Lviv, Ukraine – March 10, 2022: Ukrainian refugees on Lviv railway station waiting for train to escape to Europe during russian war — Photo by Ruslan-Lytvyn / Depositphotos.com

GBV and Domestic Violence in Ukraine and How Businesses Can Help

By Anna Slavko, PhD in Law, Lecturer, International, European and Comparative Law Department, Sumy State University, Ukraine

Businesses can play a significant role combating domestic and gender-based violence, including in the context of armed conflict. The war in Ukraine has led to a catastrophic increase in violence against women in uncontrolled territories. The security of internally displaced persons and refugees is also a concern. This article provides insights into initiatives to combat domestic and gender-based violence in Ukraine, the situation on the ground, and how businesses in Ukraine are finding workable solutions to protect their employees from violence.

This in-depth article on Gender-Based violence in Ukraine was commissioned by Business Fights Poverty, with the support of Avon. 

Domestic and gender-based violence is a phenomenon of constant concern in the world. Fighting it is the focus of many international organizations, human rights defenders, and socially responsible businesses. Unfortunately, as a reasonably stable phenomenon (i.e. a phenomenon that has existed for a long time), domestic and gender-based violence is nevertheless affected by external trends – such as isolation through quarantine during a pandemic or armed conflict. The war in Ukraine, which has become one of the most significant and most violent conflicts in Europe since World War II, has already contributed to the substantial increase in violence against women.

Unfortunately, domestic and gender-based violence was quite common in Ukraine even before the full-scale Russian invasion. According to statistics, one in five women in Ukraine has experienced violence. Data from another survey in 2019 show that 67% of women aged 15 and older have experienced psychological, physical, or sexual abuse from a partner or other person. It is worth noting that the respondents of this survey lived near the line of contact in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine, which Russia partially occupies. In the first eight months of 2021, over 203,000 reports of domestic violence were registered, 90% of which were from women. In general, the number of reports of domestic violence has been growing every year since 2018. Still, experts explain this increase not by the deterioration of the situation of women but by improving the legislation, which now provides some protection for women who feel able to report abuse.

Strengthening the law on gender-based and domestic violence in Ukraine

For a long time, there were no special mechanisms in Ukraine to combat gender-based violence. The perpetrators were prosecuted only for bodily harm (i.e. physical violence) and for crimes involving the sexual integrity of a person (sexual violence).

On November 7, 2011, Ukraine signed the Istanbul Convention, but this document was never ratified. For several years, there have been active discussions in Ukraine about the need to ratify the Convention. Eventually, this led to some changes in the legislative sphere. In December 2017, amendments were made to the basic document on gender equality in Ukraine – the Law on Ensuring Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women and Men, the Criminal Code of Ukraine and the Code of Ukraine on Administrative Offenses. These changes created a new legal liability for direct gender-based or domestic violence.

Current Ukrainian legislation distinguishes between the concepts of domestic violence and gender-based violence (see Box 1). The term “gender-based violence” is analogous to “violence based on sex”. The difference between domestic violence and gender-based violence is not in the nature of the acts committed but in the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim of violence. If they are or have been in a family relationship, the act will be considered domestic violence.

Box 1: Definitions and Possible Sentences for Domestic Violence and Gender-Based Violence in Ukraine

The Law on Ensuring Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women and Men defines “violence based on sex”. It means “acts against persons based on their gender or common customs or traditions in society (stereotypes about social functions (status, responsibilities) languages, etc. of women and men), or acts affecting mainly persons of a particular sex, which cause physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering, including threats of such action, in public or private life“.

In turn, the Law on Preventing and Combating Domestic Violence defines domestic violence as “acts of physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence committed in the family or within the place of residence or between relatives, or between former or current spouses, or between other persons who live together (lived) in the same family, but are not (were not) in a family relationship or married to each other, regardless of whether the person who committed domestic violence, lives (lived) in the same place as the victim, as well as threats to commit such acts“.

One-time domestic or gender-based violence entails administrative liability under Article 173-2 of the Code of Ukraine on Administrative Offenses. Punishment for such actions may be a fine, community service or administrative arrest for ten days.

If domestic violence is committed systematically, the perpetrator may be held criminally liable under Article 126-1 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine. Punishment for such actions may be community service, arrest for up to six months, restriction of liberty (up to 5 years) or imprisonment (up to 2 years). At the same time, criminal liability for the systematic perpetration of gender-based violence is not provided

In general, the law of 2017 created a relatively comprehensive system for combating domestic and gender-based violence, which in addition to setting out applicable sentences for those convicted of domestic or gender-based violence (see Box 1), provides:

  • Possibility to obtain a restraining order for a victim of violence, even if she/ he lives in the same apartment with the perpetrator (note that in Ukrainian law, there was no possibility to obtain a restraining order before, this is an entirely new provision for the legislation of Ukraine);
  • Creation of standard programs for perpetrators and victims of violence, aimed at a specific correction of behaviour and alleviation of emotional and psychological distress;
  • Development of the order of cooperation between various organizations that counteract domestic and gender-based violence. In the past, law enforcement agencies focused only on punishing offenders, and social services tried to help victims of violence. Creating an order of cooperation between them is designed to prevent new violence cases. In addition, the Commissioner for Gender Equality Policy helps to establish a standard policy for all authorities on domestic and gender-based violence prevention.

Despite the positive developments, the effectiveness of legal protections remains questionable. For example, in the case of Levchuk v. Ukraine, the domestic courts denied the applicant’s request to evict her ex-husband, who had abused her and their joint children. In reviewing the case, the European Court of Human Rights found that the domestic judicial authorities failed to comprehensively assess the risk of future physical and psychological violence to the applicant and her children. Besides this, the domestic proceedings lasted over two years, during which time this risk continued.  However, it should be emphasized that the events considered by the European Court of Human Rights took place before the adoption of the amendments mentioned above. It is clear from the case circumstances that a responsible employer could have assisted the applicant in at least several respects, providing: temporary accommodation, for example, in a dormitory; psychological assistance; primary legal aid (through the advice of a company lawyer or an NGO-partner). However, unfortunately, the applicant is a person with a disability and does not work. In my opinion, this case shows how vital women’s employment is in combating violence and how important the role of employers is in this area.

Business action to combat domestic and gender-based violence

Business in Ukraine is actively involved in various social initiatives, including combating violence. The contribution of companies whose products and services are mainly aimed at women (for example, cosmetics manufacturers, beauty salons, etc.) in this area is substantial.

The United Nations Population Fund in Ukraine raises awareness among large and medium-sized businesses about the need to promote gender equality in the workplace and help combat domestic and gender-based violence among employees. Business representatives can sign the Declaration on Gender Equality and Combating Domestic Violence. So far, the Declaration has been signed by more than 20 large companies, including Avon and L’Oreal in Ukraine, METRO Cash and Carry, and Ukraine’s largest hotel chain Reikartz Hotel Group. For several years in a row, Ukraine has been running a “16 Days of Activism Against Violence” campaign, in which experts share ways to combat domestic and gender-based violence.

Some organizations have been working on their own initiatives to combat gender-based and domestic violence. In particular, the contribution of L’Oreal Paris and Avon should be noted. L’Oreal launched the “Beauty for All” campaign, which provided free professional training in beauty for women victims of domestic violence. Avon has launched their “Don’t Shut Up” campaign against the silence of domestic violence and highlighting charitable assistance available to those experiencing abuse. Business Fights Poverty has developed a toolkit on how business counter gender-based violence in the world of work, including one with IFC, Anglo American and Primark. These initiatives show how companies can leverage their business activities and their public communications reach to provide access to support and valuable information for those experiencing violence, as well as challenging social norms that enable the cycle of violence to continue. 

Educational and non-governmental organizations have also implemented several measures to combat domestic violence in cooperation with businesses. For example, in the framework of an educational project “Enforcement the European Union Values in Ukraine” that my own department was involved in, we dedicated several activities to the issues of equality (including gender) and non-discrimination (including gender). For example, we participated in training for teachers and public servants on innovative methods of teaching children and youth European values of equality. We also held a debate to engage future legal practitioners on the problems of law enforcement in Ukraine, in relation to the principles of human dignity and non-discrimination. Some of our students also took part in Stand Up training supported by L’Oreal Paris, Hollaback and the United Nations Population Fund in Ukraine, on “Combating Harassment in Public Places”. This training programme, designed to prevent street harassment, has so far reached over 70,000 people worldwide. 

Violence against women in Ukraine during the war

The lives of almost all women in Ukraine have changed dramatically since 24 February 2022. UN Women reports more than 2.3 million refugees from Ukraine as of 29 March 2022, most of them women and children. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has displaced more than 10 million people. More than 12 million have been directly affected by the war.

Active hostilities have significantly worsened the situation of women in Ukraine, especially in the context of violence against them. However, there are currently no preconditions for increasing domestic violence against women. On the contrary, several factors help reduce the level of domestic violence:

  • the population now lives more densely, depriving domestic abusers of the opportunity to resort to violence with impunity. Many families in safer regions of Ukraine are settling internally displaced persons in their homes. That is why now 2-3 families often live in one house or apartment. This situation makes any attempt at domestic violence known to others, reducing the risks of such violence;
  • the sale of alcohol is practically prohibited or restricted throughout Ukraine; (many domestic violence cases are linked to alcohol abuse).

Instead, the risks of gender-based violence have increased dramatically, especially in temporarily uncontrolled areas. There have been reports of sexual violence against women. For example, on 22 March 2022, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine Iryna Venediktova announced the first investigation of a suspected rape against a Ukrainian woman by the Russian military, which is being dealt with as violation of the rules and customs of war. Such cases are widely recorded throughout the uncontrolled territory. Still, it is challenging to prosecute such cases, as it is almost impossible to identify the attacker/attackers and promptly conduct the necessary investigative actions.

However, moving out of a combat zone or uncontrolled areas is also a significant risk. People moving from a war zone are vulnerable to violence or human trafficking, due to general emotional and psychological trauma, and often physical exhaustion, lack of necessary documents, money, and livelihood. During the so-called “green corridors” evacuation, the Russian military often confiscates communications equipment from the civilian population. All this makes it impossible to identify involvement in human trafficking and to combat violence effectively. There have been no official reports of violence against refugees or internally displaced persons or their mass involvement in human trafficking. However, some volunteers have said that such dangers have been averted. At the same time, these offences are often not detected until a longer period of time has elapsed.

Volunteers on the ground have provided some advice on how those fleeing the violence can take steps to protect themselves from the threat of human traffickers.  

Tatiana, a Ukrainian who currently lives in Poland, is a volunteer: “It is worth turning to volunteers for help. It is better to wait a couple of days in refugee centers to understand at least ‘what and why’. Also, not surprisingly, social networks help – you can go to the embassy page, there is a lot of information about migration. Do not leave with strangers because panic, stress take their toll. Try to pass information about the location and relocation to all your relatives, friends, and acquaintances“.

Darya, a Ukrainian currently living in Northern Macedonia, organizes humanitarian aid for Ukrainians: “I advise you not to use illegal means of entering the territory of a state with the help of people who can offer it. Use planes, buses, and trains. If you travel in your car, think about where you are going and what you may need on the road. Upon arrival, be sure to go to the consular office of Ukraine to obtain all necessary information and contacts of persons and organizations who are proxies and acquaintances of representatives of the diplomatic mission“.

Business in Wartime

The fighting in Ukraine has led to a significant reduction in business activity. Survey results show that 30 to 42% of entrepreneurs in Ukraine stopped working due to the war. However, many businesses and organizations try to protect their employees as much as possible.

The example of sports organizations in Ukraine is illustrative.

Daryna, Ukrainian student, athlete: “We went abroad with the help of the Athletics Federation of Ukraine, which cooperates with other federations around the world and with the Diamond League (prestigious community of athletes). They offered us a placement abroad (including self-accommodation, food, access to all necessary sports facilities). We were offered France and Italy; other athletes are currently training in Turkey, Portugal, etc. The federation gathered us all in the city of Khmelnytsky, took us by bus to the Porubne checkpoint. We crossed the border on foot, and, with volunteers’ help, we were taken to Suceava airport. Romanian firefighters helped us bring suitcases, offered food, water, clothing, and sim cards when crossing the border. In general, everything happened without significant problems and calmly“.

Sumy State University has made considerable efforts to evacuate its international students. Within weeks, the city was blocked by Russian troops. The university administration provided international students with water and food, as the city had problems with food and utilities. When the first “green corridor” from the city was opened, the university evacuated students to western Ukraine, from where they were able to reach their homes.

Another example of a successful evacuation of its employees is OLX- company.

Olena, a Ukrainian employee of the company, described her evacuation: “A few days after the start of the full-scale invasion, we were evacuated from Kyiv to a relatively safe region in western Ukraine. The company rented a boarding house in one of the resort towns. After a few days in the boarding house, we left for Poland, where the company rented comfortable accommodation for us. Evacuation opportunities extended not only to the company’s employees but also to our relatives or friends. Now we have the chance to continue working and integrate into the society of the host country – for example, we take Polish language courses“.

However, not all companies can evacuate workers abroad. Some of them are moving production to safer areas, some of them are equipping storage facilities for workers. Under such business conditions, it is challenging to combat domestic and gender-based violence, but some recommendations can be considered:

  1. Promote the employment of women, including internally displaced persons. Having a job means that women have the financial resources and socialization to help them avoid or stop domestic violence. In a state of war, employment and work are also crucial for women’s psychological health. There is some reduction in anxiety and guilt about leaving their hometown or not doing enough.
  2. Create flexible work schedules if possible and provide for part-time employment. It is worth recalling that most women move in with children and the elderly who need care. At the same time, it is necessary to consider the requirements to adhere to the curfew established in most regions of Ukraine. Flexible work schedules or part-time employment will provide resources and care for those who need it.
  3. If appropriate, evacuate women to safer areas or abroad. It may be relevant for companies operating in areas not directly tied to specific production facilities, such as IT or certain services.
  4. If there are adequate resources – provide housing for employees and their loved ones. It will make it possible both to relocate from the probable perpetrator with whom the woman lives and be in a safer environment regarding the risks of gender-based violence.
  5. If available, create opportunities to provide free psychological assistance to potential domestic or gender-based violence victims. Under martial law, victims of violence find it even more difficult to admit to others their problems, which can lead to worsening the situation and the emergence of persistent psychological disorders. To avoid such cases, companies can create opportunities for consultation with a psychologist. This option is primarily available for medium and large businesses.

Taking at least one or more of these measures will help reduce the risks for women of domestic or gender-based violence.

Domestic and gender-based violence is a pervasive problem across the world, and combating it requires active partnerships between governments, NGOs, international organizations and businesses, working at both international, national and local levels. Over the last decade, Ukraine has seen many examples of such partnerships to reduce violence and support those who have experienced it. These are now more important than ever, given the devastating increase in the threat of violence since the full-scale invasion began. 

There are many practical things that can be done by businesses to help protect people from domestic and gender-based violence. I ask you to consider how your organization can play its part, alongside your partners, particularly if you have operations in Ukraine and in the countries receiving Ukrainian refugees. 

Editor’s note: La Strada – Ukraine and JurFem are non-governmental organizations working to combat domestic and gender-based violence in Ukraine. Business Fights Poverty’s Rapid Response Facility provides several ways that you can join the business response to the Ukraine crisis. It also includes a selection of Action Resources and toolkits on subjects including gender-based violence, supporting refugees and children, and on effective partnering and planning.

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