Welcome to Part 1 of our February 2024 Inspirational Interview with Larysa Denysenko. 

Larysa Denysenko is a writer, lawyer, and human rights defender who has authored more than 20 books for adults and children. She was born in Kyiv in 1973 and works on the topic of war sexual crimes and in the fields of criminal justice and the protection of children’s and women’s rights. She has won a Supreme Court award “for loyalty to the law.” In Kyiv, in March 2022, she wrote the children’s book Children of the Air-Raid Siren, which was published by Vydavnytvo in July 2022. It is an advocacy book directed at the protection of Ukrainian children from the Russian occupiers.

Part two of Larysa’s interview will be published 5 Febuary, 2024.

All photos are courtesy of Larysa Denysenko.

1. How and why did you join the movement to end violence against women (VAW)? 

Women experience, in particular, sexual harassment in public places, school, transport, even when they are girls. I was born in Soviet Ukraine. The Soviet system never respected a person’s private boundaries. Soviet leaders, police, and teachers did not take into account human dignity. Therefore, it was difficult to protect your boundaries, to understand that your boundaries were violated. When I became an adult, I received a legal education and became more sensitive and attentive to this issue and I understood how I had to protect my rights and my body. Since then, I have been protecting women and girls from any form of violence both informationally and legally.


2. Your feminist advocacy work is spread across three different roles as a lawyer, a human rights activist, and a journalist which each bring a different perspective and approach to the fight for women’s rights. How have your experiences in each role informed and influenced your overall approach to the fight to end VAW? 

When you work in several different areas, you have the opportunity to see a problem and solve it from different angles. I raise awareness about women’s rights, about sexism, about the harmfulness of discrimination, and that violence is unacceptable. The communication expertise of a lawyer and communication expertise of a journalist are different and I deploy both according to the situation or context. When I defend women’s rights as a lawyer, I know how to explain in plain language what will happen when she files a statement with the police, when the pre-trial proceedings begin. I can translate legal terminology for people which is important for public resonance; I can explain to my colleagues in the media what the judges and prosecutors said. And, to judges and parliamentarians, I can communicate in a language that is more understandable for them, regarding advocacy needs in the field of women’s rights.


3. In 2017, you co-founded the Ukranian Women Lawyers Association (JurFem) as “one of the first Ukrainian associations of women lawyers” with the aim of becoming “a platform for the exchange of experience, development and support of women in the legal profession.” How has JurFem’s work evolved in response to the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine?

We work in several areas. The first and broadest: help to women and girls, as well as men, who are survivors of war crimes and sexual violence caused by the occupiers, the Russian army. Second: legal assistance to women in the army. Third: prevention of domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexism, and ordinary criminal sex crimes. We conduct many educational projects for colleagues in these areas. We have a hotline for legal aid. We analyse legislation and court decisions, conduct a gender analysis of bills, and also offer our vision of legislative changes in favour of women’s rights.


4. In your article for UN Women, you stated that “any violence – including conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) – is about power relations and dominance. Perpetrators want to demonstrate their power; they want to prevail. That is why sexual violence is so common during wars and armed conflicts.” What would your advice be to lawyers in other parts of the world who wish to use their legal expertise to assist survivors of wartime sexual violence including rape and sex trafficking? 

When a woman is raped by enemies in the occupied territory where the army, police, medicine are occupiers, there is no objective possibility to complain about a crime and to defend oneself. There is no possibility to receive medical assistance. There is no freedom, no respect for dignity. A woman experiences double violence under such conditions.

The justice system should be based on trusting the words of a survivor of sexual violence. We have to change the approach of suspicion and blaming the victim to the approach of clearly understanding who the criminal is. Legal, psychological, and social assistance should be available, victim-centred, and real. The legal corridor through which a survivor goes must take into account all the needs of a person and her condition, and be effective and helpful, not traumatic. Lawyers should take a proactive position and be gender-sensitive individuals.


5. In 2022, you and two other prominent Ukrainian journalists (Oksana Pavlenko and Tetyana Troshchynska) co-authored an extensive, groundbreaking and trauma-informed “practical guide for media workers reporting on war-related sexual violence in Ukraine” which “provides context and advice on language, consent, and behaviour when conducting interviews”. Given that much of the media across the world have had a long history of inadequate and biased reporting about VAW through a patriarchal lens, what sort of impact has the guide had on the way wartime sexual violence in Ukraine has been reported in the Ukrainian media and globally?

Unfortunately, foreign media often portray our country as a room of fear. They highlight and use the most terrifying atrocities as attractions: A woman who was raped by a group of Russian soldiers; A girl tortured and raped in front of her mother.

Our guide helps Ukrainian fixers working with foreign media to explain why it is not acceptable to perceive the victims of war crimes as an attraction. Not everyone knows how to talk to survivors of such horrific crimes. The manual draws attention to the main points of such communication. I hope that it will be the basis for the work of journalists and editorial offices around the world on sensitive and complex topics; that it will teach how to write about a person with respect, and not write about her with her own blood.