In summer of 2015, UNFPA commissioned a survey on gender-based violence (GBV) in the conflict-affected regions of eastern Ukraine, in particular in the government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, and in Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya and Kharkiv oblasts, those which host the main influx of internally displaced persons (IDPs). The survey tasks were focused on reviewing the available administrative data on related criminal offences, content analysis of secondary data on GBV, conducting a special sample population survey on GBV issues, focus group discussions with representatives of local communities and in-depth interviews with key informants (experts involved into various aspects of GBV response in the regions of the study).
Administrative data on GBV describes only the “tip of the iceberg”, as only a few survivors usually ask for help due to social and cultural barriers, failing legislation and overly institutionalized environment. In the conditions of an on-going conflict and the loss of control by central authorities over large territories, the reliability of administrative data is declining, as the registered crime rates are influenced by problems with the statistical audit of criminal offences and total population numbers. The regions of the study have been traditionally characterized by high crime rates; intensive fighting in Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts and large-scale flows of IDPs resulted in a further aggravation of the crime situation there. Even accounting for the significant underreporting of criminal offenses, a small increase in the number of registered rapes was observed in the regions bordering the antiterrorist operation (ATO) area; the number of women surviving theft and fraud has also grown.
The problem of GBV in the conflict setting has gained largescale public attention in the Ukrainian society with certain cases being widely discussed in the mass media. However, the quality of this information has significant gaps in terms of reliability and representativeness; use of anecdotal evidence could lead to “mythologizing” selected episodes and distorting the general picture. In times of armed conflict, information on GBV can be also used as means to manipulate public attitudes or even as propaganda – a direct instrument of the information war. As monitoring of the mass media revealed, news reports paid more attention to highlighting which party to the conflict perpetrated the acts rather than focusing on the prevention policies or practice of bringing those liable to justice.
Sociological surveys remain reliable sources of information, as data aggregation through statistical procedures provides depersonalization of all findings, while the method of individual interviews allows for establishing a rapport with respondents and gives the opportunity to clarify specific points. However, GBV surveys are challenging with regard to the high sensitivity of the topic and possible stigmatization of survivors in the community. In the conditions of an on-going conflict, such surveys require increased attention to safety of all participants, ethical standards and confidentiality. That is why the survey was conducted by specially trained interviewers. In order to raise the population’s awareness of the services available for GBV survivors, information on these services was updated and generalized in all regions covered by the study. The survey tools were developed in accordance with the approaches of the Gender-based Violence Tools Manual in Conflict-Affected Settings adjusted to Ukraine’s social and cultural context with the involvement of a broad range of national and international experts. The survey topics were focused on the experience of various forms of violence outside the family during the conflict (and during displacement for IDPs), partner violence and the general public’s attitudes to this problem, the practice of survivors seeking help and their coping strategies in cases of GBV. During the fieldwork, interviews were conducted with 1,505 women from the conflict-affected regions, and 1,007 displaced women staying in host communities there.
The survey confirmed the increased vulnerability to various forms of violence in the conflict setting – the share of IDP women reporting at least one instance of violence outside the family before their displacement was three times higher than that of local women during the entire conflict (15.2% against 5.3% of respondents). The survey program suggested a study of various types of psychological, economic, physical and sexual violence. Among the most prevalent forms of abuse during the conflict, both groups of respondents reported instances of humiliation, insults, intimidation, blackmail, verbal threats, physical violence (being hit or slapped), confiscation of money or property, confiscation of official documents, forced labour without pay or for a pittance, and being subjected to improper sexual comments. In spite of the wide-spread taboo towards sexual violence, some episodes were also documented during the survey.
The conflict’s impact on GBV risks is also seen through the generalization of circumstances of the most serious episodes of violence. In particular, violent situations survived by women in local communities reflected a snapshot of the everyday life of the Ukrainian society: most episodes were caused by one perpetrator whom the victim knew personally; they were alone at the time and did not face any particular threat to personal safety. In contrast, the prevailing numbers of IDP survivors have encountered violent situations caused by groups of people that the survivors did not know personally; they faced direct threats to their lives at the time of the incident, and confirmed that witnesses were also in danger. The checkpoints at the demarcation line were regarded among the most dangerous locations in terms of vulnerability to all forms of violence.
The experience of violence is not just reflected in physical health (although the survivors of violence during the conflict mostly mentioned minor injuries, there were serious traumas reported, as well as sexually transmitted diseases and exacerbations of other diseases); it could also result in important psychological consequences, including life-long effects for the victim. As a result of displacement, the deprivation from normal life, these psychological effects are much more intense among IDPs. The most prevalent disorders included intrusive memories (flashbacks), significant changes in sleep patterns and repeated nightmares, and a permanent feeling of fear or guilt. These problems could adversely influence resistibility to conflict among IDPs, potentially provoking the risk of increased domestic violence and violence outside the family. This is why the need for accessible services of psychological support is acute not only for the reported survivors of violence, but also for the broader contingents of IDPs.
According to the survey results, there is no common practice to seek assistance from specialized institutions in cases of violence. The overwhelming numbers of survivors have not applied for psychological or legal support, neither have they applied for medical assistance. The main causes for not applying for assistance according to respondents were unawareness of the availability of services, absence of proper institutions in communities and mistrust in service personnel. One in ten IDP survivors hadn’t sought the assistance of law enforcement bodies because of the fear of further violence. As a whole, survivors of violence usually share their experience with those they are the closest to (such as family members and friends). The emotional support provided by friends and loved ones is regarded as the most effective coping strategy in cases of violence. Some expectations of help were expressed for the assistance of psychologists and representatives of NGOs and women’s support groups.
One of the survey components was focused on partner violence in terms of the personal experience of respondents and the general public’s attitudes to this problem. The focus group discussions revealed that in many minds, there is a clear distinction between those forms of violence that may occur in the family and sexual violence that happens in the outside society. The attitudes to these problems differ in terms of the perception of criminal liability and the severity of the offence. While the facts of sexual abuse cause a criminalisation of the attacker among community members, domestic violence is primarily considered a usual phenomenon that should not attract a lot of attention. Though women do not justify physical violence and controlling behaviour in marriage, they accept the assistance of outsiders in spousal conflicts only in extreme cases which if unchecked may lead to severe injury.
The survey not only confirmed the sustainable stereotypical attitudes to gender roles within a Ukrainian family; it also provided grounds to argue for the strengthening of such stereotypes during the time of military conflict and humanitarian crisis. Despite the fact that there is a subjective assessment of an increased amount of conflicts within the society and in the family, the survey has not revealed any significant influence of the military conflict in Donbas on partner violence (7.9% of IDPs and 7.5% of local women reported that they faced intimate partner violence (IPV) before the conflict, while the corresponding reported rates were 6.9% and 8.2% during the last 12 months). Some decrease in the IPV rates among displaced persons may be explained by women’s transition to more traditional, patriarchal models of marital relations in front of the new challenges of survival at the time of a deep crisis. As focus group discussions revealed, the “value” of men as breadwinners is increasing because of the large-scale mobilization of men to the army; this may influence female perceptions of domestic violence and identification of its particular forms.
Experience of IPV is leading to significant health issues among survivors (12% of married women confirmed some sort of physical injury perpetrated by their husband/partners), including issues of reproductive health. At the same time, public disapproval of applying for specialized assistance in cases of domestic violence and the prevalent stigmatizing of survivors in communities inhibits the efficiency of any support. Population awareness on available services for GBV survivors and specific service providers remains low; there is no proper planning of safety strategies – almost a half of IPV survivors do not know how to deal with a repeat situation. Thus, there is a need for awareness raising campaigns, targeted at disseminating information on safety planning and coping strategies for IPV.
The systematic character of problems that restrain the efficiency of public policies on GBV prevention was acknowledged by in-depth interviews with regional experts from various institutional sectors. The new challenges related to the military conflict and appearance of IDPs have just lead to a further aggravation of the existing gaps. Among the basic institutional failings are poorly established systems of coordination of activities and cooperation among experts, absence of regular information exchange and a single database of GBV cases, lack of skilled experts in the field of GBV and retention of such experts, the residual principle of funding for respective activities. The provision of timely and efficient support to GBV survivors is restrained by a lack of 24-hour hot lines at the regional level, absence of any emergency psychological support in local communities, lack of shelters for survivors of domestic violence, scarce correctional programs for abusers and the absence of compulsive instruments to make them attend these programs. The prevalence of GBV in the society roots also in the insufficient consideration of gender concepts in the education system, and in the underdeveloped system of comprehensive training of young people to prepare them for adulthood.
The assessment of the needs in improving GBV policies provided grounds for recommendations on institutional policy reforms (full adjustment of Ukraine’s legislation on GBV issues into compliance with international standards, strengthening penalties for abusers and ensuring the abuser’s isolation from survivors of domestic violence, including a system of protection orders), capacity building of multi-sectoral service providers (improving functional coordination among participating bodies, creation of a single interdepartmental database on GBV cases that would enable providing timely referrals to proper services for survivors, training of skilled experts in all fields of GBV response, in particular crisis psychologists), improving the system of support of GBV survivors (expansion of the network of providers of social and psychological services, development of emergency psychological services and ensuring their accessibility at the local level, creation of shelters for survivors of domestic violence, state support of NGOs and CSOs involved in GBV response, implementation of corrective programs for abusers), and expansion of information campaigns for those at risk of GBV through awareness raising programs (safety planning, support of the 24-hour hot lines at the regional level, fostering the practice of applying for psychological and social support) and educative work with disadvantaged families and vulnerable population groups. The target group of social and psychological support should include families of demobilized military personnel returning to their families after participating in the ATO. In light of the on-going military conflict, particular attention should be paid to the prevention of any form of violence against the civil population, as well as biased attitudes towards internally displaced people, and the support of their comprehensive integration into hosting communities.