Duchess of Edinburgh calls for justice for sexual violence victims after Ukraine visit

The Duchess is a long-term campaigner in the sphere of conflict-related sexual violence
The Duchess is a long-term campaigner in the sphere of conflict-related sexual violence - Getty/Christopher Furlong

The Duchess of Edinburgh has called for better psychological care and evidence gathering to bring justice for victims of sexual violence in war after she became the first member of the Royal family to visit Ukraine since it was invaded.

Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, a long-term campaigner in the sphere of conflict-related sexual violence, visited the country in April, delivering a letter from King Charles to Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, and visiting survivors.

Writing a diary of her visit in the Sunday Times, she has now dismissed praise from the “many people” who have called her “brave or courageous” for travelling to the country, saying: “I am neither. The brave people are those who have endured extreme violence and survived. The courageous are those who have reported the crimes committed against them.”

She cited statistics from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which found an estimated 169 cases of conflict-related sexual violence in Ukraine since February 2022.

Writing that history is “littered” with reports of sexual violence as a “casualty or symptom of war, rather than a deliberate tactic to overpower”, she added: “It is only more recently that increased recognition has been given to these heinous crimes, and society has come to understand that it is used to demean, destroy and control, with the aftermath long felt through stigma, devastating physical and mental health repercussions and children born of rape.

“It is a weapon requiring no training, no investment, and it is deployed globally.”

The Duchess, who travelled at the request of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and spent time with Olena Zelenska, first lady of Ukraine, said: “As we look around the world with so many current and threatening crises, my hope is that where conflict does occur more consideration is given to creating well-funded early systems of support for survivors and those who have been internally displaced, so that medical and psychological interventions are accessible, alongside the collation of evidence for future prosecutions and the de-stigmatisation of victims.

“While others in positions of leadership engage with the politics of war, I will endeavour to place conflict-related sexual violence on the table as a devastating consequence.”

The visit was intended to demonstrate solidarity with the women, men and children impacted by the war, particularly with a view to supporting survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.

Speaking at an evening reception at the residence of Martin Harris, UK ambassador to Ukraine, the Duchess said she had travelled to many countries in conflict or post-conflict, and “women and girls pay the highest price in terms of human costs”.

She said: “Rape is used to demean, to degrade and to destroy. And we have to get better at trying to prevent that from happening. Where we cannot prevent it from happening, what we must do is put measures in place to support those who have fallen victim to such crimes.”

The Duchess announced her commitment to champion the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative and the UN’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda on International Women’s Day in 2019.

She has visited a number of countries over the years to highlight the impact of historical and current conflict, including Kosovo, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Colombia.