As the Russian invasion undermines the security of Ukrainians across the country, women and girls are at double risk. “There is no doubt that because of Russia’s war against Ukraine, no one feels safe,” says Ms Kit, “and women and girls are even less protected from gender-based violence. Rape – usually gang rape – sexual torture, enforced nudity and other forms of abuse have been documented by journalists, human rights organizations and law enforcement agencies.”
The true extent of this violence is not yet known, Ms Kit adds, but what is clear is that its impact will be lasting: “We will have to deal with the aftermath of conflict-related sexual violence for many years to come.”
At the same time, women still struggle with the endemic violence of their own society. “Cases of domestic or sexual violence against women, especially in public places, have not gone away,” she notes. “People who have been abusive and violent in the family continue to commit acts of violence.”
The ongoing conflict makes progress all the more difficult, emphasizes Ms. Kit: “It is difficult to make progress in the fight against violence against women when you live in a state of war and fight for your life and that of your children every day. ”
Ms. Kit began her legal career in 2007 and recognized a critical gap in legal assistance for survivors of domestic violence. “There weren’t many lawyers willing to work on cases like this because they’re often latent crimes,” she says. Domestic violence is usually considered a private matter and the legal system tends to shift the responsibility for handling such cases onto the victims themselves.
Ms. Kit set out to change that. “I want myself and other women and girls in Ukraine to feel safe and know that when their rights are violated, they do it [will] receive effective protection without prejudice, discrimination or stigma,” she says.
She came a big step closer to this goal in 2017 with the founding of JurFem. The organization’s recent work has been shaped by the unfolding crisis: working with partners to ensure survivors of conflict-related sexual violence receive protection and support from law enforcement and service providers. They have also provided direct legal assistance to survivors and established a legal assistance hotline in April.
“It is possible to change our approach to investigating cases involving sexual violence just through experience and practice,” says Ms. Kit. Even the strongest legal protections cannot convince police or judges to believe a survivor. But by communicating with law enforcement and the courts, “JurFem lawyers can break with existing stereotypes and provide victims with access to justice.”
Although her own advocacy work draws on her legal training and decades of experience, Ms. Kit emphasizes that you don’t need any special skills or knowledge to get involved in a cause: “Each and every one of us should work to make something for the better. “
What activism requires, she says, is community and caring: “Unite, get the support of like-minded people and forces,” she advises. “Take care of your safety and sanity and do what you see fit, take care of yourself so you can take care of others.”
“Today it is particularly difficult to imagine a world without gender-based violence,” says Ms. Kit. “If we couldn’t prevent this war, could we eradicate gender-based violence?”
She believes we can reduce its prevalence by creating better response mechanisms and bringing perpetrators to justice. And she believes in a better future for Ukrainian women and girls: “Justice must be restored,” she says, “so that this never happens again.”