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NASTYA PODOROZHNYA DELIVERS DONATED CONTRACEPTIVES AND ABORTION PILLS TO HOSPITALS IN UKRAINE. PHOTO: JIKA GONZALEZ/ VICE NEWS

Ukrainians Are Falling Victim to Poland’s ‘Hidden War Against Women’

Ukrainian women who fled sexual violence and war are facing the harsh reality of Poland’s almost total ban on abortion.

KRAKOW, Poland – “Hello. I was given your contacts and I was told you can help me,” the Telegram message said. 

“I was raped in Ukraine. I'm in Poland now. I think I'm pregnant. And this pregnancy is really, really unwanted. I don't know what to do with it.” 

This was one of dozens of messages sent to Nastya Podorozhnya, a Ukrainian reproductive rights advocate living in Poland, since Russia invaded Ukraine over six months ago. 

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Since then, many Ukrainian women have found themselves fleeing war into neighbouring Poland – a country that’s let in nearly 2 million refugees, the majority of whom are women and children. 

Reports of acts of sexual violence committed against Ukrainians continues to mount, mostly against women and girls, but men and boys are also among the victims.

While the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees in Poland has been generous, it has not come without strain, especially for those arriving from the most precarious of situations. As Ukrainians in Poland are quickly learning that two countries have little in common when it comes to women's access to reproductive healthcare.

Before the war, Ukraine was known for its comparatively liberal abortion laws, and was somewhat of a destination for Poles seeking abortions abroad. There, abortions are legally provided upon request for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and the morning after pill is readily available at pharmacies. 

In Poland, on the other hand, legal abortion is almost entirely outlawed. There are very few and extreme exceptions for the law, such as when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or when the life and health of the mother is under threat, though neither exception is used much in practice. Mostly, Polish people seeking abortions have had to either travel abroad to countries like the Czech Republic, Germany, or Slovakia or import abortion pills from abroad. 

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“Most Ukrainian women are very surprised when they come to Poland and suddenly they realise there is no legal way for them to attain safe abortion or day after pill,” Podorozhyna said. 

The 25-year-old is just one of dozens of activists working in networks all over Poland trying to help people in need of abortions. Since the war began, requests for their help have only grown.

One of the networks working alongside Podorozhnya is Abortion Without Borders. By mid-August they reported receiving over 600 calls from Ukrainian women asking for abortion care. 

Podorozhnya left Kyiv with her family at the start of the war. In March, she started a hotline to assist Ukrainian women fleeing to Poland, called “Martynka Hotline.” Women can text the hotline’s number and get advice on Poland’s healthcare system, refugee resettlement program, or how to find a safe host family. 

When mass graves were discovered in the Ukrainian town of Bucha and reports of rapes at the hands of the Russian military began to surface in April, Podorozhnya’s mission was invigorated.

It was at this time she received a text message from a young Ukrainian girl asking for help. 

“She was asking for emergency contraception,” Podorozhnya said. “And I just felt so much empathy for her, I thought about how stressed she must be in that situation – alone, with no language, with no one to trust, seeking reproductive care.”

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Podorozhnya realised that she wasn’t just going to be helping Ukrainian refugees navigate an unfamiliar new place, but she was going to have to help them navigate legally precarious landscapes – like abortion care in a country that had essentially outlawed it.

“There are going to be women who, for many reasons – not just because of war rapes, will need either emergency contraception or so-called day after pill or an abortion,” she said. 

Podorozhnya has joined an almost 30-year-old reproductive rights movement that’s been growing in Poland as laws surrounding abortion care have become more and more restrictive. Over the years, as the networks of activists expanded and established themselves in Poland, the more dangerous its become for people to assist others in accessing abortions. Currently, Justyna Wydrzynska, a prominent abortion-rights activist who sent a domestic violence victim abortion pills, faces up to three years in prison, making her the first activist in Europe to face a criminal trial under Poland’s incredibly strict abortion laws

Even so, Wydrzynska and those like her have continued mobilising to support Ukrainian refugees who need abortion care, by providing them with information on how to access abortion.

Ewa, who asked to not use her last name for her safety, works for Women on the Web (WoW). WoW is one of the largest organisations helping  provide online abortion care around the world. They also offer free care for anyone who fled the war and is looking to terminate their pregnancy.

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THIS NEON CLOTHES HANGER IS DISPLAYED IN EWA'S WORKSPACE. VOLUNTEERS LIKE EWA FEAR THAT THEIR WORK ASSISTING WOMEN WITH FINDING ABORTIONS WILL LEAD TO THEIR ARREST. PHOTO: JIKA GONZALEZ/ VICE NEWS

“Since the war broke out, we've had three or four requests for help from Ukrainian women per day,” said Ewa. “They are not very outspoken. You know, they don't use words. They just write that they are in Poland because of the war. And sometimes they mentioned that they were raped and don't say anything more.”

Despite the risk of going to prison in a system that’s continually clamping down on their work, abortion rights activists like Ewa, Wydrzynska, and Podorozhnya keep on picking up the phone. 

“I think about risks all the time but I’m honestly too angry to be scared,”  Podorozhnya said. “I’m so angry that the Polish state is creating all those obstacles for all those women trying to attain reproductive health. I am too angry to be thinking about my personal safety.” 

It's not just activists who are taking legal risks to help Ukrainian refugees access reproductive healthcare, it’s also medical professionals.

“If a Ukrainian woman comes to my office being pregnant and the pregnancy is the result of the rape, I feel helpless,” Dr Agnieszka Kurczuk, a gynaecologist based in Warsaw, told VICE World News. “Like my hands [are] tied. I cannot do anything.”

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DR. AGNIESZKA KURCZUK, A GYNAECOLOGIST IN WARSAW, PROVIDES SERVICES TO UKRAINIAN WOMEN WHO HAVE ESCAPED THE WAR. PHOTO: JIKA GONZALEZ/ VICE NEWS

Kurczuk has been a gynaecologist for more than 30 years, and spends her free time volunteering at a shelter for Ukrainian refugees outside of Warsaw. She tolds us how aside from needing physical care, women who experience sexual violence in Ukraine are extremely trauamtised and find it difficult to speak up and ask for help in Poland. Such was the case with one patient, a 21-year-old refugee from Kharkiv, who Kurczuk treated. The patient had fled to Poland in search of help after she was raped by a group of Russian soldiers. 

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“She was in total PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. She could not tell me where it was, when it was,” Kurczuk said. “So I helped her and did all the tests for pregnancy, for sexually transmitted diseases, gave her all the vaginal tablets and creams and all the treatments she should have. “

“After two weeks, I saw her again and her wounds were almost healed. Physical wounds, but not the mental ones. She called me from the bus to Ukraine and she said that she was going back to Ukraine and that she wanted to go back there because she wanted to join the Army. And she said she wanted to kill as many as she can – Russian soldiers – before she gets killed herself.”

Activists in Poland say that as the war continues, they expect to see more later term pregnancies and an increased demand for surgical abortions. But because proving a rape allegation in order to get an abortion is so difficult for any one in Poland – especially refugees who may have experienced violence in another country – these women may be forced to travel further into Europe, in search for an abortion, or find doctors willing to perform illegal surgery in Poland. 

“There is a hidden war against women here. They don't shoot us, but they don't allow us to possess our own bodies,” said Kurczuk, the Warsaw-based gynaecologist. “So it's a very difficult situation for these Ukrainian women because they escape from the hell, which is Ukraine, though they are coming to Poland, which is not heaven for women at all.”

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Earlier this summer, Podorozhnya, the Ukrainian activist now in Poland, received a letter from a hospital near the city of Dnipro in eastern Ukraine. It was a request for a variety of medical equipment including antibiotics, painkillers, medical gauze. At the top of the list? A request for abortion pills. 

“Ukraine is lacking abortion pills and emergency contraception,” she said. “There is a very high number of rapes happening, especially in the occupied territories. There are not enough pills in the pharmacies, even in hospitals, and this is why we are sending these pills directly to hospitals.”

Now, her small Krakow apartment is stacked with 12,000 donated condoms as well as other contraceptives and abortion medication sent from abroad, that other activists will drive across the border to Ukraine. 

“This is a box full of morning-after pills. And all these pills came to us from Spain,” she said. “Ordinary people who just go to their local drugstores and buy them [for] rape survivors in Ukraine, which is so touching and so important.”  

Podorozhnya worries that donations of contraceptive medicines and support for refugee care will start to dwindle.

“I feel like people are starting to forget about the war, but it’s definitely not casual for me,” said Podorozhnya. “It is going to be my problem for as long as not only the war continues, but also as long as the refugees are going to be here.”

Correction: A translation error meant this story originally said “seeking abortion care” when it should have said “seeking reproductive care”. It has been amended.