Empowering Belarusian Women to Combat Domestic Violence

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Every fourth woman in Belarus has been physically abused by her partner. Just in the last three months, 24 Belarusians have died as a result of domestic violence, a 41% increase from last year.

For decades, impunity for such abuse has persisted in Belarus, a country with a traditional view on a women’s place in society and a troublesome human rights record for both men and women. Domestic violence is finally becoming a public issue and preventative and punitive measures are being taken. 

On 16 April, changes to the Law on the Prevention of Offences entered into force. The law now stipulates that first-time domestic offenders shall receive a warning, while second-time offenders may have to leave the premises for up to thirty days.

The campaign “Homes Without Violence” will run from the 15th to 30th of April to convey that domestic abuse is a serious crime. Earlier this year, an international seminar on combating violence against women introduced the Belarusian police to foreign expertise. 

In the long term, however, punitive measures have limits. Only empowering women and changing the cultural norms regarding gender roles can fully eradicate domestic abuse. Given the prevalence of gender stereotypes among the rank and file, as well as political elite, this could take a long time. 

The Extent of the Problem

Belarus does not collect statistics on domestic violence or its impact on the lives of women and their families. The most recent survey on the prevalence of domestic violence, carried out in 2008, focused on women considered to have had some “family life experience” and living in the urban areas of the country.

The survey uncovered that every fourth woman has experienced physical violence, every fifth - economic violence, and every seventh - sexual violence from their male partners. The table below shows the prevalence of domestic abuse in other countries, using the estimates by Astra Women's Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health. 

The 2012 survey on the situation of children and women in Belarus carried out by the National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) provides more recent information about the scale of the problem. Over 8,000 men and women participated.

According to the survey, 11.8% of women aged 15-49 said they had been abused - physically, psychologically, economically or sexually – by their husband or intimate partner. Women living in rural areas are 6% more likely to experience violence than women who live in cities. Despite this high rate, only 4% of women and men said that domestic violence was acceptable. 

Factors Correlated with Domestic Violence

A typical Belarusian domestic bully is a man in his thirties or forties, intoxicated and unemployed, according to Oleg Karazei, Head of the Prevention Office of the Central Department for Law Enforcement and Prevention of the Belarusian Interior Ministry. Thus, a high level of alcohol consumption, economic problems, and the lower status of women may contribute to the high prevalence of domestic violence in Belarus. 

While alcohol usage itself does not cause domestic violence, many studies have pointed to a strong association between alcohol abuse and violence toward an intimate partner. Alcoholism is a serious problem in Belarus. In 2011, Belarus ranked 10th among 188 countries in alcohol consumption, according to the World Health Organisation. 

Second, studies show that abuse often occurs when couples are experiencing financial strain. Economic problems also significantly reduce a victim’s ability to leave and seek help. Belarus has one of the lowest poverty rates of any post-Soviet state.

At the same time, the country experienced a severe economic crisis in 2011, and the economy has not fully recovered since. According to a survey by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political studies (IISEPS), nearly half of respondents "could hardly make both ends meet; there was not enough money even for food" or "had enough money for food, however purchasing clothes caused serious difficulties".

The Role of Culture and Gender Roles

Most important, the prevalence of domestic violence correlates with the status of women and cultural norms regarding gender roles. On the one hand, the law treats women and men in Belarus equally. The country has acceded to all major relevant international conventions related to the rights of women, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Women’s Convention) and 
its Optional Protocol.

On the other hand, discrimination against women on the job market and the so-called “glass ceiling” remain prevalent. Patriarchal notions of a woman's role in the family pervade the social and political sphere. Belarusian women are largely responsible for child upbringing, and President Lukashenka himself views women primarily as “keepers of hearth and home". For example, in 2010 he said, "It is undeniable that the Lord has ordained a woman to be a mother. Regardless of a woman's career, she has to care for her children. I want our women to give birth to at least three children." 

Gender stereotypes make violence easier to justify and can prevent women from reporting abuse. Cultural norms play a large role in the way women choose to respond to violence. Women in Belarus, as well as in other post-Soviet states, are expected "not to wash their dirty laundry in public".

This is why the 2012 study found that only 39.7% of women who were abused sought help from others, such as law enforcement officials, medical professionals, or even friends and relatives. Police officers, who are  predominantly male, are also not immune to cultural norms and may see domestic violence as a private issue, which lowers their interest in investigating it.

Serious Consequences of Domestic Abuse 

The effects of domestic violence go beyond the adverse health consequences experienced by the immediate victims of abuse. Domestic violence destroys families. Belarus already has one of the highest divorce rates in the world; in 2013 there were 414 divorces for every 1000 marriages in the country. The high prevalence of domestic violence may be partially responsible for contributing to this problem.

Domestic violence may also exacerbate the problem of the trafficking of women. According to research by The Advocates for Human Rights in Moldova and Ukraine, women abused at home may seek work abroad and agree to uncertain and risky job conditions. Women’s NGOs in Belarus also view domestic violence as a push factor for human trafficking. Belarus remains a source and transit country for the trafficking of women.

The US State Department has placed Belarus on a tier 2 watch list, alongside other post-Communist states. Tier 2 includes around 90 countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards for combating trafficking, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards. 

Long-term Solutions to Domestic Violence

Belarus has made substantial progress in addressing the problem. In addition to the preventative and punitive legal measures discussed above, both governmental and non-governmental organisations have taken practical steps to help victims of violence.

The first Belarusian rehabilitation centre for women and children affected by violence appeared in 1998. Today, 149 such centres exist, in addition to smaller shelters managed by non-governmental organisations and religious institutions.

The rehabilitation centres provide psychological and legal assistance, as well as social support for the victims of domestic violence. Public awareness campaigns can also help address the problem by slowly changing the public's attitude toward domestic abuse. 

To eliminate domestic violence in the long term, however, the root causes of the phenomenon need to be tackled. Economic and social empowerment of women can contribute to changing the cultural norms that are permissive of domestic violence. 

Volha Charnysh

Volha Charnysh is an analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre, the Executive Editor of Belarus Digest and a PhD Candidate in Government at Harvard University.

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