The Current

Rape in war often treated as 'a side issue,' not a priority for justice: conflict reporter

Russia faces accusations of war crimes in Ukraine, including allegations that rape is being used as a weapon of war.

Militias have told Christina Lamb that rape is 'cheaper than a Kalashnikov bullet'

The wreckage of a car is seen at the central square of Borodyanka, northwest of Kyiv, on Monday. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Warning: This story contains video images of dead bodies and details of rape. 

Read Story Transcript

Allegations that Russia is using rape as a weapon of war in Ukraine aren't surprising for one veteran foreign correspondent, who says it's something she's increasingly seen over her 30 years covering conflict.

"If you want to humiliate and terrorize and clear a population from somewhere, raping the women and girls is a very effective way of doing it," said Christina Lamb, chief foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times, and author of Our Bodies, Their Battleground: What War Does To Women.

"I've had militias saying to me before, 'It's very cheap; it's cheaper than a Kalashnikov bullet,'" she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

What we don't know in Ukraine is: is this systematic, were the fighters encouraged to do this?- Christina Lamb

A Human Rights Watch report has documented allegations of rape, murder and other violent acts committed by Russian troops against Ukraine's civilians. One case involved the rape of a woman who was sheltering in a school in eastern Ukraine with her five-year-old daughter, and other women and children. 

"The soldier took her to a classroom in the school and raped her several times during the night," Hugh Williamson, the organization's director for Europe and Central Asia, told The Current on Monday.

In a video message to the UN Security Council Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of committing the worst atrocities since the Second World War.

"They cut off limbs, cut their throats. Women were raped and killed in front of their children. Their tongues were pulled out only because their aggressor did not hear what they wanted to hear from them," he told the Security Council.

"The Russian military and those who gave them orders must be brought to justice immediately for war crimes in Ukraine," he said.

Russia has rejected allegations of war crimes, with officials repeatedly saying that the images of corpses and mass graves — which emerged after Russian forces withdrew from areas surrounding Kyiv — have been staged.

WATCH | Zelensky visits battered Bucha: 

Zelensky visits battered Bucha, fears of widespread civilian massacres

4 months ago
Duration 3:40
WARNING: This video contains graphic footage | Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky toured the carnage left behind by Russian troops in the northern Kyiv suburb of Bucha on Monday. Fears are growing that the death and destruction seen in Bucha is just a glimpse into the alleged atrocities committed by Russia in the war.

But Alona Shkrum, a member of Ukraine's parliament, says evidence of sexual violence is emerging across the towns and cities occupied by Russian forces.

"I cannot imagine what those people have been through, but we do have women right now who decided to come forward," she said.

As well as those eye witness accounts, Shkrum said that bodies of civilians have shown evidence of rape and torture. Authorities have also intercepted communications between soldiers, where they boast about what they've done to Ukrainian women, she said. 

Shkrum called on the international community to "do everything to stop this military machine being financed by Putin."

Lamb said rape is being use as a weapon in other conflict zones around the world right now, not just Ukraine. She said she's seen an increase in the use of rape as a weapon in recent years, from ISIS fighters encouraged to force Yazidi women into sexual slavery, to allegations of mass rape committed against Rohingya Muslim civilians by Myanmar's army.

"What we don't know in Ukraine is: is this systematic, were the fighters encouraged to do this? Or was it something that was happening on an individual basis?" she said, adding that "obviously neither is excusable."

Accountability the exception, not the rule

Lamb said she was prompted to write a book about rape in wartime because she couldn't believe that women were reporting these crimes, but nothing was happening. 

"Every woman I spoke to said what they most wanted was justice," she said.

"But the fact is, at the moment, accountability is the exception, not the rule."

She said part of the problem is that women in conflict zones around the world "haven't got a rape kit or something to try and get evidence."

She also thinks that in the aftermath of war, rape can be treated as "a side issue," and is not taken as seriously as other atrocities.

"I can't help thinking that a lot of the problem is that peace negotiations are almost always carried out by men," she said.

WATCH | Canada's UN ambassador on holding Russia to account

Canada’s UN ambassador on holding Russia to account for alleged war crimes

5 months ago
Duration 3:54
Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, discusses the process of holding Russia accountable in the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Ukraine and how RCMP officers are helping with the investigation.

She said that in the aftermath of atrocities committed by ISIS, she asked officials in Iraq if captured fighters would be tried for forcing Yazidi women into sexual slavery. 

The official told her no, and Lamb asked him, why not?

"He said, 'Well, they also killed and tortured people. Why would we bother about the rape?'" she remembered.

'Justice doesn't happen by accident'

Lamb said in a strange way, what's happening in Ukraine is an opportunity for greater action on wartime rape than has been possible in the past.

"It's absolutely horrendous that this is happening, but it's sort of happening in real time in front of us," she said.

"And so we are actually able to do something about it in a way that some of these other conflicts — where it's only emerged long afterwards — we were not able to do anything." 

That would take strong international leadership, and more than just "expressions of outrage," because "justice doesn't happen by accident," she said.

"Hopefully this time people will do more than just talk about it, and actually start collecting the evidence, setting up the mechanisms and making sure people pay a price for this," she said.


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from the Associated Press. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin and Arianne Robinson

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now