Domestic violence in Ukraine, and among Ukrainian refugees, is on the rise. With the war top of mind, it isn’t a priority.
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The day Russia invaded Ukraine, a woman named Katya, along with her husband and two children, put their belongings into a few bags and traveled from the west of the country to the nearby Polish border. As Russia attacked Ukraine from all sides, they were some of the first to cross over the border safely. Her husband barely escaped before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy implemented martial law, banning men of military age from leaving the country.
After arriving in Poland, like thousands of other families, Katya’s began to look for other European countries in which to seek refuge. Six days into the war, the family decided to settle in Spain. Once there, they were safe from direct Russian attacks, but the strain of the war heightened the tension in an already abusive relationship.
Katya (who asked that we withhold her real name out of fear her husband might be able to locate her) has a daughter from a previous marriage, and when she met her current husband in 2014, there were no warning signs.
“It did not start from the beginning of our relationship, but slowly came into our lives and increased little by little, replacing a normal relationship with a model of family terror,” she told WhoWhatWhy of the nine-year relationship.
In a 2019 study of 2,048 women aged 18-74 living in Ukraine, 67 percent said that they had experienced psychological, physical, or sexual violence in their lifetime. More than half said that their friends would agree that “it is important for a man to show his wife/partner who the boss is” by inflicting violence, and 77 percent of participants said that they were currently in a relationship in which abuse was most prominent when their partner drank alcohol. Additionally, nearly one in five women pregnant at the time of the survey said that they had experienced physical or sexual abuse.
Ukrainian law did not criminalize domestic violence until 2018, following the Istanbul Convention, a treaty for governments throughout Europe to combat violence against women. However, Ukraine did not ratify the treaty until June 2022. Though the conversation surrounding domestic violence has shifted in recent years, many victims did not understand their rights or even know they could get help. A stigma in Ukraine prevented many from coming forward with claims of abuse, and the war has only heightened that violence.
La Strada Ukraine is a nongovernmental organization that runs two national hotlines for reports of physical and sexual violence and human trafficking. Most of their calls before the war were related to domestic violence, and although nearly 8 million people have fled Ukraine over the past 11 months, the organization said that the number of calls has remained close to the same. La Strada estimates that 89 percent of the 380,472 calls it has received since February 24 have been related to domestic violence.
“I will kill you and bury you in [the forest]. No one will ever find you. I will tell everyone that you went to Ukraine again and that you disappeared.”
But victims of domestic violence downplayed their situations in the first months of the invasion, said Kateryna Cherepakha, the president of La Strada.
”Those who were suffering from domestic violence would try not to report because they would think this is not that serious compared to the war, to the bombing. The survivors also face the attitude where they were told [by authorities], ‘Come on, sort out your own things, we have a war in the country, take care of yourself, we have more serious things to do,’” she said.
In their first days in Spain, being refugees brought Katya and her husband together. They found comfort in one another in a time of uncertainty. But Katya’s husband and his friends, who were also refugees, began to drink heavily daily — to pass the time and cope with the war in their country, Katya explained. The abuse got worse.
“He humiliated [and] insulted [me], did not let me go anywhere without permission, not to go out, not to take money, not to buy something, and most importantly, he beat me,” said Katya.
She had tried to keep the peace in her marriage. Last summer, she went back to Ukraine to collect items and rent out the apartment she once lived in. When she returned to Spain, Katya said her husband again became violent.
“I take [my son] in my arms, and for that, I get punched in the kidney,” she said. Katya’s husband then left their apartment and came back home late that night to find his son had awoken and was crying. “[He] began to accuse, push, insult, and humiliate [me]. I did everything and was guilty.” She said that her husband tackled her and said, “I know how to beat so that there are no traces.”
Talking to me, Katya began to cry. “I was shaking from fear, and my teeth were chattering; he told me to get my hands together because he would knock them out while lying on top of me, holding my throat with one hand and raising his fist to strike with the other.”
Throughout this, Katya did not know that she was a victim of domestic violence — until she did a Google search.
Three days after the attack, Katya tried to file for divorce in a Spanish court. She offered her husband a 50/50 custody split for their son. ”He said no. On Thursday, he drank and raised his hand again,” she said, because she had given their son chocolate milk for dinner instead of water. “He was so angry; he said, ‘I will kill you and bury you in the [forest]. No one will ever find you. I will tell everyone that you went to Ukraine again and that you disappeared.’”
She began to look for a way out. Her husband had taken her phone and refused to let her leave his sight. But she managed to leave the apartment and arranged for a friend to pick her up and take her to the police station. She was then granted a restraining order and placed in a government housing system for survivors of domestic violence, where she lived for six months.
Resources exist in Spain and other European countries for Ukrainian refugees like Katya. But back in Ukraine, Russian forces have destroyed more than half of the facilities that once offered resources for victims of domestic and gender-based violence that have been formed in recent years, according to Olena Kochemyrovska, a gender-based violence prevention and response expert with the United Nations Population Fund Ukraine.
“The absolute majority of them are inaccessible because some of them are literally physically ruined, some of them are now in occupied territories,” said Kochemyrovska.
After my first interview with Katya, she told me that she was having complications with her restraining order against her husband. She claimed that her husband had created a petition, filled with the signatures of their mutual friends, contending that Katya was making up the abuse. On January 13, Katya told me that she had returned to Ukraine with her children to live with her parents, wanting to be around her support network after so many months away.
I asked Katya if her husband knew that she was in Ukraine. She said that he might.
“I don’t know,” she said. But, she added, at least she’s home. “I feel very happy to be back in Ukraine with my mother and father. It’s very happy for me and my [children].”