A protester chants slogans on a megaphone during an International Women's Day protest on 8 March 2019 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Getty Images.

A protester chants slogans on a megaphone during an International Women's Day protest on 8 March 2019 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Getty Images.

The virus of violence

During quarantine, the greater economic vulnerability of Ukrainian women has locked many of them with abusive partners. The uncertainty of personal finances, health and security in confinement has exacerbated domestic violence against women, in certain cases aggravated by the perpetrator’s war-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In pre- pandemic times, only one third of domestic violence victims, 78% of whom are women, reported the abuse. During the pandemic, the calls to domestic violence helplines increased by 50% in the Donbas war zone and by 35% in other regions of Ukraine.

However, more precise estimates are hard to make. This is largely because some fractions of Ukrainian society still see domestic violence as a private family matter, which will get little assistance from the police. Also, reporting from a small confinement place permanently shared with a perpetrator during the lockdown can trigger more abuse.

The COVID-19-tested legal framework

The spike in domestic violence during lockdown has intensified the debate about the inadequacy of Ukraine’s approach.

Ukraine adopted the law on domestic violence in 2017 and made such behaviour punishable under administrative and criminal law. Importantly, the law does not limit domestic violence to physical abuse, but recognizes its sexual, psychological and economic variations. Domestic violence is further not limited to a married couple or close family members, but can be perpetrated against a distant relative or a cohabiting partner.

The extended definition of rape now includes rape of a spouse or a family member as an aggravating circumstance. A special police unit has been designated to deal with domestic abuse cases. Police can now issue protection orders in prompt reaction to an offence and immediately distance a perpetrator from a victim.

The victim can also spend time in a shelter - a system which the Ukrainian government has promised to create. A special registry of domestic violence cases has been set up for the exclusive use by the designated law enforcement and social security authorities to help them be more holistically informed in building a response.

However important, the introduced legal and institutional infrastructure was slow in proving its efficiency pre-COVID-19. It is struggling even more to stand the test of the coronavirus.

Changing the established mindset takes time. 38% of Ukraine’s judges and 39% of prosecutors still struggle to see domestic violence not as a household issue. Even though the police are becoming more reactive to home abuse complaints, getting emergency protection orders is still difficult. The court restraining orders are more effective, however they require the unnecessarily protracted and humiliating procedures of proving one’s own victimhood to different state authorities.

In response to the challenges of coronavirus for women, the police spread information posters and created a special chat-bot about the available help. However, while the domestic violence helplines of La Strada and other human rights NGOs are busier than ever, the police statistics suggest that the lockdown has not catalyzed home abuse.

This could indicate a higher trust to non-state institutions and the inability of a considerable group of women to use more sophisticated communication means such as chat-bots when they cannot call the police in the presence of an abuser. This problem is exacerbated by a current lack of shelters in rural areas, as most are located in urban settings. Overcrowded in ordinary times, the shelters’ capacity to accept survivors during the lockdown is further limited by the social distancing rules.

Istanbul Convention – The bigger picture

Ukraine failed to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, better known as the Istanbul Convention, largely due to the opposition of religious organizations. Concerned that the treaty’s terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexual orientation’ would contribute to the promotion of same-sex relationships in Ukraine, they argued that Ukraine’s current legislation provides adequate protection against domestic violence. However, this is not the case.

The Istanbul Convention does not ‘promote’ same-sex relationships, it only mentions sexual orientation among the non-exhaustive list of prohibited discrimination grounds. Remarkably, Ukraine’s domestic violence law itself is against such discrimination.

The Convention defines ‘gender’ as the socially constructed roles a society attributes to women and men. Ukraine’s overcautiousness about the term is ironic at least in two dimensions.

First, the 2017 domestic violence law restates its aim to eliminate discriminating beliefs about the social roles of each ‘sex’. In doing so, the law supports the rationale of what the Istanbul Convention denotes as ‘gender’ without using the term itself.

Second, it is exactly the constraints of the rigidly defined niches for both sexes in Ukraine that have substantially contributed to the intensified domestic violence, whether it be war or coronavirus-related. The lack of sustainable psychological support for traumatized veterans and the stigma of mental health struggles, especially among men, mars their reintegration to peaceful life. This often results in alcohol abuse or even suicide.

As the economic uncertainty of the war and the virus prevents some men from fully living up to their traditional socially - and self-imposed - breadwinner role, this increases the risk of problematic behaviour and domestic violence.

By diverting the focus of the debate to the term ‘gender’ used in the Istanbul Convention, conservative groups have ignored the fact that it describes the priority already enshrined in Ukraine’s 2017 law - to eliminate discriminatory beliefs about the socially constructed roles of men and women. This has drawn away time and resources needed to protect those vulnerable to domestic abuse.

Ukraine has not addressed the pigeonholing of women and men into gendered stereotypes. This has harmed men while further victimizing women and children, especially during the lockdown. Ironically, this is leading to the undermining of the very traditional family values certain opponents of the Istanbul Convention appealed to.

Fortunately, Ukraine’s ever-vigilant civil society, dismayed at the wave of the lockdown domestic violence, petitioned President Zelenskyy to ratify the Convention. With a new draft law on ratification, the ball is now in the parliament’s court. It remains to be seen whether Ukraine’s policymakers will be up to the task.