Rising domestic violence cases hide under the radar in Ukraine during war

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When the body of 34-year-old Liubov Borniakova was found in her home in the city of Dnipro in central Ukraine in January, it was marked with 75 bruises, according to the coroner’s report.

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Her husband, Yakov Borniakov, had been laying low inside their apartment during the previous month, after deserting from the army, according to Borniakova’s aunt and a neighbor. He got drunk and beat Borniakova repeatedly during the two weeks before her death, they told Reuters.

“There was simply no place on her that was left alive,” said Kateryna Vedrentseva, the aunt, who said she arrived at Borniakova’s home hours after her death in the night of January 8.

“Her arms were beaten, her head, her legs, everything.”

Reuters was unable to reach Yakov Borniakov, his lawyer or his family for comment. A spokesperson for Dnipro police said a criminal investigation into Borniakova’s death was ongoing but declined to provide further details.

Registered cases of domestic violence in Ukraine initially fell after Russia invaded in February 2022, as millions of people fled the fighting.

But, as families have returned to their old homes or re-settled in new ones, cases have soared this year, according to previously unreported national police data reviewed by Reuters.

In the first five months of this year, registered cases jumped 51 percent compared with the same period of 2022, the data showed. They were over a third higher than the previous record in 2020, which experts had linked to pandemic lockdowns.

More than a dozen officials and experts working in the sector told Reuters the increase was a result of rising stress, economic hardship, unemployment and trauma related to the conflict. In the vast majority of cases the victims are women, they said.

“(The rise) is because of psychological tension and because of a lot of difficulties. People lost everything,” Ukraine’s commissioner for gender policy, Kateryna Levchenko, told Reuters in an interview in May.

Police registered 349,355 cases of domestic violence from January to May 2023, compared with 231,244 over the same period in 2022 and 190,277 in the first five months of 2021, the data showed.

Most of the experts and professionals in the field told Reuters they fear the problem will worsen as the war persists and will endure long after the conflict ends due to traumatized troops returning from the front.

Central hub

Dnipro has become a transit point for people fleeing occupied areas and fighting to the east and south.

After opening in September, a relief center there run by the government and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) for survivors of domestic violence had provided support to 800 people, mostly women, as of mid-May.

Of that number, only around 35 percent filed complaints with the police, according to a case worker at the center – suggesting, as experts and professionals in the field say, that domestic violence could be more widespread than police data indicates.

Police in Dnipro did not respond to a request for comment on the data.

A woman, who currently lives in a shelter for IDPs, takes the laundry out of the dryer, in Dnipro, Ukraine, May 8, 2023. (Reuters)
A woman, who currently lives in a shelter for IDPs, takes the laundry out of the dryer, in Dnipro, Ukraine, May 8, 2023. (Reuters)

Psychologist Tetyana Pogorila, who works at the center, said that, for people displaced to Dnipro by the war, being in an unfamiliar place made some victims of domestic violence more dependent on their abusers.

“People arrive and the family might be living together in one room,” Pogorila said. “Some find work, some don’t and so their financial situation deteriorates. Add this to the global situation of the county and anxiety; this increases stress and conflict.”

State resources have also been stretched by the war.

Levchenko, the commissioner for gender policy, said that some women's shelters have been repurposed to house people displaced by fighting and some of the state budget allocated for gender-based violence was redirected to defense spending.

The funding allocation dropped to $4.6 million (€4.2 million) this year from around $10.1 million (€10 million) in 2021, she added.

Yulia Usenko, head of the Department for the Protection of Children’s Interests and Combating Violence at Ukraine’s General Prosecutor’s Office, said law enforcement agencies had been alerted to the potential issues around traumatized troops returning from the front.

The office created a unit to oversee domestic violence court procedures in February, Usenko said.

But the lack of funds has social service workers worried.

“We are expecting a very high rate of violence,” said Lilia Kalytiuk, director of the Dnipro center for social services, which runs a shelter for refugees.

History of violence

Borniakov deserted the army in November, documents reviewed by Reuters show. He returned to Dnipro, where he started drinking alcohol at home and beating Borniakova, who stopped leaving the house, according to Olga Dmitrichenko, the neighbor.

In the days before her death, Borniakova planned to leave for Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, but “she didn’t make it,”said Dmitrichenko: “I told her: ‘Leave! Leave!’”

Borniakova’s three children now live with her cousin a short drive from her grave in Dnipro.

Police had initially closed their investigation into Borniakova’s death after medical experts concluded she had died of heart failure, according to a police report seen by Reuters dated January 27, 2023.

Family lawyer Yulia Seheda successfully appealed that decision, arguing the heart attack was induced by intense beating. A court document dated March 28 showed the criminal investigation into Borniakova’s death had been reopened.

“If we can at least get a charge of domestic violence it will be a victory,” Seheda said, adding that there was still a view among some judges and police officers that domestic violence was a private matter to be settled between a couple.

A conviction for domestic violence carries a maximum of just two years in prison under Ukrainian law; many offenders are fined between 170 and 340 hryvnia ($5-10) or given a community service sentence.

Levchenko, the government commissioner, said the police and judicial system had been reformed since 2015 so that domestic violence was treated as a crime and dedicated law enforcement services had been created.

She said an increase in registered domestic violence cases was partly a reflection that police are giving more attention to the issue.

Dmitrichenko, the neighbor, said Borniakova never made a formal complaint against her husband and did not open the door to police when Dmitrichenko called them in November. Dnipro police did not respond to questions about the incident, which Reuters couldn’t confirm independently.
The family is currently trying to remove her husband’s name from her gravestone and replace it with her maiden name.

“Her name is Liubov Pilipenko,” said Vedrentseva, on a recent visit to the cemetery.

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