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'Failed By The System': Women In Eastern Ukraine At 'Heightened Risk' Of Gender-Based Violence

After numerous attempts, Oksana Mamchenko finally managed to get a restraining order against her ex-husband.

Amnesty International says women in the conflict-affected regions of Ukraine’s east are at "heightened risk" of gender-based violence, despite "significant developments" in the country's legislation.

The London-based human rights watchdog said in a report published on December 11 that the situation for women in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions has been "aggravated and intensified."

"From Amnesty International’s research, it is clear that the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has had an across-the-board impact on the causes and forms of domestic violence, and the effectiveness of the institutional response to it in Donetsk and Luhansk regions," the report says.

It is necessary to kill your fear and act no matter what. When you manage to get rid of the false shame, it is much easier to go ahead with your life."
-- Oksana Mamchenko

Such violence is also more frequently hidden in these areas due to “the military presence, a lack of security, the absence or erosion of the rule of law, and the pervasiveness of actual or perceived impunity for the perpetrators,” it added.

Fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 13, 200 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.

The conflict has left some 2.7 million people living within 20 kilometers along both sides of the so-called contact line that separates the government-controlled territories from the separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Amnesty International says its report, titled Not A Private Matter: Domestic And Sexual Violence Against Women In Eastern Ukraine, focuses on the government-controlled territories because it has not been able to access the separatist-held areas.

The report highlights the case of Oksana Mamchenko, a divorcee with 12 children from Kramatorsk, the Ukrainian government's provisional administrative center in the Donetsk region, which shows the difficulties a woman can face when calling local authorities about an incident.

Amnesty International says it found only one documented case of sexual violence committed by military personnel between 2017 and 2019 in Donetsk and Luhansk that made it to court.

Repeated attempts to lodge a complaint of physical and verbal abuse against her former husband with a local police officer in 2018 and 2019 were left unanswered.

The complaint was finally registered when Mamchenko reported the inaction of local police to the authorities in Kyiv, after which she was finally able to obtain a restraining order against her now ex-husband.

Mamchenko cited perceived police inaction, lack of support from “society and relatives,” and financial insecurity as the main reasons why victims of domestic or sexual violence often refrain from lodging complaints.

“It is necessary to kill your fear and act no matter what. When you manage to get rid of the false shame, it is much easier to go ahead with your life," she told RFE/RL.

Out of 27 cases of domestic violence recorded by the group, 10 of the women did not report the abuse because “they did not expect an effective response from the authorities, a belief often cemented by their previous experiences of being failed by the systems which should have protected them.”

Yulia Dontsova of Amnesty International
Yulia Dontsova of Amnesty International

Yulia Dontsova, a member of Amnesty International's research group in Ukraine, told RFE/RL that when women did call the police, in three cases the police officers did not register the complaints.

In eight cases, women had to call repeatedly, sometimes for months, to get their complaints registered. In three other cases, police persuaded the women to withdraw their complaints after registering them, Dontsova said.

In addition to domestic violence, women in conflict areas have continued to experience sexual violence from military personnel in various forms, and they face similar barriers in reporting the incidents and obtaining justice, according to Amnesty International.

The group says it has used the available built-in search engine to check the State Register of Court Decisions for cases of sexual violence committed by military personnel between 2017 and 2019 in Donetsk and Luhansk -- and found only one documented case that made it to court.

Despite new laws and measures to address gender-based violence, and the current media attention and debates on social media, violence against women remains a “widespread yet deeply hidden phenomenon” in Ukraine, according to Amnesty International, which cited a 2018 study that estimated that more than 1 million Ukrainian women per year suffer from physical, sexual, or emotional violence in their families.

Amnesty International’s report is calling on Ukrainian lawmakers to pass reforms to ensure that every single instance of domestic violence, including the first incident, is a criminal offense under national law.

It also says that allegations and reports of domestic violence committed by military and law enforcement personnel should be investigated by the police and not by their seniors, and should be subject to the jurisdiction of civil courts.

Meanwhile, the government should “express a clear and firm public commitment to prioritize work on preventing and combating gender-based and domestic violence and promote ‘zero tolerance’ to such violence at all levels of government and in the society at large.”