The phones are ringing non-stop these days. During the quarantine, La Strada-Ukraine, a hotline for domestic violence, receives twice as many calls from victims in desperate need of help.
The NGO says that they have nowhere to send the victims because the shelters around the country are full, and the police are reluctant to kick out the husbands.
In April, La Strada-Ukraine, received 2,754 calls on domestic violence, compared to approximately 1,590 in March. The quarantine started on 12 March, and they had 1,273 calls in February and 1,203 in January.
“But it is not only about the numbers. It is also about what kind of calls we get. It is stories about how the police are not reacting or taking calls seriously,” says Yuliia Anosova, who works as a lawyer with La Strada-Ukraine.
She points out that the Ukrainian capital Kyiv only has two women’s shelters – in a city with approximately three million people. They were already full before the quarantine.
According to a 2019 report by the organization OSCE from 2019, 7.6 percent of women in Ukraine have experienced physical or sexual violence in the last 12 months by their intimate partner.
It is higher than the four percent average in the EU.
Only seven percent of the women in Ukraine who experienced violence by their current partner reported it to the police, according to the report. Domestic violence was, therefore, also a problem before the quarantine, Anosova, points out.
“But we have a larger problem now. The police are obligated to find places for these women or evict the husband. Because of the quarantine, they are not willing or able to do that,” says Anosova, who also points out that public transportation has stopped almost everywhere, trapping women inside.
“The abuser is also home all the time, making it very difficult to call for help.”
‘My husband strangled me in front of my child’. Alina’s story
In a women’s shelter in the Kyiv region, Euronews met a Ukrainian woman who asked for anonymity, as she fears her husband.
The shelter was already full, with a long waiting list, but they made an exception because of the severity of her situation. She is the only woman in the Kyiv region who was able to get a bed in a shelter during the quarantine, Euronews was told.
The woman, who we will call Alina, calls herself a fortunate woman, and fears that she could have been killed if she had to stay at home with her husband. Alina tells a story of more than 20 years of violence, exploding in recent months.
“My daughter said to me: ‘We must leave. I am afraid that one time when I come home, you will not be alive’,” says Alina, avoiding eye contact. “I realized that I have to leave. It was our only chance.”
But as she decided to leave, the violence grew to a point where she feared for her life. Her husband threatened her with both knives and a gun. Alina was never allowed to have money, even for groceries, and her husband had her passport. He would constantly keep an eye on her and would not let her leave the house alone.
Around a month ago, during the quarantine, they came into an argument. He took his gun and said that he would not live without her, saying that first, “I will kill you and then myself,” Alina explains.
“I went to the bathroom, and he came behind me and began to choke me. I lost consciousness, and the next thing I hear is my daughter knocking on the door,” says Alina with tears in her eyes, “She breaks in and sees me on the floor…He tells her: ‘give your mom some water.’ She screams: ‘Dad, what have you done? What happened to mom?’”
“While she goes out to the kitchen to bring me some water, he starts to strangle me again, right on the floor in front of the child. She rushes to us and starts to push him away,” says Alina.
“He was probably in a fit of rage. I do not know. He just whispered to me: ‘You are either with me or you die’”.
A societal problem across eastern Europe
Natalia Balasinovich is the leader of the Vasylkiv district council near Kyiv and is the head of the shelter. She tells Euronews that while the woman’s case is severe, it is far from unique. The shelter currently holds around ten women with kids, but the waiting list is long.
“It is one of the only shelters in the Kyiv region. The other ones are not operating,” says Balasinovich. “We have seen two to three times as many women in need of shelter right now. We need more beds.”
According to the Network of Centers of Social Services for Family, Children, and Youth, there are several shelters for domestic violence victims around Kyiv. However, Euronews was not able to confirm that they are operating. Only one shelter in Obolon District answered Euronews and wrote in an email that they have no beds.
“There is also a lack of understanding of the problem. We have a problem with the mentality – also among the police,” says Balasinovich, who fears what will happen to the women who do not get help. “There is a lack of understanding because many saw their father hitting their mother, so it is normal. What is the crime? What happens at home stays at home.”
A 2017 survey by La Strada-Ukraine among criminal justice practitioners showed that 39 percent believed domestic violence is a private affair, while 60 percent think that victims can be partly responsible for provoking the violence. In 2015, La Strada-Ukraine estimated that only 4.5 percent of Ukrainians report domestic violence.
“We try to help them with what they need, but the police are, in many cases, not reacting. It means that there are no other options available for these women, and all the shelters were already crowded before the quarantine,” says Anosova from La Strada-Ukraine.
In their 2019 report, OSCE points out that “discrimination and economic inequalities, including the lack of economic independence,” is normal in several Eastern European countries and “can make women more vulnerable to violence.”
Katalin Fabian is a professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania near New York and has researched domestic violence and gender-related issues in Eastern Europe for more than a decade. Fabian, who is a native Hungarian, says that the problems seen in Ukraine are similar across Eastern Europe.
“There are some heinous gender-specific crimes in many areas of Central and Eastern Europe and women often do not have sufficient options or information to remedy their and their children’s situation, ” says Fabian, who also hear problems with the police. “Shelters are one thing, but only a temporary solution. Many countries lack a clear strategy of how to help these victims.”
“There used to be better support systems for these women, but the network of NGOs has collapsed in the last decade in these countries, and some only exist by name. The governments in some countries have cut funding,” says Fabian, “Now the money goes to NGOs, agreeing with the traditional values of the state and where the focus is on keeping the families together.”
Euronews reached out to the National Police of Ukraine and the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine without any response.
‘I had to accept the situation because I had no help’
Alina escaped from her husband with her daughter only a few days after the strangulation. She is frustrated because the police came to the house on several occasions but never did anything to help her. When she begged for help, they agreed with the husband to send her to a mental hospital because he claimed she had a mental illness.
“I told the police that I needed help, but they did not do anything. For a long time, I also thought that there was no other help to get,” says Alina. “Somehow, I had just accepted my situation. I did not know what to do.”
She finally left the mental hospital, which, according to Alina, was the husband’s last attempt to try to control her. He has good connections, and it was difficult for her to escape.
“I have been spending 28 years of my life in quarantine with my husband,” says Alina, “Now, I just want the quarantine in Ukraine to end, so that I can find a job and start a new life…I never want to go back again. I will die if I ever go back. I know this for sure.”
Anosova from La Strada-Ukraine fears what happens to the women, who do not get help.
“Before the quarantine, the husbands would go to work so women were not under domestic violence all the time,” says Anosova. “That is not the case anymore.”
Is Ukraine on the right path to fight domestic violence?
In 2017, Ukraine adopted a new law that criminalized domestic violence. It has been welcomed by organizations such as Amnesty International in Ukraine, hoping that it will be a turning point for women’s rights in the country.
According to Open Democracy, the Ukrainian police have also established a particular unit in several Ukrainian cities, such as in Kyiv, to respond to cases of domestic violence. The final plan is to have 45 police groups in the country.
However, Ukraine still has severe problems, according to the 2019 report from OSCE, as well as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. Furthermore, Ukraine has not ratified the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention, aiming at preventing and combating violence against women.
“Many Eastern European countries signed specific laws, and some even ratified the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Conventions, but very few moved to meaningful implementation. In Hungary and Poland, we see a lot of push back away from gender-sensitivity,” says Fabian.
It has not been possible to double-check and verify Alina’s story.