A speech by The Duchess of Edinburgh, via video message, at the Restoration of the Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Survivors’ Rights Conference, Ukraine


We must stand shoulder to shoulder with all survivors to secure justice and holistic redress, and ensure that this crime isn’t an accepted part of conflict.

May I begin by saying how privileged I am to be sharing a message at the Restoration of the Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Survivors’ Rights Conference in my capacity as champion for the UKs Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative and especially during the week that celebrates International Womens Day. 

I am equally honoured that the First Lady, Mrs Olena Zelenska, whom I have met on a number of occasions and who has recently returned from meeting Her Majesty The Queen in the UK, has invited me to speak at this event focused on supporting survivors of conflict related sexual violence.

The scale of the challenge that conflict related sexual violence presents around the world, from Myanmar to Ethiopia, from Colombia to Sudan, the current crisis in the Middle East to Ukraine, both from past and present conflicts, is enormous. Sadly, the landscape seems to be getting worse. As we gather here today, thousands of women, men, boys and girls are being subjected to sexual violence in order to demean, over-power and destroy. In Ukraine, female and male survivors have bravely recounted their experiences of the most appalling atrocities they have endured, since the start of the war in 2022. This conference is an important opportunity to ensure that those survivors are not forgotten, to shine a spotlight on their bravery and the need to ensure justice and accountability are upheld. 

The devastation of conflict related sexual violence, we know is not only confined to the survivors and the children born of rape, but is felt by the families as well as whole communities, which is why it is so effective as a tactic of warfare. Survivors experience long-lasting stigma which impacts their livelihoods and tears families apart. The screams of a five year old girl clinging to her father in Panzi hospital DRC where the kind and gentle medics were trying to win enough trust from her for them to be able examine her are engrained in my heart, as are the faces and accounts of the many women who have shared the terrible and graphic accounts of their rape experiences. And while they, as innocent victims, are handed a life sentence of ongoing devastating psychological and physical consequences, the majority of perpetrators go unpunished. This must change. Rape requires no training, no armoury, no financial backing, but is as devastating as bullets and bombs not only in the immediacy of the attacks but for the rest of the victims and their familys lives. And lets be clear it is illegal, in fact it is pure evil.

Conflict-related sexual violence must end now. 

We must work harder to shift the blame from the victim/survivor to the perpetrator and ensure perpetrators are held to account - whether they ordered it, committed it or facilitated it. We must use measures such as successful prosecutions - at the national and, where necessary, international level - and implementation of sanctions as deterrents to prevent CRSV. And we must also ensure we provide holistic, survivor-centred services that support all survivors and do not re-traumatise them, helping them to rebuild their lives.  

There is a growing body of evidence from international organisations such as the Commission of Inquiry of the United Human Rights Council, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe, that atrocities have been committed in Ukraine.

Ukrainian courts have found that war crimes have been committed by Russian soldiers. The Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine has recorded over 120,000 incidents of alleged war crimes committed during the conflict. 

The Ukrainian authorities and International Criminal Court investigations are underway and the ICCs announcement of the first arrest warrants is an important step. But while this jurisprudence is developing in holding perpetrators to account in conflict affected countries, the world needs to do much more to recognise that conflict related sexual violence is a tactic of war and is NOT just an unfortunate casualty. It can and must be prevented.

The Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative encourages a survivor-centred approach in bringing about accountability and justice. At the PSVI Conference in 2022, the UK announced a new ACT for Survivors programme. Since the conference, ACT for Survivors has supported capacity building to strengthen national accountability in Ethiopia, Guinea, Ukraine, Colombia and South Sudan through UN Women and the UN Team of Experts. The UK has provided support of £7.85 million to date to the Global Survivors Fund and their important work to enhance access to holistic redress for survivors globally through projects that provide psychosocial, educational and business support, and technical support to Governments.

In Ukraine, through the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group, the coordinating mechanism between the UK, US and EU, financial aid is being provided to Ukraines domestic investigations and prosecutions of core international crimes. The funding has helped deploy Mobile Justice Teams to the scenes of potential war crimes, trained more than 100 judges and deployed 30,000 forensic medical kits for police officers investigating CRSV, and a member of the PSVI Team of Experts is supporting OPG to develop their standards and procedures for investigating and prosecuting cases of CRSV in Ukraine. This will help to ensure that these heinous crimes are investigated consistently and effectively across the country.

While these measures provide some hope, I know that so much more needs to be done. I very much encourage the discussions you will have on how best to support and restore the rights of survivors, how we collect critical evidence, how we ensure that victims have timely access to the right holistic support, how we hold perpetrators to account as well as what role the international partnerships have to play, such as the PSVI International Alliance, which Ukraine is a member of along with other countries, NGOs, UN agencies and survivors. 

His Majesty The King recently said, Ukrainians continue to show the heroism with which the world associates them so closely.”  Your Excellency The First Lady, all survivors, and the women and men helping to end conflict and build peace here in Ukraine, I am full of admiration for you all.  

Survivors here and around the world have spoken out so bravely about their experiences. They are the most powerful advocates who remind us all that we must not turn our backs on the horrors of this crime, we must never forget the survivors. Rather, we must stand shoulder to shoulder with all survivors to secure justice and holistic redress, and ensure that this crime isnt an accepted part of conflict. Their rights and their voices must be at the heart of all our efforts to consign conflict-related sexual violence to the history books. 

Thank you.