Authorities breaking silence on harassment and gender-based violence in Belarus

While the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements gained momentum in the West, Belarusian society remained on the margins of the raging global debates of sexual harassment.

Yet public discussions of harassment, abuse, and gender-based violence are not new phenomena for Belarus. In 2016, Belarusian women participated in the #IAmNotAfraidToSayIt campaign, revealing everyday experiences of abuse as well as a lack of necessary mechanisms to protect the victims.

The long-awaited improvements might be on the way – at the start of 2018, Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs announced the project of a new law against domestic violence. Planned innovations should introduce revolutionary changes into the practice of dealing with abuse in families and beyond, banning physical punishment of children and re-educating abusers.

Law enforcement vs. domestic violence

Belarus does not have reliable statistical data on gender-based violence, but according to the UNFPA, about 77 per cent of Belarusian women experienced different forms of violence at some point in time.

Annually, Belarusian law enforcement authorities receive about 150,000 calls reporting domestic violence. Out of these, 50,000 results in civil cases. As a punishment, the abuser often has to pay fines, which places a financial burden on the family as well, thus discouraging women to report these crimes. The remaining 100,000 known cases of abuse go unpunished, not to mention the unreported violence.

Source: progomel.by

Prosecuted crimes usually amount merely to 2,000 cases per year, making up about 3 per cent of all crimes. Last year, in 2,264 criminal cases, most of the perpetrators were male, while the victims tended to be female or children.

Currently, Belarusian Criminal Code contains five articles on serious sexual crimes, while the 2014 law on crime prevention regulates some of the aspects connected to the domestic crimes. For instance, this law introduced the practice of restraining orders, limiting the contacts between the abuser and the victim and evicting the abuser from a common place of residence.

In 2017, Belarusian law-enforcing authorities issued over 4,400 restraining orders. Yet these can be issued only following the third charge of domestic abuse within a year, while the victims often might need such protection immediately. There is also no punishment for the breach of the restraining order yet. Existing legal gaps and a vulnerable situation of victims call for a comprehensive legislation.

Ambitious plans for the new domestic violence law

The project of a new law, announced in early 2018, would significantly extend the definitions of domestic violence and introduce new norms, according to the head of the Department of Crime Prevention at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Aleh Karazei. Among the future innovations are definitions of harassment and economic aspects of domestic violence, a ban on physical punishments of children and punishment of stalking.

Aleh Karazei, Source: tut.by

For crime prevention purposes, the Ministry also has in mind to expand the definition of domestic abusers, including in this category ex-spouses or grown-up children, who do not share the same accommodation, yet often abuse their former spouses or senior parents.

Law enforcement agencies also suggest the introduction of special correctional programs for the abusers, to prevent violence in a non-punitive way. However, currently, neither the authorities nor the NGOs have the necessary capacities to ensure full coverage of these services.

In a commentary to Radio Svaboda, the co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Pavel Seviarynec doubted the law enforcement authorities’ ability to deal with the gender-based violence.

He stressed that this kind of violence roots in a “cult of violence on a state level” tolerated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, whose head, Ihar Šunevič, appeared in the NKVD uniform in public. Along with hypocrisy accusations, Seviarynec also suggested that a new law could be abused as a way to extract more money through fines.

However, the greater obstacle to a progressive legislation might be the patriarchal character of Belarusian society and its conservative mentality. As Karazei admitted himself, these stereotypes affect the law-makers and law-enforcers likewise, slowing down development of gender-based violence prevention regulations.

Problematising harassment in a patriarchal society

Collective Security Treaty Organization Summit in November 2017, Belarusian president ensures that every participant has female company. Source: belaruspartisan.org

The #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment of women did not reveal high-profile abusers in Belarus.  The media debated only one case with Belarusian connection within this campaign – in October 2017, the Ukrainian gymnast Tatiana Gutsu accused the Belarusian athlete Vital Ščerba of raping her back in 1991 when she was a 15-year old teenager.

Discussions in the media reflected the ambiguous response of the Belarusian society to these accusations, doubting the credibility of the victim and accusing her of attempts to ruin On 12 January 2018, the independent Naša Niva newspaper published an article by Kaciaryna Karpickaja, reflecting on the #MeToo campaign and telling a story of sexual harassment at a Belarusian State University. Its female graduates shared stories on Facebook about one of the professors, who used to make vulgar jokes and made female students line up according to their breast size.

Yet as comments to the article show, Belarusian society is not yet ready to support the victims, blaming them for seeking profit through the use of their good looks. Belarusian regime further cements this stereotype, as for instance, the protocol service of the Belarusian president prefers to hire young model-like girls to provide entourage during summits, official visits, and other public events.

At the end of the day, legal initiatives from above will bear fruit only when there is a willingness of society to go all the way towards the elimination of various aspects of harassment and gender-based violence.




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. 

Volha Charnysh