• News

8 March 2023

A year has passed since the full-scale invasion by Russian forces on Ukrainian soil. Millions of people’s lives have been turned upside down and their futures in peril. It is in these exceptional circumstances that the Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association “JurFem”, Lawyers Without Borders Canada’s (LWBC) partner, has evolved to fight against sexual violence. The scale of these crimes – all too many bombs – has exploded since the beginning of the conflict. Women and girls are the first to be affected.


JurFem is one of the first organizations in Ukraine to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and experience in support of women in the legal profession. Before the war, the organization worked toward helping these professionals with challenges they might face in their careers. During wartime, JurFem’s team put their community to work for other women.


“Our work has definitely evolved in the last year and crystallized around the conflict, particularly the sexual violence it generates.”


Marta Pavlyshyn, specialist of the Center “JurFem: Education”


JurFem’s team at Women Human Rights Defender Academy © JurFem


Investigations have already identified several cases of sexual violence. First lady Zelenska said, in early March 2023, that the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office was investigating 171 cases. The actual toll is much higher.


The lingering stigma surrounding sexual violence and the necessary adaptations of the legal system to the conflict’s context make it difficult to determine the exact number of cases.


“Since the beginning of the invasion, victims have been more reluctant to report. Some people think that this is not the time to deal with this and that energy should be focused on the war effort.”


Marta Pavlyshyn, specialist of the Center “JurFem: Education”


The violence of the conflict has driven 7 million people into exile so far. The vast majority of whom are women and children, these large population movements increase the risk of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, forced labor, and forced displacement.


Finding a calling in the chaos


JurFem’s courageous young women lawyers, based in Lviv but active in all regions, have shown solidarity, determination, and agility to provide legal support to victims of sexual violence.

The hotline for victims of discrimination and sexual violence that they set up after the conflict started allows them to support dozens of people every month, despite an extremely difficult context.


“The main challenge is the invasion itself: the missile attacks and blackouts caused by them. But, we still have several plans B, and C. We continue our work no matter what.”


Marta Pavlyshyn, specialist of the Center “JurFem: Education”


LWBC has seen more than once the resilience of its partner over the past 6 months of collaboration, made possible by the financial support of the Ministère des Relations internationales et de la Francophonie du Québec.


JurFem has proposed amendments to address gaps in the Ukrainian legal framework to ensure that it meets the needs of victims of conflict-related sexual violence. The organization has also produced investigative materials that the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office is using to train its teams in regions, such as in Kherson, where a significant evidence-gathering effort was recently launched after the city’s liberation.


Lawyers Kateryna Shunevysh and Daria Rosokhata work on JurFem’s advocacy strategies © JurFem


“This is difficult work to apprehend and it must be supported on an ongoing basis. Even when the war is over, we will have to deal with the many consequences of the post-war period. We will have to continue to support the victims in the long term so that they obtain justice and reparation.”


Marta Pavlyshyn, specialist of the Center “JurFem: Education”


Following an internal fundraising campaign, Quebec City’s Bar donated $2,500 last December, to support LWBC’s program in Ukraine. Quebec legal community’s commitment to the cause of these women lawyers was welcomed by the organization with great enthusiasm, even if much remains to be done.


To date, Ukrainian authorities have reported more than 71,000 war crimes. Despite the unprecedented effort to fight impunity, promoted primarily by committed associations such as JurFem, it is most likely that the work will unfortunately not meet the high expectations of victims for reparation. But, this work does offer the Ukrainian people what they need at this time: hope.