Empowering Belarusian Women to Combat Domestic Violence
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.
Belarusian Science: Gerontocratic, Isolated, and Unproductive
At the end of March, Aleksander Lukashenka gathered the management of Belarus' scientific institutions and top government officials to discuss the problems of Belarusian science.
The meeting revealed that much of what the National Academy of Sciences brands as its cutting-edge achievements are simply revamped successful projects from Soviet times and have no breakthrough value today.
Two major factors that explain the low productivity of Belarusian science have to do with ageing researchers and their international isolation. These problems stem, among other things, from poor financing and restrictive bureaucratic rules.
Whereas the government cannot overcome its budget constraints quickly and increase expenditures on research-and-development dramatically, it could, at least, change the rules that hinder the internationalisation of Belarusian science.
In Aleksander Lukashenka’s opinion, Belarusian scientists fail to deliver world-class results. At the meeting in March, he named only a few noticeable achievements from recent years: the creation of a supercomputer, a Belarusian satellite, a medicine that fights cancer, transgenic goats, and the establishment of a centre for cellular technology.
Independent experts, however, criticise even these achievements. According to the former President of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Alexander Vaitovich, the satellite that the authorities take pride in has only one Belarusian component and its creation dates back to the 1970s. And the widely advertised Belarusian supercomputer hardly breaks into a Top-30 list of similar technologies in a ranking of Commonwealth of Independent States, not to mention world rankings.
The statistics of the State Committee of Science and Technologies that demonstrate a 75% growth in the number of registered intellectual property patents in recent years were not very impressive for Lukashenka. He demanded real global-level breakthroughs that would expedite the economic development of the country.
two factors account for the current state of things: a growing gerontocracy and international isolation of Belarusian scientists Read more
But the situation has failed to improve recently. And at least two factors account for the current state of things: a growing gerontocracy and international isolation of Belarusian scientists.
Compared to 1985, the number of scientists in Belarus has decreased by 30% and their average age has risen considerably. According to a study by Andrei Laurukhin of the European Humanities University, today pensioners make up more than 60% of all the professors and more than 40% of the kandidatskaya degree (a PhD analogue) holders. In 1988 these numbers stood at 35.8% and 5.9% respectively.
Humanities, social and natural sciences have experienced the biggest damage. For example, the share of humanities representatives in the overall number of Belarusian scientists has faced a sevenfold decline since 1988.
Financial shortages appear to be the main culprit behind why many young Belarusians refuse to choose careers in research or look for academic opportunities abroad. In 2013, all scientific organisations combined in Belarus received about $250 million in government funding, which equalled 0.46% of the GDP. Companies’ investments in R&D, according to the State Committee of Science and Technologies, were even smaller.
Compared with developed countries, these figures look modest. The average level in the EU stays at 2-2.5% of the GDP. And the world’s average is about 1.7% of a country's GDP.
In a regional context, Belarus also lags behind most of its neighbours. According to the Research and Development Expenditure study by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, in 2012 Belarus outperformed only Lithuania.
Such low numbers result, among other things, in poor salaries for Belarusian scientists. The average salary of a NAS associate is around $450-550 a month. To put it into a regional perspective, the average salary at the Russian Academy of Sciences hovers around $1,100. One can hardly expect the best Belarusian scientists to stay in research institutions at home considering such a striking imbalance.
Not surprisingly, therefore, an estimated 4,000-5,000 researchers have left Belarus since the mid-1990s. And fewer and fewer young Belarusians aspire to become scientists in their native country.
Another reason for the low productivity of Belarusian science – its international isolation – results from specific government policies in this field. Thus, one can even call it self-isolation.
In 2004, a presidential decree established a list of journals regarded as scientific in Belarus. The list contains no original English-language periodicals. In other words, the leading international academic journals with the highest impact factor indicators have no proper legal status in Belarus. Whether Belarusian researchers can refer to such “illegal” journals in their dissertations depends on the goodwill of the Highest Attestation Commission (VAK), a governmental body that oversees the awarding of advanced academic degrees.
Obviously, this does not stimulate Belarusian researchers to monitor world-leading journals and submit their papers to them. Instead, they have an incentive to keep track of Russian language journals, the majority of which do not enjoy real recognition by the international scientific community.
As a result, Belarusian scientists and research institutes remain chronic outsiders in the Hirsch index (h-index), which measures the productivity and impact of scientific publications in the world. Belarusian researchers’ impact is absolutely marginal in a global context, which also points to the isolation issue.
Last year, only three Belarusian academic institutes had a reasonably good h-index:
- The Scientific and Research Institute of Physics and Chemistry Problems at the Belarusian State University;
- The Physics Institute at the National Academy of Sciences;
- The Belarusian State University.
Others had a low or zero h-index, which means that the majority of Belarusian researchers make no contribution to global science at all. Their publications go unnoticed by colleagues across the globe and stay within the attention of very limited audience.
One may argue that the Belarusian authorities cannot resolve the issue of low budget allocations on sciences very quickly as the economic situation in the country grows more precarious by the quarter.
Within the existing economic model, they even have difficulty stimulating R&D expenditures by companies. Still, they could at least amend the restrictive rules that literally keep Belarusian science isolated from the rest of the world.
This would be a more effective measure than increasing the productivity of Belarusian science by means of multiple meetings in the presidential office.