Profiling Domestic Abuse in Belarus

Image from genderperspectives.by

The first and only Belarusian national hot line for domestic violence prevention celebrated its four-year anniversary in August, 2016. Since 2012 it has received 8,445 phone calls.

The Belarusian non-profit “Gender Perspectives” runs the hotline from Minsk. They pioneered the much-needed service, creating a point of entry for women who found themselves in dire circumstances.

The number of calls reveals the tip of the iceberg when it comes to violence against women in Belarus. In July the Facebook campaign #IamNotAfraidToSayIt generated multiple personal accounts of gender-based violence against women in Belarus. These stories had remained mostly untold until then, which means they were also not reflected in any available data.

The hotline data serves as the only reliable alternative to the official national statistics on domestic violence, which come from both the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection.

Police reports provide important insight into the number of crimes, while the victim rehabilitation services fall under the purview of the Ministry of Labour. In this sense Belarus follows its own path, as most European countries have resolved that the non-profit sector serves the interests of these clients best.

Stories of love and death

The story of Lyubov (the Russian for ‘love’) Tkacheva shocked Belarusian society. On 10 August, 2016 her ex-husband, Vladimir Tkachev, who terrorized her for 15 years after their divorce in 2001, stabbed her 44 times with a knife around 4:00 pm at her workplace in Fanipal (a town just 25 km outside of the capital city of Minsk).

Vladimir Tkachev does not fit the police's official profile of a batterer. The police continue to claim that domestic violence predominately plagues low-income families with alcohol and drug abuse problems. In this regard, Vladimir Tkachev stands out as a former head of the Dziarzhynsk executive city council, a town just outside of Minsk and next to Fanipal, where the murder took place.

The murder gained public resonance because of its brutality, but also because Tkachev held a prominent government position. This underscores the refrain of experts at the hotline: No woman is safe from abuse. Over the course of four years they have received phone calls from doctors and teachers, directors and unemployed women, whose husbands abused them.

A few details of this murder are especially striking: firstly, the obvious lack of accountability by law enforcement, who having received multiple calls from Ms. Tkacheva, failed to protect her, and secondly, the impunity of the abuser. Lyubov Tkacheva's daughter has told tut.by that her mother called the police multiple times.

In the beginning they could not do anything, as Tkachev was a local authority. Later, when he lost power, they also got divorced, which once again made him immune to domestic violence charges according to the current legislation. Impunity breeds more crime.

Profile of an abuser

As part of their analysis of the past four years, the hot line put together a profile of a Belarusian victim of domestic violence. It is a woman (94% of all calls), who resides in Minsk or Minsk region (34% and 11% accordingly) with a husband (54%) and has one or two young children (72%). According to research data published by the UN, every fourth woman in Belarus has experienced physical abuse in an intimate relationship.

The Ministry of the Interior pinpoints three most common characteristics of abusers: unemployment, previous incarceration, and alcohol. In fact, they claim that in the first seven months of 2016 58% of all domestic violence abusers neither studied nor worked, 24% of them previously served prison sentences, and in 73% of all criminal cases offenders were intoxicated.

The total number of domestic violence cases in Belarus reached 1,598 in the first seven months of 2016. This might seems small, and amounts to only 3% of all criminal cases, yet these statistics cause alarm among law enforcement, because out of 248 murders in Belarus in 2016, 68 or every 4th murder was committed in a family setting.

The hotline data paints a somewhat different picture of an abuser. While 57% of all abusers have alcohol or drug abuse history, women report that in 79% of all cases abusers' violent and abusive actions are not driven by alcohol or drugs.

People still rely on gender stereotypes to explain domestic violence, blaming male aggression on alcohol and women's provocative actions. After futile attempts to seek protection, women usually choose to escape. Although hot line specialists recommend calling the police, many women see no point and become disillusioned.

Anna Korshun, the manager of the hotline says,

We have access to unique data that help us identify gaps in protection of women in domestic violence situations. For example, we see that many victims are still unaware of the existence of restraining orders, and the most common form of redress remains a fine, which is usually taken out of the family budget.

Accomplishments and challenges

It seems that some changes have made a difference. In 2014 a major legislation amendment resulted in greater protection for women and children.

The revised law introduced the short-term eviction order stipulating that the domestic violence abuser should leave the residence if he commits a domestic violence crime. In 2015 the police served 1,422 of restraining orders.

While this might be a step in the right direction, major legal gaps allow for abusers to remain unpunished. Women's rights advocates argue that Belarus needs a domestic violence law similar to the legislation existing in most European countries, and, for instance, in neighbouring Ukraine.

Instead of patching up the old Soviet-style criminal and administrative codes, Belarus could benefit from a comprehensive overhaul of domestic violence law, stipulating both the rights of victims and accountability for the abuser.

Meanwhile, the hot line continues to struggle financially and face limitations. They come from both internal and external conditions. The internal limitations include providing services only through telephone. Callers receive legal (32%), and psychological assistance (62%). 97% sought emotional support in developing and discussing a safety plan, and sought more information on available services. But what happens if a woman needs immediate and very real help?

This brings up the issue of external limitations faced by the hot line. Hot lines primarily serve as a point of entry for a clients into the system. In other words, a caller can gain access to information about the availability of services. Problems arise when available services are limited or of low quality.

The hot line bears the grunt of customers’ dissatisfaction. In more dire circumstances, hot line specialists may simply feel helpless, just like most of their female callers.

Galina is an independent consultant for UN in gender equality and domestic violence prevention, currently works at Emerge in Boston, MA, a Batterer Intervention Programme.

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