30th Mar 2023


Why Ukraine needs to enforce Istanbul Convention — now

  • In 2018, Donetsk saw a 76 percent increase in reported domestic violence cases, while the increase in Luhansk over a three-year period was 158 percent (Photo: Chris McGrath)
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Late last month, Ukraine was granted European Union Candidate status, the first official step toward EU membership. But the European Commission president noted that formal negotiations for full membership could not begin until Ukraine carried out key reforms, including the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention.

Though Ukraine signed that document in 2011, it took more than a decade, advocacy by Ukrainian civil society and the prospect of EU membership, before the Ukraine parliament ratified it on 20 June 2022.

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Insight, a Ukrainian human rights organisation, has long advocated for ratification, including launching a petition that garnered over 25,000 signatures.

The organisation noted that it was a huge historical step for Ukraine to acknowledge the rights of women in this way. With the war in Ukraine dominating the news for months, viewers around the world have become sadly familiar with images of bodies in the streets, buildings destroyed, and lines of people leaving everything behind and crowding onto trains to flee.

What has gone mostly unreported is the significant increase in domestic violence, and its grave implications.

In a war as brutal as the one being waged in Ukraine, it can be easy to ignore domestic violence and its devastating long-term physical and emotional consequences for survivors, and for children who witness it.

Research shows that levels of domestic violence generally increase during armed conflict, and that the most dangerous wartime environment for women and children is often in their own homes.

While the latest statistics are hard to obtain, Amnesty International acquired official numbers of reported domestic violence cases for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, which have been affected by military action since 2014.

In 2018, Donetsk saw a 76 percent increase in reported cases, while the increase in Luhansk over a three-year period was 158 percent.

According to the official statistics from the Ukrainian government, which are likely unreliable and incomplete, the national police received over 200,000 reports of domestic violence in 2020.

Unfortunately, a recent report shows that getting help during the escalation of conflict in 2022 has proven difficult for survivors. In a sadly typical case, one humanitarian worker reported a case of domestic violence in a shelter for internally-displaced people and was ignored.

Not just ticking boxes

At this moment of massive political change, it is essential that the Ukrainian government treat the ratification of the Istanbul Convention not merely as a box to be checked on the path to EU membership, but rather as a set of obligations that must be upheld both during and after the war.

The convention stipulates that the state has a responsibility to prevent all forms of violence against women, investigate allegations, and prosecute perpetrators, while also ensuring that survivors can access life-saving services after an act of violence.

Implementing the Istanbul Convention meaningfully, while fighting a war and managing a humanitarian crisis, is an overwhelming undertaking that the Ukrainian government will not be able to tackle alone — as much as the prospect of EU membership is clearly motivating officials to make formal commitments to protect women and girls.

The EU, United States and others lending aid in Ukraine need to push the nation to meaningfully enact the Istanbul Convention now that it has been ratified.

This means deferring to women's and local Ukrainian civil society groups on first steps.

Organisations like La Strada have the expertise in domestic violence to ensure the safety and needs of survivors are at the heart of all steps taken by the government of Ukraine.

All aspects of the convention, including prevention programmes and prosecutions should receive multi-year funding to ensure that efforts to protect women and girls can grow over time. Significant grants that focus on women and girls who are displaced should be prioritised and existing efforts to provide mental health services should be reinforced.

Finally, we are only as good as our data. Those providing aid should partner with local organisations to research and study drivers of domestic violence in the war zone.

Ukraine has a strong civil society. It is important that the voices of Ukraine's women-led organisations are heard and that their expertise is sought out and respected.

Although the war in Ukraine has been a tragedy for women and their families, the country's time in the international spotlight is also creating opportunities for collective growth and a chance to rebuild society anew when the shelling stops.

But a brighter 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.

Author bio

Heidi Lehmann is a gender-based violence prevention expert at HIAS, an international Jewish humanitarian organisation that provides humanitarian assistance to refugees. Olga Morkova is the advocacy manager for the Ukraine crisis at HIAS.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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