The war in Ukraine has truly shaken everyday life in Lithuania. It has, among other things, pushed human rights issues to the background, or reframed them in a strictly military or geopolitical east-west perspective. When information about civilian women being massively and brutally raped by the occupying army reached our shores, a protest was organized at the Russian Embassy in Vilnius. The protest was very similar to the one in Estonia, where Estonian women similarly protested at the Russian Embassy in Tallinn, expressing their solidarity with Ukrainian women by placards depicting victims of sexual violence. They stood by the embassy with horribly blood painted groins and bags on their head. Lithuanian protestors echoed the image. Protesters in Lithuania also brought children’s toys and strollers with them to direct attention to the tragedies of women who got pregnant after being raped. The image was reinforced by “the red pond” because, before the protest, the performance “Swimming Through” took place, during which the famous Lithuanian swimmer Rūta Meilutytė swam across the pond near the Russian Embassy, the water of which had been colored with red dye, to remind the diplomats of the ongoing massacres and atrocities and mass murder in Ukraine.
Lithuanian women activists started organizing various forms of aid to Ukrainian women, from raising funds for mobile gynecological clinics to supplying Ukrainians with hygiene products and pregnancy terminating medication.
The war in Ukraine has hastened some changes in the field of reproductive rights in Lithuania, too. Finally, abortion pills are legal here. This step evoked neither significant public uproar nor clashes with the usual far-right radicals. Seemingly, as news of horrible violence in Ukraine reached us, we finally realize that there is no place left for gibberish about “the pristine miracle of conception,” And such notions being imposed on others of different persuasions and beliefs.
The war also revived debates about conscription for women—here, Israel is often cited as an example. The Ministry of Defense commissioned a universal conscription feasibility study and surveyed the public. According to the study, only 12% of the country’s population is in favor of universal conscription. However, the mood seems to be changing rapidly, as more and more women are joining the paramilitary structures with each passing day of the war in Ukraine. For example, the Riflemen’s Union (Šaulių Sąjunga, a voluntary paramilitary organization) saw many women joining its ranks last year. Now over 30% of its members are female, far more than the percentage of women serving in the army, which is less than 12%. Prominent women, among them artists, journalists, businesswomen, lecturers, are joining paramilitary structures, learning how to handle a weapon, changing the image of the “fragile” woman, and inspiring others to take responsibility for their own future truly at the level of society per se.
“The only advantage of the war is that the country has been cleansed of all the Soviet old-schoolers and pro-Kremlin actors,” remarked a Ukrainian friend, who is well aware of the country’s inner workings.
The issue of LGBTQ rights has moved forward in Ukraine along with the situation and status of ethnic minorities, which have significantly improved. The war tore off the masks and rapidly made transparent the question of who is who. Public homophobic messaging dwindled significantly as pro-Russian politicians fled Ukraine/ Meanwhile LGBTQ people defending the country have shown who the real pillars of democracy and loyal citizens are in a time of life and death of a nation. Recently, a law banning discrimination against gay people of any gender was overwhelmingly approved in the Ukrainian Rada. The brave women of Ukraine are fighting shoulder to shoulder with the men on the front line, so it is not surprising that the Istanbul Convention was also adopted without any hitches.
I often like to joke that if this continues, Ukrainians will overtake Lithuanians on all human rights issues. It is a good sign that by standing in solidarity with Ukrainians, by supporting them, and by maintaining close relations, we are learning many lessons in values. Many in Lithuania are beginning to realize that the homophobic, misogynistic propaganda, with its sick mockery of the Western values of a free and democratic world, comes indeed from Moscow.
Still, it is a pity that, in our region, lessons in freedom and democracy come at such a high price.