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Ukraine’s domestic violence survivors are battling for justice

by Jessie Williams December 11, 2023

This article was republished from a Fuller Project newsletter on December 11, 2023. Subscribe here.

In March this year I reported for The Fuller Project and Time on how the war in Ukraine is driving up levels of domestic violence, as traumatized men return home from the frontlines. The abuse usually goes unreported — with soldiers seen as heroes defending the country, survivors are reluctant to criticize those who are also abusers. One of the women I spoke to told me how her “perfect husband” of 16 years became abusive after he returned from the frontline. The war had “made him a monster,” she said.

Many of the experts I spoke to said the problem would only get worse as the war entered its second year. Nearly a year on from when I started this reporting in Lviv in western Ukraine, I went back to the sources I’d interviewed to ask whether that had happened.

They said there have been some positive changes, such as more focus on psychological support for soldiers, but that much more needs to be done to address attitudes towards domestic violence by military personnel. 

Vilena Kit, a psychologist treating traumatized soldiers, said there has been a big push to introduce rehabilitation programs including psychological treatment. Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, has been advocating for more awareness around mental health. She initiated the launch of a government mental health support program that aims to provide affordable and high-quality services to those in need, including troops returning from the front. 

Kit described it as a “strong and good quality program,” but said much more was needed. She has seen a rise in soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress and a wider range of symptoms, most commonly flashbacks. She believes the increase may be linked to the Ukrainian counteroffensive as forces try to wrestle back territory taken by Russia.

“They are afraid for the future, but they cannot imagine what the future will look like. They keep coming back to the past. It’s not possible to work out because the trauma is still there in reality — there are still very many risks for them,” she said.

Marta Vasylkevych, head of Lviv police’s domestic violence prevention unit, said cases of domestic violence committed by military personnel were common, but were “not systemic in nature.” 

Others disagreed, including Halyna Fedkovych, a lawyer and co-founder of the Centre for Women’s Perspectives in Lviv, which helps survivors. 

She pointed to court data showing that in the first eight months of 2023, cases of domestic violence by a soldier or military personnel doubled compared to the same period in 2022.

There is still a stigma around domestic violence perpetrated by soldiers, making it difficult for women to report such abuse, said Fedkovych. Now that cases are starting to be prosecuted, it’s becoming apparent that it extends through the justice system.

During the first 10 months of 2023, there were 11,223 reports of domestic violence in the Lviv region, but only 294 criminal proceedings were opened. 

“Now we can see in the majority of cases [of domestic violence by soldiers], the court just closes the case and doesn’t do any punishment for the perpetrator, with excuses that he is in war and a soldier and there wasn’t much damage done to survivors,” said Fedkovych.

Fedkovych is also concerned about a backlash against women’s reproductive rights once the war is over. Abortion is legal and accessible in Ukraine — in contrast to neighboring Poland, where many Ukrainian women fled after the outbreak of the war. But there are signs some want to change that to drive up the birth rate once the war is over.

“We know for sure that the majority of our parliament will be people from the military because we had this after the war in 2014,” she said. “[There will be] a lot of masculinity on all levels in society, so we expect it to not be good for women’s rights.”

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