In December I took a bus from Krakow in Poland to Lviv in western Ukraine to investigate how the war has exacerbated domestic violence in the country. It was a topic I had wanted to write about for a while. Studies show that war magnifies gender inequalities and increases gender-based violence. I had read many stories about Ukrainian women being trafficked, exploited, and suffering from sexual violence perpetrated by Russian soldiers, but hardly anything on domestic violence. I was curious about how the war had impacted it – and thought it was important to shine a light on what was going on. So I decided to reach out to several Ukrainian organizations that help survivors of domestic violence to see what they had seen since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.
I found that the war is driving up domestic violence as stress levels rise, families are displaced, and traumatized men return to their families after long spells on the front lines. Yet it usually goes unreported, and, with soldiers seen as heroes defending the country, there is a reluctance to criticize those who are also abusers.
One of the organizations I contacted was the Centre for Women’s Perspectives (CWP), an NGO based in Lviv. Marta Chumalo and Halyna Fedkovych, two friends who met at university in Lviv, started CWP in 1998 along with three other women.
They welcomed me to Lviv in the depths of winter. Russia had been shelling the country’s energy infrastructure so black-outs were frequent. Despite this, Ukrainians in the city – many of whom had been displaced – radiated warmth and kindness. The renowned Ukrainian spirit was clear to see; buskers played instruments on street corners, bars and restaurants were buzzing with people, candles illuminated faces in café windows, generators hummed, and Christmas decorations twinkled. Life went on.
I visited several of CWP’s shelters around the city. The domestic violence survivors I interviewed were some of the bravest and strongest women I’ve ever met. Not only have they lived through a war that has torn their lives apart, they’ve had to endure being abused by someone they loved – and who they believed loved them too.
One woman stood out in particular, Oksana* from Kyiv. She told me how her husband of 16 years, a commander in the Ukrainian army, had returned traumatized from fighting on the frontline in May. That’s when the abuse began.
“I wish our government was more concerned not only about weapons and the battlefield situation, but about people who will come back very soon, because, yes, they can say that they will help when the war stops, but these people will bring the war into our houses, into our streets,” she said.
The need for proper psychological support for returning soldiers is not being met. Fedkovych says there is some support for the soldiers who have been injured and are receiving treatment in hospital, but for those who aren’t in hospital, support is limited. “ [Soldiers] will never go just by themselves to ask for psychiatric help when they are back home with family. Nobody will come and ask ‘How are you? How are you feeling?’”
The experts I spoke to said domestic violence is only going to get worse; this is just the tip of the iceberg. There was a wave of domestic violence after the 2014 conflict in Donbas and there will be another big wave after the current war is over. They told me action is needed now.
I also spoke to women whose abusers weren’t in the military. One of them, Polina*, was just 18. She had porcelain skin and perfect winged eye-liner. The war had caused her father to drink more – he had previously only been violent towards her mother, but in September he started to beat her. She fled shortly after. “I decided that if he did it for the first time then he will do it again, so I decided that I needed to save myself and that’s when I left my house,” she said.
The women I met had been through so much, yet there were still moments of hope, amongst the fear and uncertainty.
One woman, Maria*, described how the war had added “great psychological pressure” to her relationship. Her ex-boyfriend had beaten her and broken her collarbone. She showed me the scar; a long white line etched into her skin, which she hides under high-necked tops. When people ask about her scar she tells them she slipped in the bathroom. She is now planning to cover the scar with a tattoo of a phoenix; a symbol of hope and rebirth. “I want to make something beautiful out of something very bad in my life,” she said.
*Name changed to protect their identity
Read Jessie’s story, published in partnership with TIME.