After almost 19 months of all-out fighting, Ukraine’s women are facing an increased risk of domestic violence driven by male battle-related stress disorders. It’s a common but often overlooked effect of war, and there’s growing pressure for action.
In the first five months of 2023, police registered about 160,000 more cases of domestic violence than in the same period in 2021, a 54% increase. And because many cases go unreported, campaigners say the actual number is much higher.
While the incidence of domestic violence is nowhere near the epidemic in Russia — where a fifth of women have been attacked, and a victim has to be hospitalized before it is even considered a possible criminal offense — Ukrainian civil society is scrambling to provide support and sanctuary for the victims, and counseling and other interventions to stop potential perpetrators.
Things have been worse in Russian-occupied territories where Ukrainian women have been subject to a horrendous wave of sexual violence as a deliberate tactic of war. While Russian atrocities in towns like Bucha are well-remembered, sexual violence is less discussed. The UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, said last year following the outbreak of the all-out war: “Too often have the needs of women and girls in conflict settings been side-lined and treated as an afterthought.”
Sex-based violence tends to worsen during wartime, largely due to the lack of access to essential services and war-related stress among the population, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights.
Soldiers are particularly at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, which sometimes manifests in verbal and physical violence towards their partners. In six field missions in Ukraine-controlled portions of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts after the beginning of the 2014 war, Amnesty International found 11 out of 27 recorded cases of domestic violence were carried out by members of the military.
Shelters and crisis centers provide victims with a place to stay, psychological help and legal services. In June, the United Nations Population Fund supported the opening of a Daycare Centre for Psychological Assistance for survivors of gender-based violence in Ternopil, Western Ukraine, as part of its program of support.
The Kyiv government is taking steps to combat the epidemic, and in July 2022 ratified the Istanbul Convention, a 2014 Council of Europe treaty which requires legal and institutional changes to protect women. The Kremlin rejected the convention.
The treaty includes commitments to act on prevention, protection, and prosecution, and it offers Ukraine an opportunity to strengthen its alignment with Western Europe by working to reduce inequality and violence.
Vital to this work will be aid for those recovering from war-related traumas. Healthcare professionals and human rights campaigners say providing psychological help for veterans struggling with mental illness should be prioritized.
“We must build a system where emergency psychological care will work in small towns and villages,” Veterans Minister Yuliia Laputina said in September 2021. In the same interview, she emphasized the importance of working with veterans’ spouses and children.
In April, Laputina’s ministry launched a nine-year project to develop policies and provisions to transition veterans back to civilian life. It will focus on psychological and legal assistance alongside social and other support, the ministry said. Its work will sit alongside a government coordination center for mental health, which is intended to ensure national and local authorities work together effectively.
This won’t be easy. There will be widespread sympathy and understanding for veterans who have made huge mental and physical sacrifices for the nation. But the country, like others that have had to reintegrate returning warriors, will also need to develop an understanding of the issues faced by them and their nearest family and friends.
The open-minded and understanding approach offered by Ukraine’s government and people, adhering to the terms of the Istanbul Convention, will provide another stark reminder of the new path; and further proof of Kremlin indifference toward its veterans and women.
Anastasiia Frizner is a former intern with the Business Development Program at CEPA.
SaraJane Rzegocki is a Program Officer with the Democratic Resilience Program at CEPA.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.