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Ukraine Assessment Report - Waiting for the Sky to Close: The Unprecedented Crisis Facing Women and Girls Fleeing Ukraine

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Executive Summary

As of May 6, 2022, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) resulting from the war in Ukraine was 7.7 million, with another 5.7 million refugees and asylum seekers residing in neighboring countries.1 The lack of humanitarian corridors has created a situation where people are either trapped in Ukraine or subject to a myriad of protection risks while in flight or in temporary shelter elsewhere.

While there has been an outpouring of public and private support for Ukraine, the largely ad hoc and gender-blind response cannot meet the basic needs and protection concerns of IDPs—mostly women and children—and others affected by the war in Ukraine. Duty-bearers—including international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and the United Nations (UN)—have so far failed to adhere to their own global commitments to localization of the humanitarian response. This includes systematically creating ways for women and girls to design and lead responses, incorporating their views into all phases of the operational management cycle. With few exceptions, dedicated funding for sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and services for violence against women and girls (VAWG) has failed to materialize.
Instead of the multi-year flexible funding that local women- and girl-led organizations need, these overworked frontline groups find themselves chasing grants that may only cover one to three months of total costs. They are taking on underfunded humanitarian work that they are not necessarily trained for, which ultimately derails their core missions.

In every armed conflict, men’s violence against women and girls increases rapidly and stays elevated long after the fighting stops. Ukraine and the surrounding region are currently facing an unprecedented crisis of women and children displaced by the war, but urgently needed, gender-sensitive violence prevention measures are trailing behind the response. In Ukraine, and in surrounding countries, women’s rights organizations (WROs) were already responding to the needs of women and girls prior to the war, and are now working to support women and girls displaced or otherwise impacted by the conflict. Because of their extensive experience and localized knowledge, these groups are best-positioned to build the solutions girls and women need now. These organizations are asking for recognition of their expertise and for the requisite funding to utilize their knowledge in continued response to this crisis.

Instead, a familiar structure is developing: a top-down, unequal relationship between capable local actors and international humanitarian agencies. This arrangement always fails women and girls, even by these agencies’ own standards. Women and girls are not consulted in the design of the aid that is being developed for them, and WROs are alienated from humanitarian coordination structures. They are expected to do more than ever, with little or no extra funding. VOICE witnessed this familiar scenario play out in relation to the international humanitarian community’s response to COVID-19, where yet again the humanitarian aid sector—despite its commitments to crisis-affected populations— contributed to denying women and girls their rights to participation, consultation, and services, and in some cases subjected them to its own types of violence.25

In addition, there are a number of actors and organizations playing a vital role in the humanitarian space that may not have traditional humanitarian or crisis experience, and therefore do not or may not have the more nuanced gender-based violence (GBV) and broader protection experience. These entities are strongly encouraged to engage expertise to navigate and implement GBV and other protection regulations, policies, and strategies, and to strongly consider and integrate the related assessment recommendations included in this report.

Through a new partnership between VOICE and HIAS, and as part of a six-country assessment in the region, VOICE conducted a three-week remote rapid assessment in Ukraine to assess the needs of women and girls affected by the war, and the needs of WROs and groups responding to the emergency. The assessment revealed that the top concerns for women and girls include threats to physical safety from active conflict and continual bombardment; food insecurity; and lack of access to healthcare, including the full range of reproductive health services, care for survivors of rape, and mental health. The assessment notes a range of GBV risks, including an increase in domestic violence, and an extreme lack of safe and sustainable housing and shelter options. Additionally, transgender people are unable to access appropriate health care and face extreme risk when trying to cross the border. As noted above, the WROs best placed to address these concerns are excluded from humanitarian coordination structures and, if able to locate funding at all, struggle with overly burdensome and restrictive funding structures.

Women and children are the face of this crisis and remain on the front lines of the conflict. The crisis requires locally-driven, tailored responses, through which women’s organizations can influence the humanitarian response.