Amnesty International

Ukraine: Epidemic of violence against women in conflict-torn east

Survivors of domestic violence in eastern Ukraine are not able to seek protection against violence against them due to the government’s ineffective response, Amnesty International said today in a report on the hidden but escalating problem of domestic and sexual violence against women in the region.

Based on six field missions conducted by Amnesty International, Not a private matter highlights multiple flaws in a system aimed at protecting survivors, particularly women, of domestic and sexual violence. The situation is worsened by devastating social and economic crises, access to weaponry, and trauma created by the ongoing armed conflict between the government of Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists.

“It is desperate that women, whose lives are already severely affected by trauma and destruction caused by the conflict, find themselves without recourse to assistance and failed by the authorities who have a responsibility to protect them from domestic and sexual violence,” said Oksana Pokalchuk, Director of Amnesty International Ukraine.

“Women living in conflict-affected eastern Ukraine do not feel safe – neither in public nor at home.”

Women living in conflict-affected eastern Ukraine do not feel safe – neither in public nor at home

Oksana Pokalchuk, Director of Amnesty International Ukraine

Amnesty International accessed the government-controlled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions between January and November 2019. The organisation has had no access to the separatist-controlled areas, which fall beyond the scope of the report.

Official statistics on domestic violence, however unreliable and incomplete, show a spike of registered cases in the last three years. In 2018, there was a 76% increase in reported cases in Donetsk region and a 158% increase in Luhansk region, compared to the average of the previous three years.

Government initiatives fail to effectively address domestic violence

Over the last three years, Ukraine has adopted new legislation and institutional frameworks relating to gender-based violence, generally in line with international human rights law. These include the landmark 2018 Law on Prevention and Combating Domestic Violence, the introduction of emergency protection orders and shelters, and special police units trained to address situations of domestic violence.

Yet the new laws and initiatives are often poorly implemented, while the country remains no closer to ratifying the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the “Istanbul Convention”).

Police are still reluctant to register complaints of survivors of domestic violence and widespread impunity deters many victims from speaking out.

Police are still reluctant to register complaints of survivors of domestic violence and widespread impunity deters many victims from speaking out

In 10 out of the 27 cases of domestic violence documented in the report, women didn’t report the violence they had suffered to police because they believed the authorities would not respond adequately, if at all.

In one case, a pregnant woman was beaten by her husband, a serving soldier at the time, but did not file an official complaint. She decided it was not worth it after being pressured by the military command to withdraw a previous complaint (when her husband broke her nose), so as “not to embarrass her husband”.

Survivors left unprotected and at risk

Ukraine’s new legislation gives police officers the authority to issue so-called emergency protection orders, which prohibit alleged perpetrators from entering and staying on the premises a survivor may reside in, and from contacting the survivor for 10 days. These powers in the cases Amnesty documented are rarely enacted and if they are, are not effectively enforced.

Despite positive developments in national legislation, gaps in protection remain. In Ukraine, domestic violence falls both under administrative and criminal legislation. Currently, unless a perpetrator has accrued two administrative penalties for domestic violence, criminal prosecutions cannot be initiated.

In addition, members of the military and police are exempt from administrative proceedings in courts of general jurisdiction, which effectively serves to protect them from criminal prosecution for domestic violence.

Members of the military and police are exempt from administrative proceedings in courts of general jurisdiction, which effectively serves to protect them from criminal prosecution for domestic violence

Oksana Mamchenko suffered physical, psychological and economic violence from her ex-husband, the father of her 12 children, for 20 years. After she left home with the children, the court issued temporary protection orders three times, barring the ex-husband from being in the same house with Oksana and their children or being in close proximity to them.

Between January 2019 and January 2020, Oksana obtained three restraining orders and one emergency protection order against her ex-husband and lodged multiple complaints with the police. Her ex-husband ignored all orders, and authorities failed to adequately enforce them. In May 2020, he was given a one-year suspended sentence for failure to comply with restraining order but was not punished for domestic violence.

Sexual violence

Amnesty International’s research indicates that women in eastern Ukraine continue to experience sexual violence from military personnel in various forms, especially in areas along the contact line.

Amnesty International has documented eight cases of sexual violence against civilian women and girls perpetrated by members of the military, including two instances of rape, one attempted rape, and five cases of sexual harassment, committed by members of the military throughout 2017-2018 in residential areas.

“The Ukrainian authorities must carry out swift and comprehensive legal reforms that protect survivors of gender-based and domestic violence. These reforms can only be successful if they stem from genuine consultations with survivors and women’s organizations,” said Oksana Pokalchuk.

The Ukrainian authorities must carry out swift and comprehensive legal reforms that protect survivors of gender-based and domestic violence

Oksana Pokalchuk, Director of Amnesty International Ukraine

“The Ukrainian government has demonstrated in recent years a willingness to address the issue of violence against women. Now’s the time to step up their efforts. Ukraine should ratify the Istanbul Convention as this will provide the authorities with a clear roadmap for reform, including further improvement of the legislation, educational programmes for officials and the general public, a government reporting mechanism, and other important changes.”