Kyiv-based gender expert Olena Zaitseva is working with the Ukrainian Governance Project and activists to prevent and respond to gender-based violence against Ukrainian women, focusing on fighting sexual exploitation, which she warns occurs in refugee camps and host homes alike.

In European countries where refugees seek safety and prostitution is legal, it's especially difficult to prove abuse, she told Global Citizen.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Zaitseva has been tasked with helping create and disseminate support resources for women crossing to other countries at the border. She's also working with a feminist social media group to distribute information to protect women and help Ukrainian people understand gender-based violence on a fundamental level by promoting campaigns to share across other women's organizations throughout the country.

Part of the challenge is dismantling ingrained tendencies toward victim-blaming, even among social workers, psychologists, and law enforcement, she explained. Zaitseva and other activists are also gathering data on the crimes committed against women during the war.

Zaitseva participated in Global Citizen's recent Twitter Spaces talk, “Women and Girls in the Ukrainian Refugee Crisis.” We asked her to expand on the biggest risks Ukrainian women refugees face, how women refugees are vulnerable worldwide, and how everyday citizens can take action on the situation.

Global Citizen: There seems to be an assumption that when you're fleeing a conflict, the biggest obstacle is getting out, and you're safe. What unique risk of gender-based violence are Ukrainian women still facing once they've left the country, and how is their situation similar to the risks that all refugees and displaced women are often confronted with?

Olena Zaitseva: In Europe, and maybe it's not official data, but it's being said that Ukrainian women are being perceived as the easy victims of sex trafficking because traditional values tell us that women should be caring, should cook dinner and clean the home, she should look after children. [A woman] with such beliefs, that she had during her childhood or when she was young, will easily be trapped in the situation when some person offers her, for example, her rent to live in some house. And simultaneously [told] she should look after the children of the house owners, clean the house, and cook — and this is all for free. This should be paid.

Another thing is that Ukraine is a poor country — a lot of poor women, young women [are] living in Ukraine — and many of them have had to move to Europe. Ukraine also has a lot of sexism and objectification of women. If they flee from places with aggressive actions with artillery or airstrikes, they can be psychologically unstable, and this just makes it easier for victims of traffickers.

I do not want to say that Ukraine is a special country. Anybody who is put in the same conditions is vulnerable in the same way.

Read the full article about female Ukrainian refugees by Leah Rodriguez at Global Citizen.