A bleak International Women’s Day in Ukraine is cause to worry about what lies ahead

This illegal invasion of a sovereign nation is already an immense tragedy, and it will only get worse, especially for women and girls.

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People from Ukraine arrive at the main train station on a train from Poland.

People from Ukraine arrive at the main train station on a train from Poland on March 7. Over a million people, mainly Ukrainian women and children and foreigners living or working in Ukraine, have fled Ukraine as the current Russian military invasion continues to inflict growing civilian casualties.

Carsten Koall/DPA/ABACAPRESS

As heartbreaking and unimaginable images, videos and reports flood out of war-torn Ukraine, comparisons to World War II Europe are impossible to avoid.

Thousands of families sleeping underground in subway stations, cramming onto outbound trains, air-raid sirens the new normal, beautiful buildings that once lit up a cosmopolitan city now shelled and hollowed out.

More than 2 million people have fled Ukraine because of Vladimir Putin’s deadly invasion. According to the United Nations, it’s the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Nazis tried to take over the continent.

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It was hard not to see this coming. Putin, if you’ve spent any time monitoring his activities in Syria over the past several years, is capable of truly grim and ghoulish violence, even against the most vulnerable. That war has seen the death of tens of thousands of children, thanks in no small part to Putin’s assistance.

Having covered other wars and humanitarian crises, there’s something else I know without question: This war in Ukraine, and the refugee crisis it is already creating, will take a disproportionate toll on women.

Today, as we think about what International Women’s Day means, it’s hard not to think about the superficiality of these monikers. Sure, “a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women” sounds great, but millions of women in Ukraine are hiding in bunkers, taking up arms to defend their country, fleeing with their children, displaced in countries with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Many will die.

Over the course of numerous humanitarian and refugee crises like the one unfolding in Ukraine, report after report has shown that women are hit hardest, and in ways men often are not.

A UN Global Humanitarian Overview released in 2019 showed that these conflicts “exacerbate gender inequalities, particularly against women and girls.”

At least one in five women refugees has experienced sexual violence, including unwanted pregnancies, child marriage and other deleterious effects.

In many conflict settings, “sexual violence is being employed as a tactic of war,” a horrific reality seen most prominently among the 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, where women were systematically raped by Myanmar Armed Forces and local militias.

In Syria, where there are more Syrians displaced and living outside of Syria than inside, girls and young women survive child marriage, sexual assault, family violence — all of which is harder to monitor and stop among refugee populations.

Even when women can stay in their home country and survive the worst of the military assault, many still feel like prisoners. One Syrian girl told the UN Populations Fund that “life quickly became an open-air prison after the war. Suddenly we were told not to leave our houses because we might get harassed, raped or kidnapped.”

In Afghanistan, 80% of the Afghans forced to flee the Taliban takeover were women and children, according to the UN. While Afghanistan had U.S. and NATO troops keeping the Taliban at bay, life expectancy of Afghan women grew by 10 years. Maternal death rates were cut in half. More than half of the girls attended primary school.

Under Taliban rule, there are reports of women being whipped in public, girls are no longer taught in the same classes as boys, and they are now under the rule of a ministry for the “propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice.”

It’s also widely evidenced that girls in conflict settings — like war zones and refugee camps — are more likely to be out of school than boys. School-related gender-based violence in conflict situations rises. School-aged girls are often used as bargaining chips. Remember the 200 Nigerian school girls kidnapped in April of 2014.

War takes a toll on everyone. The future that awaits Ukrainian refugees — the vast majority of whom are women and children — is uncertain to say the least. Refugee camps, as vital and lifesaving as they can be, are not good, long-term solutions for women and girls in particular.

And for those who stay for what may be months of war in Ukraine, or what may become Russian-held Ukraine, the future is potentially even more grim for women and girls. Just ask those who stayed in Syria, as the bombing and airstrikes continue, 11 years later.

This illegal invasion of a sovereign nation is already an immense tragedy, and it will only get worse, especially for women and girls. On this International Women’s Day, it’s hard to celebrate. Instead, we fear for what lies ahead.

S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.

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