#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.
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.
Holocaust Discourse Raises Controversy in Belarus
During her speech on 12 June 2016 in New York, Belarusian Nobel laureate in literature Sviatlana Alexievich criticised Poles for actively murdering Jews during World War II.
The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately reacted with a protest note demanding explanation and an apology from Alexievich. Sviatlana Alexievich had to elaborate on her position in an interview with a Polish journalist later. In the meantime Belarusian bloggers and journalists condemned her words.
On 8 July 2016 vandals poured paint on the "The Pit", a memorial sculptural complex devoted to the liquidated inhabitants of the Minsk ghetto. This issue was not widely reported by the Belarusian media and was ignored by the state as well.
This was the first time people desecrated the Holocaust memorial in central Minsk in years. However, it reflects the problematic nature of memory politics in Belarus. It also shows that the Belarusian public remains unprepared to fully reflect on the Holocaust and would rather speak out when the discussion focuses on neighbouring countries.
Memory of the Holocaust in independent Belarus
Traditionally marginalised and suppressed in the Soviet Union, Holocaust discourse had a chance to emerge in independent Belarus.
However, in the early 1990s Belarusians seemed too preoccupied with their own identity, economic problems, and nation and state building to begin discussing the Holocaust. Belarusian historians were busy trying to research and fill the numerous blank pages in Belarusian national history. Politicians were involved in political and economic problems accompanying Belarus’s transition to an independent state.
History textbooks for schools and universities provided little information about the Holocaust, and scholars had other. The authorities did not speak much about that episode of Belarusian history despite the revival of the Great Patriotic War cult in the official ideology following the election of Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
The politics of memory under Lukashenka
Lukashenka made the Great Patriotic War one of the key elements of the state ideology. Two of the main official holidays in Belarus commemorate the Great Patriotic War – Victory Day and Independence Day. The Independence Day celebrations changed from the day Belarus became independent from the USSR (27th of July) to the day Minsk was liberated (3rd of July) as a result of a referendum in 1996.
A subject called “The History of the Great Patriotic War” entered syllabuses at all universities in 2005 following Lukashenka’s order. The same year, the authorities opened "Stalin's Line," a historical-cultural complex “to become a symbol of a heroic struggle of the Soviet people against German-fascist invaders,” as the complex’s web-site states.
The Holocaust was practically excluded from the new politics of memory in Belarus. The massacre of hundreds of thousands of Jews on Belarusian territory by Nazis and their collaborators – often local – is muted during official speeches by the president on Victory and Independents Days.
This topic has still not entered mainstream public discourse, although some positive steps have been taken, including the erection of bronze statues at “The Pit” memorial in 2000. "The Pit" was initially founded in 1967 and was first visited by Lukashenka in 2008.
The erection of 45 new Holocaust memorials between 2005 and 2010 and the participation of Belarusian officials in the 65th and 70th anniversaries of the liquidation of the Minsk ghetto also mark an improvement in Holocaust memory politics in Belarus.
However, guring his presidency Lukashenka afforded himself being derogatory when speaking about Jews. One of the latest incidents was in April 2016 when the Belarusian president publicly asked the then Head of Hrodna region Siamion Shapira “to take all Jews under [Shapira’s] control”. This request stemmed from the fact that tut.by, an independent news portal owned by the Jewish Yury Ziser, published articles criticising a new law “on social parasites."
Lukashenka later explained that the year before Shapira had been asked to take control over Jews in Belarus, but Ziser's independent behaviour was not acceptable to the Belarusian president. Later Shapira said that this situation was not insulting to him although many other Belarusian Jews and Belarusians expressed their dissatisfaction with Lukashenka’s words.
The prospects of Holocaust discourse
Overall, the problem of silence surrounding the Holocaust in memory politics remains relevant in Belarus both on official and unofficial levels. Both the Belarusian state and the Belarusian public are very much distanced from that part of their history due to current historical discourse. Anti-Jewish clichés occasionally are articulated even on the official level since Soviet Union times.
Belarusians seem to be unready and unwilling to uncover the dark sides of their past. The fact that the Jewish population in Belarus decreases with each census means that it it unlikely that local Jews will force Belarusians to answer uncomfortable questions about the Holocaust.
At present, writer and Nobel Prize winner Sviatlana Alexievich is one of very few Belarusians willing to publicly discuss the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Her intellectual status and popularity might finally attract some public attention to historical memory problems in Belarus.
However, Belarusians appear to be more eager to discuss Alexievich’s words regarding Polish attitudes towards Jews during World War II in her New York speech than to pay attention to her interview with The Voice of America four days later.
The writer named the liquidation of the Jews in Belarus during the WWII as one of the reasons for the lack of elites in Belarus today. In her opinion this is also to blame for the longevity of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s rule.