I am a woman, I serve in the army and Iʼm harassed. What should I do? Is there any point in complaining? Should we keep silent because of the war? Babelʼs very important and supportive instructions

Oksana Rasulova
Yuliana Skibitska
I am a woman, I serve in the army and Iʼm harassed. What should I do? Is there any point in complaining? Should we keep silent because of the war? Babelʼs very important and supportive instructions

Ангеліна Коткова / Kateryna Bandus / «Бабель»

Since 2014, the Armed Forces of Ukraine have constantly been changing from a post-Soviet army to an army of NATO standards. It wasnʼt only about new weapons and uniforms, but also about the rights of women in the army. In 2018, the law equalized women and men in the Armed Forces — the number of positions for female servicemen increased, and they began to be assigned to daily alert teams. And in 2021, the UAF created a working group to fight discrimination and sexual harassment in the army. However, this problem still remains relevant. Women who have experienced harassment almost always remain silent about it because they are afraid of being judged. But war doesnʼt mean that sexual harassment should not be fought. The safety of servicewomen also affects whether they will be able to perform military tasks. “Babel” spoke with lawyer Nadia Denysiuk and the head of the public organization “JurFem” Khrystyna Kit. Together, we compiled a guide on what to do and where to go if you experience harassment in the military.

How to recognize harassment? Is it only when you are touched?

Not necessarily. Harassment is different — it can be verbal (remarks, threats, hints) or physical (touching, hugging, rape). For example, talks about sex with hints, threatening for rejection, discussing your photos, being too close, accusations of prostitution, any non-consensual touching or hugging, asking to undress. Each case must be considered separately, but the main signs of harassment are similar: itʼs unpleasant, it offends and there was no clear consent to it.

In the law, we have only two definitions of sexual crimes — “rape” and “sexual violence”. Rape refers to vaginal, oral or anal penetration without the consent of another person. And sexual violence is any act of a sexual nature but without penetration. To generalize, harassment is everything that degrades dignity and honor and has references to sexuality. By the way, sexualized jokes also belong here, and they can be the first step to physical harassment. Such jokes also fall under the law on the prohibition of discrimination based on gender.

Yes, Iʼm harassed. Can I complain about this somewhere? Are such complaints out of time during the war?

War doesnʼt mean staying silent about harassment. But it isnʼt necessary to write a complaint, but a statement about the commission of a crime. There is no point in complaining to the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine or to the phone hotline, because they are busy with other people. Therefore, it is better to contact the military service of law and order (VSP). This structure in the Ukrainian Armed Forces investigates crimes committed by military personnel. The VSP is interested in ensuring that such situations donʼt become public and donʼt spoil the image of the Ukrainian army, so it resolves them.

How to submit such a statement?

There are several ways to do this — contact your command or immediately law enforcement agencies (police, prosecutorʼs office, VSP). If you decide to contact the command, you need to write a report to the commander of the platoon, company, regiment, military unit, or headquarters. Next, the command must transfer the received information to the VSP, and this service will already initiate an official investigation. If the offender is found guilty, he or she will receive a reprimand and will be deprived of the bonus of 100,000 hryvnias in total.

If you want the offender to be dismissed from the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, it is better to contact the law enforcement agencies. Remember that the command cannot forbid you to contact the law enforcement officers, itʼs only your choice. In the statement, describe in detail what exactly happened and under what circumstances, as well as provide all the information you know about the offender: name, position, place of work, residence, features, for example, a tattoo or a watch, the clothes he was wearing that day. The more such details you specify, the better.

I was harassed verbally, is there any way to prove this?

Itʼs very difficult. You need witnesses who can confirm the fact of such harassment. Because even if you recorded these conversations on a dictaphone, the court wonʼt consider them as evidence, since your offender did not agree to such a recording. But this does not mean that you should be silent. You can complain to civil servants, commanders, lawyers, and psychologists of a military unit. This will help you if the harassment is repeated and becomes physical: the complaints will show that there is reason to believe your words.

And what to do if you were harassed physically?

It is necessary to act in the same way — find witnesses, write complaints and statements. If there are traces on the body, you can contact the police, write a statement so that they are documented. But in case of rape you have to act the other way.

How to act in case of rape?

First of all, you need to file a complaint about a crime with the VSP or the police — whichever is closer. It is important to record evidence in the forensic examination: examine the blows or strangulation marks, take swabs, check for genital damage, take samples of the perpetratorʼs semen or other fluids, maybe skin cells from under your fingernails if you scratched while fighting back. This should be done as soon as possible. It is clear that victims want to wash everything off and calm down, but itʼs important to find the DNA of the person who raped you.

Sometimes law enforcement officers refuse to conduct a medical examination — for example, if you donʼt look beaten and hurt. Then contact the police or the VSP with a request to conduct it. If this doesnʼt work, see a gynecologist at a regular hospital. The doctor will examine you and provide a conclusion on the damage to the genitals — this will replace a forensic examination.

As a victim, you have the right to know what is happening in the investigation. If the investigators are responsible for it, you can ask them about it by phone. If not, you will have to write official requests. But itʼs better to do it with a lawyer.

In order for the court to issue a verdict, the investigation must collect evidence, and the prosecutorʼs office must draw up an indictment. In Ukraine, there are no verdicts in cases of harassment in the army, because the law enforcement officers are not doing their job. Therefore, if you see that the case is not progressing, investigators are not collecting evidence and not interrogating witnesses, write complaints to the police.

Do I need a lawyer? Can I handle it myself?

A lawyer is definitely needed. In a state of shock, itʼs difficult to objectively assess what is happening. There are nuances that only a person with legal education and practice knows. Being a victim in a case of harassment or rape is difficult physically and morally, every complaint due to inaction can be a traumatic experience. You can find a lawyer through organizations that support abused women. For example, JurFem. The services of the organizationʼs lawyers are free of charge. The Sylni organization can also pay you a lawyer.

But will I still serve alongside the abuser while the investigation continues?

Probably yes. There are no legal grounds for your transfer. The wrongdoer can be suspended at the request of the investigator or by order of the commander, but this doesnʼt happen often. If you do not want to be in the same unit in the future, you can talk about it with your command. They can allow your transfer to another military unit. Itʼs also necessary to agree on a position with its command. You can also take sick leave. But donʼt leave the unit arbitrarily, because this can be considered a crime. You can also submit a request to the investigating prosecutor to transfer you to another unit for security reasons.

But the command may not let you go. If in this case the offender continues to threaten you, you can contact the law enforcement officers. They can issue a restraining order to the abuser, which will prevent him from approaching you or communicating with you. This is usually used in domestic violence cases, but it may be possible to use it in the service as well. If you still stay in the same unit with the abuser, find those who support you and will be ready to protect you.

Iʼm afraid to complain. Iʼm afraid this will make things worse. What shall I do?

Military servicewomen cannot be punished for filing a complaint or writing a statement. If you fear for your life and health, you must contact the commander. If you are afraid or ashamed to talk about harassment in general, and not because of threats, then contact a psychologist.

Yes, I want to go to a psychologist. How to find him (or her)?

You can contact the psychologist of the military unit, the deputy commander for political work, or the commander himself. If you doubt their competence or ability to understand and support you, contact harassment initiatives. These can be Juridical Hundred, JurFem, Lawyers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Womenʼs Veteranʼs Movement, Sylni — they will direct you to specialized organizations or specialists.

I see sexual harassment of other people in the unit. What should I do? Do I need to go somewhere?

If harassment occurs in military service and you know about it, you can write a report to the commander or a statement to law enforcement agencies. This can be done even without the victimʼs consent, but itʼs still better to talk to her (or him). Itʼs necessary that she or he agrees to testify, without this statements and complaints have no meaning. They will not be able to punish you for reporting harassment of your colleague. Unless they prove that you deliberately wanted to defame someone, but thatʼs very difficult.

I wrote a complaint and statement, but itʼs ignored. What shall I do? Should I talk about it publicly?

You can challenge the inaction of the law enforcement officers through the court — then they have to conduct investigative actions. For this, you need the help of a lawyer. Similarly, the lawyer will advise in each individual case whether itʼs worth talking about it publicly. First, if your words in statements and in posts or interviews are different, it will harm the investigation. Second, society and fellow servicemen may condemn you for criticizing the army during the active phase of the war. You have to be ready for that too.

If I publicly report harassment, can I be sued for defamation?

Yes, itʼs possible. But not for defamation, because there is no such concept in Ukrainian legislation, but for “spreading false information”. The wrongdoer can file a lawsuit for protection of honor, dignity, and business reputation. If the court finds you guilty, you will have to pay compensation and remove or refute the false information.

Proving the spread of false information is very difficult. To do this, you need to prove that you wrote statements, and not your evaluative judgments. Therefore, you can use some tricks — for example, write not “X is harassing me”, but “I contacted the law enforcement officers with a statement that X is harassing me”. In this case, you only claim that you contacted the police.

Likewise, a lawsuit can be filed for your words. For example, if you told other people about your experiences in the military. So if you arenʼt sure about the person, donʼt give them the abuserʼs name when you talk about what happened. Perhaps these people will later testify against you in court.

A lawsuit for protection of honor and dignity will not affect the course of criminal proceedings. But there may be consequences for publicity. Therefore, it is necessary to consult a lawyer in everything.

My complaint gets no attention because of the martial law. Is this legal?

No. In a personal conversation, however, the responsible officials can name this reason. But the reason for the refusal will probably be irrelevant. A classic example is allegedly due to the lack of composition of the offense. Or the case will be automatically closed after three months due to lack of evidence. This can be appealed through the court and the case returned for further investigation, but this should be done with a lawyer.

No one will believe me, the complaint will not be considered, instead everyone will call me a whore. Maybe itʼs better to be silent and go on with it?

Itʼs hard to give advice if you havenʼt experienced it yourself. But if you remain silent and suffer, you will neither help yourself nor other potential victims of your abuserʼs actions. No one can be condemned for being afraid to talk about harassment — only the perpetrator should be condemned.

It will be easier if you have support. Not only in your military unit, but also in the family, among friends. Ask for it. If you are afraid to speak and write statements, think about the fact that others can also get into such a situation, because the offender will feel his or her impunity. This can last for years. Of course, only you make the decision, and no one can tell you how youʼll be better off. But itʼs worth remembering that the problem will not be solved as long as it remains silent.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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