At the end of last month, Ukraine was granted EU candidate status, the first official step towards EU membership. But the President of the European Commission noted that formal negotiations for full membership could not begin until Ukraine had implemented key reforms, including the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention. Europe on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention.
Although Ukraine signed this document in 2011, it took more than a decade, advocacy by Ukrainian civil society and the prospect of EU membership, before the Ukrainian parliament ratified it on 20 June 2022.
Insight, a Ukrainian human rights organization, has long advocated for ratification, including launching a petition that has garnered more than 25,000 signatures.
The organization noted that it was a huge historic step for Ukraine to recognize women’s rights in this way. With the war in Ukraine dominating the news for months, viewers around the world became sadly familiar with the images of bodies in the streets, destroyed buildings and lines of people leaving everything behind and hurrying onto trains to to run away.
What has hardly been reported is the significant increase in domestic violence and its serious consequences.
In a war as brutal as that waged in Ukraine, it can be easy to ignore domestic violence and its devastating long-term physical and emotional consequences for survivors and for the children who witness it.
Research shows that levels of domestic violence typically increase during armed conflict and that the most dangerous war environment for women and children is often in their own homes.
Although the latest statistics are difficult to obtain, Amnesty International has obtained official figures of reported domestic violence cases for the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine, which have been affected by military action since 2014 .
In 2018, Donetsk saw a 76% increase in reported cases, while the increase in Lugansk over a three-year period was 158%.
According to official Ukrainian government statistics, which are likely unreliable and incomplete, the National Police received more than 200,000 reports of domestic violence in 2020.
Unfortunately, a recent report shows that it has proven difficult for survivors to get help during the escalation of the conflict in 2022. In a sadly typical case, an aid worker reported a case of domestic violence in a shelter for displaced people and was ignored.
Not just ticking boxes
In this time of massive political changes, it is essential that the Ukrainian government treats the ratification of the Istanbul Convention not only as a checkbox on the road to EU membership, but rather as a set of obligations that must be respected both during and after the war.
The convention states that the state has the responsibility to prevent all forms of violence against women, investigate allegations and prosecute perpetrators, while ensuring that victims can access vital services after an act of violence.
Implementing the Istanbul Convention in a meaningful way, while waging a war and managing a humanitarian crisis, is a daunting undertaking that the Ukrainian government cannot undertake alone – especially as the prospect of joining the he EU is clearly motivating officials to make formal commitments to protect women and girls.
The EU, US and others lending aid to Ukraine must push the nation to meaningfully enact the Istanbul Convention now that it has been ratified.
This means relying on women and local Ukrainian civil society groups in the first steps.
Organizations like La Strada have the domestic violence expertise to ensure that the safety and needs of survivors are at the heart of all measures taken by the Ukrainian government.
All aspects of the convention, including prevention programs and prosecutions, should receive multi-year funding to ensure that efforts to protect women and girls can grow over time. Substantial grants focused on displaced women and girls must be prioritized and existing efforts to provide mental health services must be strengthened.
Finally, we are only as good as our data. Those providing aid should partner with local organizations to research and study the drivers of domestic violence in the war zone.
Ukraine has a strong civil society. It is important that the voices of Ukrainian women-led organizations are heard and that their expertise is sought and respected.
Although the war in Ukraine has been a tragedy for women and their families, the country’s time in the international spotlight also creates opportunities for collective growth and a chance to rebuild society again when the bombardment stops.
But a better future for Ukraine will not be possible without a commitment to greater protection today for those most affected by the humanitarian crisis: women and girls.