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Kyiv’s Continuing Failure to Implement the Istanbul Convention

Image: Iaryna Grusha Possamai

BY IARYNA GRUSHA POSSAMAI

“He beats you, so he loves you.” No one in Ukraine can remember the origin of this sadistic proverb, but all of us have heard it again and again, at different times and in different situations. With the pandemic and its attendant psychological issues, the problem of domestic violence has become more urgent. But the government remains stubbornly mute on the subject and continues deferring ratification of the Istanbul Convention, as it has done for almost ten years now.

According to Ministry of Interior data, every year 150,000 Ukrainian women suffer from domestic violence, and nearly 600 are murdered at the hands of a “loving beater.” But these numbers do not adequately convey the scope of the problem because many women choose to keep silent about the abuse they endure, hoping to preserve the family, even at the price of becoming victims. On average, every third Ukrainian woman has been abused in her own home by her husband or partner, but only every fifth woman decides to report it.

The current pandemic has forced Ukrainians, like many others, to stay home to be safe. But for many women, the place of safety has become a prison. The NGO La Strada reported that almost twice as many women called its hotline during the first month of the quarantine in Ukraine than that month’s average. Those numbers pushed the NGOs and social activists to initiate a petition addressed to the president of Ukraine urging ratification of the Istanbul Convention. Activists, opinion-makers, and public figures drew attention to the petition requiring the president and the parliament to ratify it; after three months it had collected more than the 25,000 necessary signatures.

The Istanbul Convention, more formally the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against woman and domestic violence, was signed on May 11, 2011, in Istanbul and entered into force on August 1, 2014. The convention aims to protect women against all forms of violence, contribute to the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, and promote equality between women and men. The convention is structured around four Ps: prevention, protection, and support of victims; the prosecution of offenders; and integrated policies, which mandate establishing special mechanisms for governmental and international institutional cooperation.

Forty-five countries and the EU signed the convention. Ukraine was among the signatories but is not among the thirty-four countries that have ratified it.

Ukraine first came close to ratification in 2016. But it was rejected in the Rada by a majority. The reason was that the text of the convention, with its reference to sexual orientation and gender, was perceived to contradict Ukrainian traditions and Christian values. The main threat, according to the majority, was represented by the very word “gender,” which was thought to be subtly propagandizing same-sex marriage. The final factor seeming to close off all debate in 2016–17 was the criticism of the convention leveled by various Ukrainian churches, which swore to do everything within their means to prevent the concept of gender being embedded in law.

During the parliamentary electoral campaigns in 2019, the presidential party Servant of the People promised that the Istanbul Convention would be among the first laws it would seek to ratify. But that hasn’t happened. In January 2020, Oleksandr Korniyenko, MP and one of the Servant of the People leaders, said it was unlikely that the Rada would agree to ratify the convention, and that the presidential party would prefer to engage in mediation with all groups involved in the process. After the petition for ratification was submitted, in June 2020, President Zelensky responded that he would propose ratification again only after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Social Policy had endorsed it.

So far, there is no systemic response to violence against women and domestic violence in Ukraine. In the absence of a legal framework, the police have no effective protocols to follow. Calling them just postpones the tragic events, it does not prevent them.

With a lacuna in the political will to deal with domestic violence, local authorities and international organizations have taken it upon themselves to try to make a difference. Recently, a shelter for the victims of domestic violence, organized with the collaboration of Kyiv City Hall and the UN, opened its doors in Kyiv. The shelter, an apartment, is able to host up to four adults and two children seeking refuge from abuse at the same time. Psychological help is also offered at the shelter. There are also different web-based services to help victims. For example, the EdEra group provides information on domestic violence—how to recognize it, how to stand against it—and reinforces the message that real love doesn’t hurt.

Thus the problem of domestic violence in Ukraine remains the business of NGOs, social activists, and concerned neighbors, but not the government. And domestic violence remains an untackled problem for women, Ukraine’s biggest demographic.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Image: Iaryna Grusha Possamai

Iaryna Grusha Possamai

Publicist, translator, and cultural manager
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region though research and exchange.  Read more