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Domestic violence victims struggle to get help amid war: ‘If Russians don't kill me — he might’

by Thaisa Semenova May 27, 2022 4:20 PM 6 min read
Hundreds of thousands of people in Ukraine face domestic violence every year. Amid Russia's war, seeking help has become extremely difficult for the victims of domestic abuse. (Pexels)
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After three missed calls, Kristina picks up the phone and says, barely above a whisper: "I can't talk now. I'm not alone." When calling back, she turns on the tub in the bathroom so her husband can’t hear her.

For several months, she had been gathering the strength to leave her husband, who was inflicting psychological and physical abuse on her. Days before Russia began its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, she had finally made up her mind, agreeing with her mother to move into her place in a village near Mykolaiv, a regional capital in the south of Ukraine. But her mother got sick with Covid-19 and they decided to wait until she recovered.

Now she's trapped with her husband in their apartment in Mykolaiv, leaving it only to go for groceries or to the bomb shelter.

"Sometimes, I don’t want to leave the bomb shelter, even when there's no air raid alert. At least he won't beat me when we are surrounded by other people. I feel like if the Russians don't kill me, he might," Kristina, whose last name we don’t publish for security reasons, told the Kyiv Independent.

She says her husband has become even more violent than usual during the war. Once, he hit her in the stomach because he thought she was flirting with a neighbor while hiding in the bomb shelter.

"He said I smiled too friendly and then started to hit me," she recalls.

According to psychotherapist Maria Fabrycheva, the aggression of a domestic tyrant is usually a manifestation of helplessness when a person is afraid, so expectedly in times of war abusers may snap at their victim more often.

"Abusers cannot express a normal feeling of fear healthily," she said.

Intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence against women in both conflict and non-conflict settings, according to the World Bank. Armed conflict, regardless of its character or sides involved, exacerbates existing inequalities and places women at a heightened risk of violence, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women said in a report.

Kateryna Pavlichenko, deputy interior minister, reported that about 326,000 domestic violence cases were registered in Ukraine last year. Getting an accurate count of cases is difficult now, as many victims don't turn to the police or simply don't have the opportunity to do so due to active hostilities.

Struggle to seek help

"Unfortunately, hostilities have become a catalyst for the exacerbation of domestic violence in families where these facts existed before the war," said Alyona Krivulyak, one of the leaders of La Strada Ukraine, a non-governmental organization that runs a national hotline for the prevention of domestic violence, human trafficking and gender discrimination.

Law enforcement agencies, especially in places where active hostilities are ongoing, often can’t respond to calls, further exacerbating the problem, Krivulyak said. The police also have an increased workload due to war-related issues.

Marta Chumalo, a co-founder of the Women's Perspectives nonprofit in Lviv, said the war has made it more difficult to access help even in cities where there is no active fighting as the police departments have to prioritize preparations for possible attacks.

"We know of cases when a woman wanted to file a complaint against an offender or get an update on her case but was told to come back later and that there were more pressing issues,” Chumalo said.

"Another victim called the police, and they responded: 'It's an air raid, we can't come, we can talk to him on the phone.’ How can a physical threat be solved over the phone?"

Of course, it is not always the case that the police don't respond to domestic violence calls, she said, but seeking help has for sure become more challenging.

In the event it's not possible to contact the police, for example, in temporarily occupied territories, women can get help at medical institutions, Krivulyak suggested. She added that doctors are obliged not only to provide assistance to domestic violence victims but also to document such cases. This will help to hold abusers accountable in the future.

"Victims can also turn to Territorial Defense forces. No, they don't have the power to prosecute, but they can enforce the order."

Before the war, the police could issue an urgent injunction requiring the offender to leave the premises within 10 days. This is now only possible in safer regions, where the security situation allows for it.

"Despite a common understanding that this is very wrong, the police cannot force the abuser to leave the premises due to the fighting. They can't throw a person out during rocket fire. The court cannot do that now either," said Krivulyak.

Psychotherapist Fabrycheva said if there's an opportunity to leave the abuser and ask for help from family or close friends, the victim should do so. But the victims often don't see the benefit of leaving, hoping that "tomorrow everything will be fine, he will change,” or even blame themselves for the violence and pity the abuser.

"One should ask oneself: Do I want to continue my life with someone who never, even in a critical situation such as war, not only can't protect but also attacks me?" she said.

The victim's family and friends should understand that a person in such a difficult physiological state is unlikely to make a decision of leaving on their own, so an intervention may be needed, Fabrycheva stressed.

"All over the country, we see the consequences of a tyrant's actions. The domestic tyrant is the same, only on a small scale. Too often, women find reasons to stay. But they have to pass the Rubicon and say: "Enough. I choose myself."

Fleeing abroad

Some victims of domestic violence who couldn’t find help in Ukraine have turned to local police and social services abroad.

Chumalo said that quite a few women who have suffered from domestic violence have fled abroad, taking advantage of the fact that martial law imposed during the war allows women to take their children abroad without official permission from the other parent.

"I can say that they probably didn't flee from bombardments in Lviv (a city in the west of Ukraine) since the situation is relatively safe, but from domestic violence. And now they can finally feel safe," Chumalo said.

She added that abuse victims shouldn't be afraid to ask for help from local support centers as there is a well-established procedure in the European Union countries.

Mariia Goubernik, a 22-year-old from Donetsk, and her younger sisters Taisiia and Oleksandra have suffered their father’s abuse their entire lives. Their mother silently ignored the abuse, according to Taisiia. The eldest daughter never turned to the police in Ukraine, afraid that they wouldn't react appropriately and her sisters, who live with parents unlike her, would have to come back home to an even worse situation.

"I know how often domestic violence cases don't even end up in court, no proceedings are opened," she said.

In mid-March, when the family came to a refugee shelter in Calpe in southern Spain, their father hit the youngest daughter, nine-year-old Oleksandra, on the head. Mariia and Taisiia found her sitting in the corner of the shelter sobbing in hysterics, repeatedly saying: "I'm scared. I'm scared. I'm scared…"

The situation had reached a point of no return, Mariia thought, and it was time to hold their father accountable. The sisters agreed that after having to flee home twice — first moving to Kyiv in 2014 after Russian proxies took control over the eastern city of Donetsk, then going abroad on Feb. 24 — they truly deserved a calm life. That evening they googled the nearest police station and went there on foot from the shelter for more than an hour.

Maria Goubernik, 22, Taisiia Omelchenko, 16, and Oleksandra Omelchenko, 9, from Donetsk, reported their father's domestic abuse to the police in Spain after relocating there as refugees from after Russia began an all-out war against Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. (Courtesy)

They were taken immediately to an emergency women's shelter. Two days later, the Spanish court issued a preliminary decision prohibiting her father from approaching his children in just two days.

After the court hearing, Taisiia recalls, her mother blamed her children for the destruction of the family.

“Mom wants and can bring our father back. But if he tries to come here to our hotel, it is solved very simply— we’ll call the police as he would violate the court’s decision,” Mariia Goubernik said.

Gourbernik said the fear still remains that the next court decision may overturn the first one as the Spanish court can only consider cases that took place in Spain, and her father didn't commit severe bodily assault there. However, she believes there's no going back to the previous ways.

"Domestic violence cases are taken very seriously here," she said.

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