Kiev, Ukraine – When Tamara’s son Maxim was sent to fight in eastern Ukraine by the Ukrainian army, he did not want to go but believed he had to.
After a battle against the rebels near the town of Debaltseve , which saw some of the conflict’s most intense fighting, he came home a different person – at times quieter, and at other times more easily agitated at the people around him.
“They have been taken from a normal life and they were thrown into fighting,” said Tamara, who requested that her last name not be used. “Of course, they have unusual reactions for us.”
After two weeks home with his mother, Maxim cut his break short and went back to the front lines.
Since last year, when pro-Russian rebels took over parts of east Ukraine, more than 6,500 people have been killed. Despite a ceasefire that took effect in February, the conflict has continued.
The stress of having her 25-year-old son fighting in a war eventually changed 45-year-old Tamara, too. She said she lost most of her friends as a result.
“I was living in another world with other problems… I did not just become more emotional, I even became aggressive,” Tamara said.
To deal with her problems, Tamara sought the help of a Kiev-based women’s organisation called Public Movement of Empowering Women in Ukraine.
She found volunteer Tatiana Korbut, who has helped soldiers and their families with emotional problems since the conflict began.
Like other soldiers, Maxim had sudden outbursts and became aggressive if a sensitive topic were raised in the wrong way, Korbut noted.
“The guys on the front line, they are quiet, quiet, quiet – and just something small happens and they explode.”
Korbut said many men have divorced because of the increased aggression and their inability to connect with loved ones.
This aggression is contributing to a rise in domestic abuse in Ukraine, according to Ukrainian NGO La Strada, which runs a hotline for people needing help with domestic violence, human trafficking, and gender discrimination.
In 2014, the hotline received 7,725 calls, two-thirds of which involved domestic violence. The first four months of 2015 have seen a 30 percent increase in the average number of calls.
Domestic violence under-reported
Military families are not the only ones experiencing higher rates of abuse. La Strada spokesperson Aliona Zubchenko said Ukraine’s economic crisis has been a major source of stress for people who are also surrounded by images of violence and reports of deaths.
“They become more aggressive in [their] families and as a result of it, men and women start to [hurt] their children or men start to [hurt] their wives,” Zubchenko explained.
La Strada’s 70 employees – who work with social workers, teachers and police across the country – have also noticed an increase in domestic violence. And, unlike previous years, they are witnessing more aggression from children.
In the NGO’s office, posters show Vasyl Virastyuk – who won a “Strongest Man Alive” competition – holding a red card alongside the words “No domestic violence.”
Domestic abuse and gender-based violence are significantly under-reported in Ukraine, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative in the country, and statistics are hard to gather. Due to a deeply rooted stigma, victims often feel too embarrassed to talk about it.
A survey by the UNFPA in 2014 found that 22 percent of women in Ukraine aged 15 to 49 reported experiencing physical or sexual violence, most often committed by a current or former partner.
However, the connection between conflicts and domestic violence is so strong that there is little doubt that Ukraine is seeing an increase from the levels reported by last year’s survey, according to Nuzhat Ehsan, Ukraine’s representative for the UNFPA, which handles gender-based violence for the United Nations.
Families who have loved ones fighting in east Ukraine often have to deal with a specific challenge: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Fighters become used to the high adrenaline rush, and when they go back to normal life this mind-set remains, according to Anna, a therapist for Health Right, an NGO that helps victims of abuse in Ukraine.
“Even the people who didn’t show any aggression before being at war, after coming back started to act aggressively,” said Anna, who did not want to give her last name because of safety concerns for her clients.
Stigma against seeking help
However, many men who suffer from PTSD do not want to seek help because of stereotypical notions in Ukraine that this would be a sign of weakness. As a result, many turn to alcohol instead.
“It’s so rigid, that this is what a woman should be and what a man should be,” said Ehsan.
UNFPA is launching a campaign this month portraying men doing housework, to show that husbands can help out at home and still be masculine.
Only one-third of victims of physical or sexual violence seek help, according to a UNFPA survey. Those who do, find there are few resources available to them. There is no standard police procedure to deal with allegations of domestic abuse, and few shelter spaces or trained personnel.
The Ukrainian government laid off more than 500 social workers in Kiev last year, although funding has returned for about 100 positions, according to Lyudmila Cherkashyna, a deputy director of a government centre, the Kyiv City Centre of Social Services for Families, Children and Youth, that runs special programmes for wives of soldiers and pro-government fighters.
There has been a 12 percent increase in requests for help from Cherkashyna’s centre, although she said many do not want to seek help from a public institution because of lack of confidence in the government.
At the same time, the centre cannot meet the current demand because it does not have enough specialists to help.
Cherkashyna said she has also heard from the women she has spoken with, that abuse has gotten worse over the last year. However, victims usually only reveal the full extent of the abuse if they leave their partners.
“If it doesn’t come to divorce,” she explained, “it doesn’t come out”.