#IamNotAfraidToSayIt: Belarusian Women Speak out against Sexual Violence

In July 2016, Belarusian Facebook users showed support for the initiative #IamNotAfraidToSayIt (#янебаюсясказаць in Belarusian). Originally a Facebook post by a Ukrainian journalist against gender-based violence, it quickly grew into a spontaneous online phenomenon which transcended borders.

The campaign addressed the sexual assault, abuse, molestation, and harassment regularly faced by women of all ages in the post-Soviet world.

As well as revealing the extent of gender-based violence, it also highlighted the indifference of Belarusian society to female victims, who are often neglected after traumatising experiences of assault and harassment.

#IAmNotAfraidToSayIt

On 5 July 2016, Ukrainian civil society activist Anastasiya Melnychenko wrote a public post on Facebook with the hashtag "IAmNotAfraidToSayIt," in which she shared her views on the lenient attitudes in society towards sexual assault and abuse against women.

Many other women also felt the need to draw attention to the hidden problem of gender-based violence. A Facebook post thus sparked a large-scale phenomenon on social networks across borders, as women in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus joined the initiative.

An unexpected flood of personal stories brought numerous cases of hidden violence against women and children in Belarus to light. These were not usually reflected in official crime statistics.

Almost immediately, this initiative became controversial on social networks. Some criticised women for going public with this topic, arguing that it might re-traumatise victims and open up old wounds among members of its intended audience, who could not always find the strength to speak out publicly about their traumas.

Other reactions revealed that the problems of sexual violence and abuse still remain a taboo in patriarchal post-Soviet societies, which often blame women themselves for the violence. From this angle, appearing in public in a mini-skirt, wearing make-up, or walking alone at night can be interpreted as provocative behaviour.

These stereotypes force victims to feel guilty and suppress their trauma, as a result of which they often choose not to come forward and report offenders. #IAmNotAfraidToSayIt targeted precisely these stereotypes, raising awareness and encouraging women to speak up and stop feeling ashamed. Finally, it helped many victims recognise that they are not alone.

Isolation of victims

#IamNotAfraidToSayIt illustrated that violence and abuse of women remain both invisible and omnipresent in post-Soviet societies. The online campaign also succeeded in highlighting the scope of the problem, especially as official statistics fail to reflect gender violence in full.

For instance, in 2015 the Belarusian Ministry of the Interior reported only 145 criminal cases (or 0.15% of all crimes) of rape or attempted rape. The majority of convicted rapists received prison sentences from 5 to 8 years.

Data on domestic violence in Belarus appears more comprehensive. According to a 2014 assessment by the UNFPA, over 77% of women experienced various forms of violence: physical, psychological, and economic. Over 18% became victims of sexual assault. Yet these numbers reflect only those cases where victims chose to seek help outside.

Current Belarusian legislation lacks clear definitions for sexual harassment and abuse, along with procedures for prosecuting crimes. In 2015, The Belarusian Ministry of the Interior started drafting a law on prevention of domestic violence, yet it still remains in development. At the same time, current Belarusian legislation does not provide full protection of victims of less serious cases of molestation and harassment.

Besides the inadequate legislation, complicated procedures in reporting and proving sexual crimes to the police discourage many women from coming forward and speaking out against offenders. These women are mostly left alone with their traumas.

This is especially common for cases of groping on public transit or sexual assault in the workplace. So far, only one article of the Belarusian Criminal Code addresses sexual harassment, failing to provide clear definitions and guidelines for prosecuting such crimes.

Why does “no” not mean “no”?

Data gathered from a UNFPA sociological survey indicate that in over 86% of cases, men are the ones perpetuating acts of gender violence. This is on par with the level of aggression against women in Russia and Ukraine. The findings also revealed that consumption of alcohol was the leading cause of violence.

Currently, a number of campaigns are attempting to raise public awareness and sensitivity to various forms of violence, similarly to #IamNotAfraidToSayIt. For instance, in 2016 the Belarusian web portal Tut.by put out a series of publications entitled “Home and Violence.” UN agencies also assist Belarusian authorities in implementing initiatives on preventing violence and transforming public views about masculinity. In 2015, they launched the so-called “orange campaign,” focused on prevention of gender-based violence.

As of 2016, 109 crisis rooms for victims of domestic violence operate throughout Belarus. However, this initiative lacks true commitment to protecting victims. For instance, to use these crisis rooms, a woman must report an assault to the police, which prevents many from seeking help there.

Last but not least, the success of these campaigns rests on the readiness of Belarusian society to abandon its condescending attitude towards feminism. Currently, the public perceives it as a movement of militant male-haters, rather than a struggle for basic human rights. In other words, society refuses to rid itself of the gender stereotypes which are the root of the violence .

For instance, in June 2015, the leader of the party Belarusian Christian Democracy Paviel Seviaryniec rashly commented that feminism was a pastime for unhappy people. Even though in practise Belarusian conservatives do not object to female leadership in their ranks, such public statements clearly attest to the longevity of gender stereotypes.

This summer, Belarusian women showed that they will not remain silent about crime, no matter how traumatic and psychologically difficult it is for them. It is up to the state to respond to them with the same level of trust and support.

Besides amending the legislation, Belarus needs an effective long-term strategy to guarantee greater protection against all forms of violent behaviour. In particular, it should introduce comprehensive education strategies to promote a change in the people's mentality.

Lizaveta Kasmach is a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, Canada.

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