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Conflict to Connection: Displaced Women, Gender-Based Violence, and Human Rights in Ukraine

Conflict to Connection: Displaced Women, Gender-Based Violence, and Human Rights in Ukraine

Today, Human Rights Day, rounds out the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign. Though there are a myriad of complex human needs we might focus on today. One thing is certain: Human Rights are under attack, and women and girls bear a major brunt of it. Displaced women and girls are part of the 65-plus million displaced persons on the planet, and are particularly vulnerable to atrocious Human Rights violations.

I recently returned to USA from Ukraine, where the Human Rights situation has profoundly declined in the last few years. Since the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine in Spring 2014, there are an estimated 1.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs). According to 2015 report from the Commission on the Status of Women more than 60 percent of IDPs in Ukraine are women and children. Violence including sexual violence, trafficking, and forced sex work occur at much higher incidences among forcibly displaced women and children. Here gender discrimination is pervasive, and violence against women rife, conflict and insecurity has made an already dire situation for internally displaced women exponentially worse.

 Gender-Based Violence and Footage Foundation Work:

The last few years I’ve been working specifically with forcibly displaced young women as well as with young women who are survivors of and/or at-risk to Gender-Based Violence (GBV). I’ve spent the last 15-plus years working as a participatory ethnographer understanding needs and creating psychosocial programs for and with vulnerable young people around the world.Many displaced young women are also GBV survivors -all of them are at-risk to violence. UN Women recently called violence against women a Human Rights violation of pandemic proportions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and other institutions, more than one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. While GBV does not discriminate (based on nationality, class, race, age, etc.), it does escalate for displaced women: risk factors increase and social structures break down during times of conflict.

An interplay between between Gender-Based Violence, Human Rights, and internal displacement complicates matters further: people are displaced as a consequence of rights violations, and violations increase through displacement. Displaced women are at risk of GBV, but becomes more complex when we consider that IDPs are typically excluded from the (very) few protective measures in place for individuals with refugee status (since they are internally displaced). Without question. internally displaced young women in Ukraine are facing a Human Rights crisis. Making matters worse, there are very limited structures in place for supporting women subject to violence (for example, there are only three shelters in Ukraine for women escaping violent situations). In fact, this crisis underpins a larger problem:  the unique needs of women and girls (especially those who are displaced) are not understood, and not being met.

Where do we go from here?

My professional opinion, backed by experience and research, is that we start small and we start targeted. We start grounded and we start connected to lived experiences. We start with the voices of young women themselves -offering a space for them to share their unique perspective on Gender-Based Violence. Perhaps even more rare, a space to share their singular perspective as IDPs all of whom are at-risk to, and many survivors of, violence.

UN Women recently suggested that: “evidence… illustrates how even relatively small-scale investments that are timely and well targeted can bring enormous benefits to women and girls and to their wider communities”. UN Women further suggest, that there is a need for women’s participation in the peace and security process. This is one of the many spaces where women’s voices are silenced yet desperately needed. Indeed voice, participation, and small-scale targeted programs are precisely what I found could be a possible way forward in Ukraine’s humanitarian efforts with respect to female IDPs and GBV. A finding that was solidified while there in November conducting a participatory voice program and co-creating a safe space of connection with internally-displaced young women, with the NGO Footage Foundation.


What I’ve found is that with targeted evidence-based programming, prioritizing voice can at least begin to interrupt this interplay between GBV, IDPs, and Human Rights. This by igniting change that mitigates the impact of violence -change that moves beyond general awareness of the issue, and into action and transformation at the individual and collective level. This is targeted, grounded change that starts with young women’s participation and perspectives, rooted in community, their everyday lives, the contexts they live with/in and through.

For example, when young women are not “fed” definitions of Gender-Based Violence, they themselves discuss and map their own meanings of violence. Through deeper understanding of the role of GBV in their lives, they access their power and confidence to support and advocate for others. Working this way, we can learn from the young women themselves how to further interrupt this tightly-connected triad constituted of GBV, IDPs, and Human Rights. Through small targeted programs starting with the voices of a small group of young women can begin to offer a way forward.

For the young women I met in Ukraine, and for women and girls around the world, I urge all humanitarian and development partners to invest more in targeted, small-scale programs. This can enable transformation from conflict to connection.

Project Background:

With funding from the USA Embassy in Kyiv, Footage Foundation ran their “Girl-talk-Girl” storytelling program. A small group of internally displaced young women were engaged in a range of activities including discussion, role play, mapping exercises, and using fine and media arts to recreate and share their experiences with GBV.  At the end of the workshops, all young women produced digital stories (two to five minute multimedia narratives combining image, text and sound). These narratives connect them to other young women globally as they are shared on Footage’s online platform.

The women, spoke bravely about their experiences which included violence stemming from international conflict, recognition of deep structural inequalities, discrimination, issues of belonging, and financial instability. They shared and connected through stories about domestic violence, online/offline harassment, inequality,  gender roles, self-harm, and experiences in armed conflict. The young women expressed a more clear understanding of GBV in their lives, of the power of connection, and of the healing that can occur when sharing your story. One participant commented: “I feel relieved because in the process of making my story, I re-lived it several times and outlived it, and that helped me to free myself of the problem.”

Featured image: Workshops with IDPs in Kyiv, Ukraine. Credit Footage Foundation. 

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Kristen Eglinton

Kristen Ali Eglinton, PhD, is Co-founder and Executive Director of Footage Foundation, a US-based NGO that creates impactful, sustainable programs using local technology and expressive multimedia tools (such as mobile digital storytelling) to bring the underrepresented voices of young people into conversations on the world’s most challenging issues. Since 2014, Footage Foundation’s Girl-talk-Girl program has positively impacted the lives of more than 80 young women across three countries, of which 10 young women have now been trained and employed as Mobile Digital Storytelling Leaders, using a peer-to-peer model. More than 60 stories have been produced, an open-source toolkit designed for NGOs to facilitate dialogue was developed in collaboration with young women, and training guides and curriculum materials have been created to scale the program globally. The program is expanding through a US Embassy in Santiago public diplomacy award to Chile this month.

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