European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday paid tribute to the women of Ukraine who are fighting against Russia and decried the sexual violence widely attributed to Moscow’s forces, calling the invasion “a war on women’s rights.”
Speaking to a joint session of Parliament on the eve of International Women’s Day, von der Leyen highlighted that women, who were once barred from joining Ukraine’s armed forces, “broke the doors down” and “smashed the glass ceiling right over the head of their Russian invaders” to fight for their country.
“These women are an inspiration for all of us,” she said, receiving one of several standing ovations from MPs and senators.
European Commission president pays tribute to Ukrainian women on eve of International Women’s Day
Von der Leyen recalled her visit to Bucha, Ukraine, the site of atrocities against civilians believed to have been carried out by Russian troops, shortly after its liberation last April and the stories of “rape and executions in cold blood.”
“The United Nations says Russia is using rape and sexual violence as part of its military strategy in Ukraine,” she said.
“This is not only a war on Ukraine. It is also a war on human rights and it is a war on women’s rights.”
The United Nations says it has verified the killing of at least 2,296 women and girls since the start of Russia’s invasion over a year ago, adding the real number is “likely significantly higher.”
Nearly 70 per cent of Ukrainians displaced by the war who remain in the country are women, it adds, putting them at higher risk of sexual violence, human trafficking and other forms of gender-based violence.
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Von der Leyen devoted the better part of her 30-minute speech to the situation in Ukraine, emphasizing Canadian and European co-operation and the commitment to help that country fight off its invaders “for as long as it takes.”
“We will never accept that a military power with fantasies of empire rolled their tanks across an international border,” she said.
“We will never accept this threat to European security and to the very foundation of our international community. And I know that Canada’s commitment is just as adamant as ours.”
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She also thanked Canada for its leadership in providing military training to Ukrainian fighters under Operation Unifier, which is based in Europe, and its continued support.
Von der Leyen, who is the first woman elected to be president of the European Commission, concluded her remarks by calling for further action on gender equality.
She said Canada and the European Union have shown the world the benefits of gender-balanced government on decision making, but added more needs to be done.
“We have a duty to set an example to society and the economy of what a world of fair chances looks like,” she said.
Earlier in the day at an event with von der Leyen in Kingston, Ont., Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada will extend the Operation Unifier mission to provide engineering training in Ukraine until at least October, and Canadian medical trainers will be sent to help Ukrainian forces with combat medical skills.
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Trudeau announced that Ottawa will also spend $3 million to support the clearing of landmines and unexploded ordnance in Ukraine, on top of $32 million that was already committed toward mine action. The European Union is putting 43 million euros toward the same effort.
The EU has now designated Canada as a partner country on economic sanctions against Russia, and the two are working together to send Canadian energy transformers to support the Ukrainian electrical grid, seven of which will soon be delivered.
The two leaders also met with Canadian Armed Forces personnel at CFB Kingston who have deployed to Poland to help Ukrainian refugees.
“For as long as it takes, we will stand shoulder to shoulder with our European partners for Ukraine,” Trudeau said.
Von der Leyen is set to meet with Gov. Gen. Mary Simon on Wednesday morning.
— with files from the Canadian Press
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