Ukrainian women and girls face 'increased risk' of abuse and healthcare emergencies

Aid agencies warn fleeing women and girls are being left 'exposed and vulnerable'. Credit: AP

Women and children make up the majority of the two million people who have fled the war in Ukraine and there is a "crucial need" to protect them, aid agencies have warned.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is tearing families apart and leaving displaced women and girls at an increased risk of abuse, sexual and physical violence, the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) has said.

Aid workers have raised concerns about reports of women of colour facing racism at borders, women stuck at the border for days with no toilet facilities, and mothers with young children being forced to wait for hours in sub-zero temperatures with no shelter.

The warning comes as the world marks International Women’s Day and an estimated 80,000 women are set to give birth in the next three months in Ukraine.

This includes many women who will not be able to get critical maternal health care and it could make childbirth a life-threatening experience, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

Alexandra Parnebjork, Plan International’s gender in emergencies adviser, said the majority of maternal deaths in the world occur in humanitarian crises.

She added: “In these situations, women and girls know what they want and need.

“We must work with them to ensure they have access to proper healthcare and protection from sexual and gender-based violence.”

On Tuesday the United Nations revised up its estimate of the number of people fleeing Ukraine - putting the figure at two million, the fastest exodus Europe has seen since World War II.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said she is "deeply concerned about civilians trapped in active hostilities in numerous areas."

A total of 15 UK-based DEC charities are working in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to ramp up efforts to meet the growing humanitarian need from a situation the United Nations describes as the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.

The DEC, which is providing women and families with food, shelter, clean water, hygiene kits, healthcare and child-friendly spaces as well as psychosocial support, including trauma counselling, has raised more than £100 million in its Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal so far.

Huge numbers of women, children and young people are arriving at Ukraine’s borders with Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Moldova, with only what they can carry.

People holding their children struggle to get on a train to Lviv at Kyiv station, Ukraine Credit: Emilio Morenatti/AP

Niki Ignatiou, ActionAid UK’s humanitarian advisor, said: “There are deeply concerning reports of racism against refugees of colour, including mothers with babies forced to wait longer in below-freezing temperatures with no shelter, and reports of female young students being stuck at the borders for several days without shelter and toilet facilities.

“Women and girls arriving at the border urgently need food, water, shelter and essential items like soap, period products and underwear.

“Psychosocial support and safe spaces to prevent gender-based violence will also be vital in the coming weeks.”

Suzy Madigan, Care International’s senior humanitarian adviser for gender and protection, said: “The conflict in Ukraine and resulting displacement is tearing families apart, leaving women and children who are trying to find safety exposed and vulnerable.

“Women fleeing disasters everywhere face the real risk of gender-based violence and abuse when they’re forced to leave home.

“If you become reliant on others for the basic needs of survival, exploitation becomes a real threat.”

Refugees at the Romanian border Credit: Andreea Alexandru/AP

Ukrainian MP Kira Rudik called on the public to hold "flowers and guns" to mark International Women's Day and paid tribute to the female soldiers defending the country against Moscow's invasion.

"This year se [we] are holding flowers and guns: we have a priviledge to fight for our country along with men [sic]."

Rebecca Front, actor and British Red Cross supporter, said: “It’s heartbreaking to think of the situation facing women and children who have fled their homes, fearing for their lives, many of them leaving family members behind who they will be desperately worried about.”

She urged people to give their support saying that “donations to the DEC will ensure aid reaches those who need it, fast”.

The DEC is also dealing with a number of ongoing humanitarian crises around the world putting women and children at risk.

Money from previous and ongoing DEC appeals is still being spent in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and the Rohingya refugee camps – as well as vulnerable communities affected by the coronavirus pandemic.