Women of Donbas have suffered abuse and humiliation by soldiers and militants since the beginning of the conflict. But for many, the danger came not from strangers, but from within their own homes. Following our previous article on gender-based violence perpetrated by the warring parties, this piece delves into the issue of domestic violence in Ukraine, and in Donbas in particular.
The problem of domestic violence has deep roots in Ukraine, and while the war made it no doubt more severe, it cannot be explained away by the conflict alone. For many men in the country, the hierarchy of the family is clear — the husband is, first and foremost, the breadwinner. He works hard to provide for his wife and children, and therefore he has the right to make all the important decisions. Which can even include what his wife wears, or who can she meet.
In turn, the wife’s main care should always be the children and maintaining the household. There is little need for a successful career since it is her husband who will always earn more. And perhaps even her leisure and hobbies are not necessary, since her family should be enough of a fulfilment.
At the same time, many men grew up in an environment open to violence. Physical punishment has therefore become an acceptable way of solving conflicts. But even those who shirk from beating their wives or children can use their role as the provider to maintain control in the family.
In the past couple of years, Ukraine’s legal system made strides to address this issue. But for some, the law ends where the home’s threshold begins. Husbands often see what happens between them and their family members as a private issue and the local authorities and policemen tend to share their opinion.
Both the war and the Covid-19 pandemic made the root causes of domestic violence only more potent. Poverty and the lack of security made women more dependent on their husbands.
Men who return from combat become more violent at home. Others lose their work, casting their role of provider into doubt. The resulting psychological problems can in turn lead to more violence towards spouses and children.
The proximity to the contact line puts the women of Donbas into the epicentre of the problem. The cases of domestic violence spiked here faster than in other parts of the country. Lack of shelters for the victims – two in Donetsk and two in Luhansk out of the country’s total of 26 – also gives terrorized families little chance of escape.
Still, neither the war nor the pandemic is the root cause of domestic violence in the country. The various initiatives and NGOs, such as La Strada Ukraine, know that to stem the tide, they must not only treat the symptoms but also target the underlying source of domestic abuse.
Kateryna Borozdina, the vice president of La Strada Ukraine, told Euromaidan Press:
“One of the causes of domestic violence are the stereotypes that, unfortunately, still exist within our society about the role and place of women and men. In particular, women are only meant to be obedient, have no need of employment, and should take care of the household and the children.”
The final goal in the struggle must therefore be uprooting the stereotypes that make domestic violence common and acceptable.
Gender Roles in Ukraine
The report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) casts light on prevalent views held by men on gender roles within Ukrainian society.
Firstly, the view that women’s first care should be her household and children is sadly a majority opinion — around 70% of the respondents agreed. Two-thirds responded that the husband should have the final say in the family’s finances, and one third believed that the man is useless if he is not the provider. Also, one-fourth of the respondents stated it is more important for a man than a woman to have hobbies and interests.
These popular stances are fortified by economic disparities.
Women of Ukraine earn on average 23% less than men and have lower participation in the labour force. In turn, they spend on average twice as much time on household chores — 29 hours per week for women compared to 15 hours for men.
Proximity to violence in childhood also plays a major role. One in four respondents for UNFPA witnessed their fathers or stepfathers beat their mothers during their childhood, while 18% experienced physical abuse in school from teachers or classmates. Many then went through more violence during their military service. One in seven respondents has experienced negligence in the family due to alcohol abuse.
“Certain social norms that are passed down from generation to generation contribute to the emergence of domestic violence. If a person has seen domestic violence in their family during childhood, there is a high risk that the same behaviour will transfer to their adult life,” Borodina said.
Kateryna Borozdina, La Strada Ukraine. Source
The effect of these factors is evident. Around a fifth of the respondents for UNFPA said that sometimes, hitting their wife is justified, for example when she cheats. Up to 38% believe that a good wife should never question her husband’s opinions, and 10% said that the woman should tolerate domestic violence to keep the family together. Around one-third of the men who committed domestic violence have sometimes blamed the victim. Sadly, victim-blaming was also displayed by around 24% of women surveyed by the OSCE.
Around 32% of respondents for UNFPA said that they personally know someone who beats their wife or partner, while 41% of them disapproved and 34% stated it is not their business.
According to the OSCE, women consider domestic violence to be even more prevalent – 64% of them deem it a common and widespread issue. Furthermore, 43% of female respondents stated they have experienced physical or sexual violence from their current or former partner, while 65% of women experienced psychological abuse.
Many have accepted this situation as normal. Every second woman believes that “it is important for a man to show his wife/partner who the boss is” and almost one-fifth of the female respondents considers sex without consent to be sometimes justified.
These changes not only extended the definition of domestic violence to psychological, sexual or economic abuse but also extended possible victims and perpetrators to distant relatives or cohabiting partners.
The laws also made domestic violence punishable either under administrative law or under criminal law as a separate criminal offence. Police were given the power of Emergency Protection Order, functioning as a restraining order from offenders.
To be investigated as a criminal offence, the abuse has to be systematic and lead to psychological suffering, deterioration in health, disability or other long-lasting mental or physical injuries.
Ukraine also “inherited” the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women from 1980 and adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995. Although the country is signatory both to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Istanbul Convention, so far it has failed to ratify either.
Not everybody welcomes or accepts the changes made by the new legislation. According to UNFPA, 44% of male respondents fear that the new laws made it “too easy” for women to bring charges against men. Many policemen still consider domestic violence a private matter. Women report that police officers tend to disregard their complaints or even pressure victims to withdraw them.
In a survey conducted by the Geneva Centre of Democratic Control of Armed Forces and La Strada, 39% of police officers said they consider domestic violence a private issue, 58% responded that victims of rape are sometimes to blame, and 59% believe that the majority of domestic violence cases are false. As a result, half of the victims are not willing to talk to police or another government institution about their abuse.
The victims need to be aware of their rights when turning to the police. If necessary, they can request the restraining order and for the offender to temporarily leave the place of residence. Conversely, the attitude of police officers still needs to be addressed to make sure that they follow the correct proceedings.
War, pandemic, and domestic violence
While this data shows the situation in Ukraine as a whole, the outbreak of the war aggravated the situation, particularly in Donbas. Statistics show that men who returned from active military duty at the front are more likely to abuse their families.
A survey by Amnesty International in government-controlled Donbas states that 79% of women whose partner fought in the conflict experienced domestic violence, compared to 58% of women with partners who did not take part in the war.
As Amnesty points out, freshly demobilized men, still suffering mental trauma from the conflict, are not being provided with needed psychological aid when returning to civil life. As a result, they most often vent their frustrations on their family members. The situation is made more dangerous by easier access to firearms.
It is difficult to investigate abusers who serve in the military. As stipulated under Article 15 of the Ukrainian Administrative Code, if a deed committed by a military serviceman fits the definition of an administrative offence, it is investigated and punished within the Armed Forces. In case that it fits under the definition of a criminal offence, the soldier is treated just like a civilian would, and the matter goes to a civilian court.
However, as explained earlier, one of the main defining points in criminal domestic abuse is its systemic nature. Since instances of domestic violence by soldiers are investigated internally and not listed as administrative offences, civilian prosecution cannot prove the systemic nature of the abuse.
Just like the war, the Covid-19 pandemic aggravated the economic situation of families, not only in Donbas. The existing pay gap was reaffirmed by general economic decline, and women and children became ever more dependent on their breadwinners. This made it harder for them to leave the abuser.
The lockdown also made it more difficult to seek help.
“The respondents [to La Strada survey on domestic violence during the pandemic] spoke in particular about the low readiness of the government agencies to respond quickly to cases of domestic violence under quarantine restrictions. For example, the lockdown made access to the court more difficult (since the public transport did not work),” Borodina said.
“There were cases (even when necessary) of the police not issuing an urgent restraining order against the offender, explaining this decision by the fact that during the quarantine, the offender has nowhere to go,” even though, as Borodina later points out, the legal requirement for the restraining order has not been affected by the lockdown.
The dire economic situation has one more negative effect – men suffer from stress as they lose their main perceived role as the provider. Once again, many women reported that their husbands direct their frustrations on them, often violently.
Stemming the tide
The reported cases of domestic violence in Donbas keep rising. In 2018, statistics show 76% and 158% increase in domestic violence in government-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts respectively, when compared to the situation in 2015.
According to Borodina, while in 2019 the police registered 141,814 complaints on domestic violence, the number rose to 208,784 the following year, and the number of criminal offences rose from 1,068 in 2019 to 2,212 in 2020.
Similarly, the number of hotline appeals to La Strada went hand in hand with the development of the pandemic in Ukraine. Before the quarantine, between January and March 2020, the average number of hotline calls was 1,600-1,700 per month, while during one of the covid surges at the end of the year the number of calls reached 3,361 in November and 3,371 in December.
The trend is apparent – the war, the pandemic and related economic hardships are making the already precarious situation more dire every year.
From a more optimistic perspective, it is also possible that the victims are now more likely to report the abuse. Thanks to the work of volunteers, international bodies, NGOs and government initiatives, women are more educated about their rights and their possibilities.
Organizations like Slavic Heart, Save the Children, La Strada and others work with victims of domestic violence, providing psychological, medical and material aid. Local administrative offices organize programs for counselling and re-education of offenders, and UNFPA and the government opened Centres for Family, Children and Youth, providing (not only) social support for children and families.
The number of shelters should also increase by 28 during this year, as Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska informed.
Mobile teams of social and psychological assistance help the victims deal with psychological trauma, and the free legal aid system assists with legal counselling. The National Hotline on Prevention of Domestic Violence, Human Trafficking and Gender Discrimination provides anonymous and free consultations on how to proceed when escaping domestic violence
When victims are given a place to go, they are more likely to leave the abusive relationship and come forward with their problems. In tandem with education and counselling, this may eventually dismantle the idea that domestic violence is a private issue, and erode the stereotypes that perpetuate it. However, since it is a struggle against deeply ingrained mores, this campaign will certainly take years, maybe even generations to succeed.