Looking to History to Support Survivors

Fletcher alumnae publish report on responses to conflict-based violence in Ukraine
A group shot of participants at a conference in Berlin.

Fletcher alumnae Kinsey Spears F19 FG23 and Emily Prey F20 have worked together as researchers on numerous reports, investigating key global issues through the lens of gender and intersectional analysis. As the war has continued in Ukraine, the team saw a gap—more needed to be done to support and protect victims of conflict-related sexual violence. 

To investigate, the duo paired up with Tanya Domi, an expert on the Balkans and Bosnia, and they published a report, “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ukraine: Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Policy Options for Ukraine, the United States, and the International Community,” which was picked up by CNN in September. 

“There are so many parallels between what's happening in Ukraine and what happened in Bosnia,” said Prey. “At the time, there wasn't anything out there, a real rigorous analysis comparing the two wars and genocides, and especially looking at conflict-related sexual violence, which is a crime that is very often swept under the rug, ignored, or not even considered a crime. There was a gap, and we wanted to fill it.”

As director of the gender policy portfolio at the New Lines Institute, Prey realized that the think tank could connect with both civil society and policymakers, bringing the issues to their attention to effect change. By investigating outcomes from the Bosnian War, the team has been able to identify opportunities for response in Ukraine.

“We're seeing quite a few additional people coming forward to talk about their experiences and legal frameworks coming out in Bosnia now in response to the war 30 years ago,” said Spears. “We were thinking about how to better prepare a conflict to move from active conflict to post conflict. How can we set up mechanisms, legal frameworks, and accountability frameworks so that down the line survivors aren’t thinking, ‘I'm not going to have any reciprocity for the actions committed against me, my family, and my community.’”

Practicing a Feminist Ethic of Care

Spears and Prey were first connected as students at Fletcher—Spears was Prey’s TA in a class that Professor Dyan Mazurana taught on child rights and protection. Both worked closely with Mazurana, as well as Kimberly Theidon, throughout their time as students.

“Emily and I both learned so much from Kimberly and Dyan about thinking of ways to present real-time solutions that are survivor-centered, as opposed to just thinking about the international frameworks, how they work, and their limitations,” said Spears. 

“As researchers, we tried to practice an ethic of care, which is a feminist-based ethical theory that really focuses on social interconnectedness and collaboration of research,” said Spears. 

This set of ethics guided their methodology. Prey consulted with a number of readers, including Ukrainians and Bosnians, to ensure they were using survivor-centered language in the report and were consistently thinking about how legal frameworks can work for populations and communities, instead of only being reflective of norms in the United Nations or the west.

The report includes several recommendations, many of which derive from responses to the Bosnian War. A recent Bosnian law provides protections for children of wartime rape and acknowledged them as victims of war. This law, the team noted, is the first of its kind in Europe and was brought about by the advocacy of this population. The group shared this recommendation with a member of the Ukrainian parliament, who is currently looking to see if they can enact such protections as well. 

Additionally, the group recommended that a domestic register be established to complement the international register of losses and damages in The Hague. Spears noted that this will provide a way for Ukrainian survivors of all crimes to register what happened to them in a national setting; additionally, this register can be inclusive of crimes committed from 2014 onward, whereas the international register in The Hague accounts for crimes from 2022 on. 

A Transatlantic Collaboration

As the team practiced an ethic of care in creating their report, they also collaborated with partners across the Atlantic. The team began to develop the paper in a workshop during a feminist conference in Berlin. Additionally, the report’s foreword was written by Baroness Helena Kennedy, a leading human rights lawyer in the world, Prey said, which helped to elevate the report to policymakers. 

“This goes to show how transatlantic the support for Ukraine is, and how much additional work across the Atlantic is needed to support these people who are fighting for their sovereignty and their lives,” said Spears. “Having different European and American bodies come together to work on this report goes to show how valuable this research is, especially in a time when funding isn't necessarily guaranteed going forward.”

Last month, Prey traveled to Sarajevo to discuss the report with people who lived through the Bosnian War. 

“It was really good to hear their experience. I'd ask them, when I'm talking to parliamentarians or policymakers in Washington, D.C. or around the world, what things they want me to make sure that I'm saying, and how they want me to highlight this,’” said Prey. “That’s going to be very helpful in the work going forward.”

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