. However, war crimes can be difficult to prosecute and investigate.
Continue reading: Ukrainians Speak Out on Rape As a War Crime in an Effort to Hold Russia Responsible
So far, Ala-Siuara’s organization has provided abortion pills to more than 50 Ukrainian refugees in Poland, who range in age from 20 to 35. Federa receives between five and 30 calls a week from Ukrainian refugee women in Poland, asking for help accessing abortion services or emergency contraception, commonly known as the “morning after pill.”
Ewa, who works on Women on Web’s help desk in Poland, says that not all the women they’ve helped have suffered sexual violence at the hands of Russians. “Sometimes their lives have changed dramatically and they need to start from scratch. Their husband may have died, or it’s just a difficult time to have a baby,” she says. (Ewa spoke on condition that only her first name is used, citing concerns over repercussions given Poland’s restrictive abortion measures.)
Federa also collaborated with the International Planned Parenthood Federation in dispatching emergency contraception pills and abortion pills to Ukrainian hospitals that are under Russian occupation.
Although exact figures are difficult to determine and violence levels hard to confirm, U.N. officials received 120 reports of rape as of June 1. U.N. officials and rights organizations believe that this number represents only a fraction of the actual cases. Kyiv authorities also claim that this number could be in the hundreds.
Since the start of the war, Harvard University’s Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict research group has documented “gang rape, mutilation of genitals, the threat of rape, and people forced to watch their friends and relatives raped by others,” says Ukrainian academic and member Marta Havryshko, who is also a URIS Fellow at the University of Basel in Switzerland. “We have many, many cases.”
Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) has repeatedly moved to curb sexual and reproductive health and rights, frequently targeted LGBTQIA+ people and threatening to abandon domestic violence protection measures for women.
In 2020, Poland tightened its already restrictive abortion laws, ruling that pregnancies could be terminated only in cases of incest and rape, and when a mother’s life is at risk. Even abortions in severe fetal abnormalities were not allowed, as they had been the norm before. The measure was passed by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, whose independence has been eroded by the ruling party, rights activists say.
One Polish pregnant woman died in the wake of these new restrictions. This death led to widespread protests from women in the majority Catholic country. The movement for abortion was strengthened by their support.
Although emergency contraception remains available by prescription in Poland, it’s notoriously difficult to obtain. Kacpura remembers how she got emergency contraception for the two young girls (aged 16 and 17) who were crossing the border to Poland in the early stages of war. They had been raped early that morning by Russian soldiers at a checkpoint and arrived, “so frightened, with no money, no knowledge of English.”
Kacpura took them to Warsaw to be tested for HIV. After being given prophylactic medication, they moved on to France where they can rejoin their families.
According to the Polish government, females from Ukraine who are seeking to have contraception or abortions will face the same laws as other Polish citizens. The number of Polish women receiving abortions after rape is practically non-existent: in 2020 there were only two terminations granted on these grounds of Poland’s 1,000 or so legal abortions.
“But if a Ukrainian woman can now get an abortion in a hospital in Poland, maybe Polish women can too,” says Kacpura, describing how Federa managed to comply with Polish legislation’s complicated, multi-layered procedures to prove that a woman became pregnant through rape, including getting a prosecutor’s opinion on the matter.
However, Ordo Iuris Roman Catholic Group, which means Order of Law and is an influential non-governmental organization against abortion, has been calling hospitals to check that they comply with strict laws.
It is difficult to provide police reports on sexual violence in any circumstance, and even more so for women who have been raped in wartime.
What’s more, Ukrainian women and girls crossing the border into Poland often arrive with no knowledge of the restrictive laws. Federa created a Ukrainian-language hotline to assist women seeking abortions in Poland during the conflict. This hotline was in addition to the Polish one. Martynka is another hotline for Ukrainian refugees living in Poland. It was created in March.
Federa also publishes manuals on how to ask for help or advice.
“We understand that they’re going through heavy emotions,” says Ewa from Women on Web, where she receives requests for help from women responding to the organization’s campaigns on Instagram and Facebook. They send her messages in English, Ukrainian (and sometimes Russian), and they also write to her in Polish. “Sometimes they can’t, or won’t, ask for official help. But sometimes they need to speak to another human being about what they’ve gone through. And we are eager to do this.”
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