Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Aid for war-related sexual violence in Ukraine also benefits domestic abuse survivors

UZHHOROD, Ukraine — Kseniya Horovenko, a psychologist, has welcomed them into a brightly lit room furnished with a few chairs, couches and tables topped with small Ukrainian and Canadian flags.
Psychiatrist Kseniya Horovenko looks out on the small city of Uzhhorod, Ukraine from the Canadian-funded mobile counselling centre where she helps to treat people who experienced sexual assault and domestic violence during the war on Feb. 23, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Laura Osman

UZHHOROD, Ukraine — Kseniya Horovenko, a psychologist, has welcomed them into a brightly lit room furnished with a few chairs, couches and tables topped with small Ukrainian and Canadian flags.

She has heard the stories of so many survivors — women, men and children, too — in the year since Russia invaded Ukraine, a conflict where several countries, including Canada, have concluded that sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war.

"Not everyone talks about it. We only hear some things," Horovenko said through a translator.

"People want to forget many things."

She co-ordinates a Canadian-funded counselling service in Uzhhorod, a small resort town near the border with Slovakia, where people arrived by the thousands after fleeing Russian-occupied territories.

The service, which has provided support to some 200 survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, is one of many that Canada launched through the United Nations Population Fund as part of a $7-million aid package. There is also $9.7 million aimed at investigating sexual assaults perpetrated by Russian troops in occupied territories and to bring them to justice.

As of October, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine had documented 86 cases of conflict-related sexual violence against both adults and children, including gang rape, forced nudity, torture and other abuse at the hands of Russian forces.

Horovenko said the sexual violence goes beyond crimes of opportunity.

"Sexual violence is humiliation, taking away the freedom and dignity of a person," she said. "It is the same in the context of the war concerning what the Russian military does with Ukrainians. This is the humiliation of the nation. This is humiliation and deprivation of dignity.

"It is to say: 'You are nobody. You are not human.'"

Many victims have been too traumatized to remain in Ukraine, said Tetiana Machabeli, the director of the Uzhhorod-based NGO Nehemiah, which supports Ukrainians displaced from their home communities.

"It was even too difficult to be here," she said.

The sound of helicopters coming and going from the nearby airport was triggering for many of the women who survived sexual violence by enemy troops.

"They couldn't handle that, some of them even falling on the floor," she said.

Her organization and others in the region helped some of those women go abroad to safer countries where they would not feel under the same level of threat.

Now, with Ukrainians having lived through more than a year of war, counselling services such as the one funded by the Canadian government are finding themselves most often providing support to those who suffer the kind of abuse also seen in peacetime: domestic violence.

Gender-based violence, as well as stereotypes, have been normalized in many families in the region, said Mariana Stupak, a social worker with the Canadian-funded counselling service, through a translator.

The service also provides a safe house in a secret location for survivors and their families to stay, with cribs, bunk beds and toys for children, for up to 20 days while they figure out their next steps. 

On the other side of town at a shelter for women in Uzhhorod, Canada has created a safe space for the wives of Ukrainian servicemen and survivors of sexual and domestic violence to share their stories and heal.

Women of all ages gathered on couches in a sunny, plant-filled room with coffee in their hands and cookies on the table. The sound of their laughter carried through the halls.

It's called a "vilna" space, which translates to "freedom." The spaces are designed to allow women to share their feelings and interests freely. 

In the corner, one woman showed the others how to shape sugar into realistic-looking flowers. Upstairs, they swapped recipes in a shared kitchen.

But down the corridor, a woman who asked that she be identified by her first name, Tatiana, sobbed into her scarf as she recalled the terror she experienced at the hands of her boyfriend.

She said she grew up believing it was normal for sex to be transactional, and for men to demand it of her whether she wanted it or not.

"He choked me so much that I passed out," the woman said through a translator, her hands clasped tight around a tissue in her lap.

"I even contacted the police, and he — at a police station — allowed himself to say, 'I will strangle you as soon as you get out.' The police did not react."

She said her boyfriend stalked her, even paying taxi drivers to let him know when they spotted her on the street.

She said the only thing that made her feel safe was the services provided by Canada through organizations like the UN Population Fund and Nehemiah, where she could share her story without feeling judged.

She said she understood why so many women abused during the war do not want to come forward.

"Someone thinks, 'It's my fault; maybe I smiled at him so much that he did that. Or I was flirting with him. And this is my payback.' But sexual violence is a crime against a woman's consent," she said.

Gender-based violence exists in peacetime around the world, including in Canada, but Stupak said the war has made conditions for women in Russian-occupied territories even worse.

"We already have cases where the perpetrators are military personnel who have returned for 10 days of vacation," she said. "It got complicated because of perception, panic attacks, stress, chronic stress — we've been living with war for a whole year, and it's not the same life as before the war."

Canada's ambassador to Ukraine, Larisa Galadza, said Canada invests in services like this all over the world as part of its feminist foreign policy, but it is particularly important during times of conflict.

"A sad fact of war is that it increases the rates of violence, gender-based violence, and obviously conflict-related sexual violence," she said in an interview at the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital city.

Ukrainian services that would normally support survivors of domestic violence may no longer be functioning as they were before the invasion, she said.

"The tendency is to focus on providing the ammunition and the tanks and the vehicles, the humanitarian assistance and to not worry about the other stuff. Our policy ensures that we keep a broad spectrum of support, that we don't let those things drop off, because this is precisely when we need to be providing these services to women."

Tears flow immediately when Horovenko thinks about the trauma her people have endured since the invasion began — especially those who have been victims of violence.

Still, she said she is glad she has not desensitized herself to the pain. 

"Without this, you cannot help people," she said.

Even with the help of her team, she said most people will not be able to heal while the war continues, and they will never be the same.

"A traumatized person may learn to live differently, but the scar will remain," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2023.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press