Gender-based violence (GBV) is a global public health pandemic that is heightened in areas of conflict. The UN runs an annual campaign, 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, that calls attention to the issue from November 25 to December 10, 2023.
Russia has used conflict-related sexual violence as a weapon of war since its invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Women, girls, and others face violence on account of their gender. The scale of war-related sexual violence in Ukraine increased dramatically after the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022.
When Human Rights First reported on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) in Ukraine in August 2021, we underscored that sexual violence is among the types of conflict-related crime least likely to be reported. Because international attention is rarely focused on the needs and perspectives of survivors of CRSV, in November 2022, we published a guide for journalists created by Ukrainian media and legal experts on How to Responsibly Report War-Related Sexual Violence.
The media attention on GBV in Ukraine most often focuses on war crimes, particularly rape and sexual assault committed by Russian soldiers, but there has been a stark increase in domestic violence there.
In August 2023, data from the Ukrainian National Police revealed that during the first five months of 2023, registered cases of domestic violence increased by 51% compared to the same period the previous year. Police recorded 349,355 cases of domestic violence between January and May of 2023, compared with 231,244 in the same period in 2022 and 190,277 in 2021.
Experts say that the increase in domestic violence is a byproduct of war, and they fear that numbers will continue to climb as the war continues. Stress, economic hardship, unemployment, and conflict-related trauma are fueling this increase, and the vast majority of victims of GBV are women.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine, human rights defenders provide support and assistance to survivors of GBV. A recent article from Ukrainian media outlet Gwara Media in partnership with Kharkiv-based NGO Sphere highlights the advocates providing resources for survivors of GBV. In April 2023, we published an article on Sphere and its work to assist women in Kharkiv and provide humanitarian aid.
Yana Sliemzina of Gwara Media told us that human rights defenders in Kharkiv are working across the region and on the front lines to assist survivors of GBV.
Sliemzina explained that part of the challenge of supporting survivors of GBV is overcoming stigma. Many women are hesitant to seek help, and if they do, they often diminish the extent of the abuse they have faced or struggle to acknowledge what they have experienced.
“Domestic violence and GBV as a whole are so stigmatized that [survivors] are already prepared to make it irrelevant or matter less. You look for a reason to put it away and not think about it,” said Sliemzina.
The NGO Green-Landiya works with local authorities to set up temporary safe spaces for women who have faced GBV. Over time, more women came to these locations, seeking formal psychological support and education on GBV or just to talk with other survivors. Some are hesitant to consult psychologists, particularly in smaller villages.
Supporting survivors of GBV in Kharkiv comes with risks for the psychologists and volunteers working on the front lines.
“If you’re providing crisis support to people from towns that are about to be evacuated, or even de-occupied towns, it is dangerous because there is shelling and Russia is very prevalent. It’s dangerous, but people still need the support,” says Sliemzina.
Local and state authorities are beginning to address GBV. In June 2022, Ukraine ratified the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
State-sponsored initiatives have yet to resolve the issue of GBV. Part of the problem is the lack of support for men suffering from war-related trauma. There is a severe shortage in Ukraine of qualified psychologists to support soldiers and civilians, making it difficult even for men who seek help.
Winter has already arrived in Kharkiv; freezing temperatures and Russian attacks on energy infrastructure will likely make human rights defenders’ work more difficult.
The winter’s lack of light and heat may exacerbate domestic violence and increase the need for shelter space, but space in Kharkiv’s only state-sponsored shelter is limited to only ten people.
Despite challenges and stigma, human rights defenders continue to support survivors of GBV.
“When the full-scale invasion happened, and there is genocide, there is shelling, there are so many people dead, it becomes remarkably easy [for survivors] to say, ‘people are going through some really heavy stuff, what I’m experiencing is a non-issue’ and that makes it harder. But it’s going to come up someday or later, and it will be harder to deal with it later if you do not deal with it today,” says Sliemzina.