This article is part of a collaboration between The Perspective Webzine and Lossi 36. The Perspective Webzine is a student based web magazine created and led by Lund University’s Association of Foreign Affairs (UPF).
When strolling around Minsk, the collapse of the Soviet Union feels far away. Stalinist architecture, serious faces in the metro, Lenin statues and the symbol of the hammer and sickle everywhere make you feel small and as if the KGB is watching your every move. Substantial military presence on the street is something you react to – but militarism and instrumental use of violence is not only promoted by top officials, it is taking place in the public sphere and in the homes of Belarusians.
In October last year, authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko rejected a law aimed at criminalizing domestic violence, stating that this is nonsense from the West, and that a “good belting could sometimes be useful for a kid”. The president did not mention violence against women specifically, but the signal that the top level of the political leadership sends to society is an acceptance of violence within the family, and where beating a person on the street or in the home has completely different implications. Other strong opponents to the law were the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, who paradoxically claimed that the law would lead to destruction of the traditional family – but what could be more destructive for a family as a unit, if not violence?
Russia decided to decriminalize the law on domestic violence in 2017, and Belarus, squeezed in between the EU and big brother Russia, has to figure out their take on the issue and decide whether to incorporate less violent ideals from the west or uphold what President Lukashenko refers to as “Slavic traditions”. It seems like the president is going for the latter.
The statistics are stark. Men account for a majority of perpetrators and the biggest victims of this society are its women. Every second woman in Belarus has at some point experienced psychological violence or stalking, 28 percent of women have experienced physical violence and 7 percent have experienced sexual violence. However, under-reporting and methodological issues are common when measuring Intimate Partner Violence – the numbers might even be higher. It is also common that women don’t even identify violence as violence because it is socially accepted within a relationship.
Belarus has been torn apart in several wars throughout history, moreover high levels of militarism and control from the state socializes an acceptance of violence. A patriarchal heritage from the Soviet Union still exists and both men and women are defined by gender norms. The Russian proverb B’jot – znachit ljubit is widely used, which, if translated literally, means “if he beats you, then it means he loves you”. This socializes women to accept violence, and legitimizes men to use it.
The problem is systematic by nature and everything is interconnected. High levels of unemployment and a cultural acceptance of alcohol consumption equals high rates of alcoholism. Although it is not a root cause, it leads to an escalation of violence. Violence is also inter-generational; if you experienced violence as a kid you are more likely to use or accept the use of violence in your adult life, which on a societal level creates a never-ending cycle of violence.
Belarus has the longest paid maternity leave in the world. Men have right to two weeks unpaid leave, while women stay at home for three years. This disconnects women from the labour market, complete dependency on their husbands and contributes to the current gender pay gap of 25 percent. This dependency means that women tend to stay in their relationships as they don’t have the financial means to leave.
If a woman reports a violent incident, the response from the police is usually based on the individual officer’s personal engagement in the case. Their reporting often lead to the family being marked as a “family under risk”. This in turn means that social workers workers will visit the family and eventually remove any children. The ironic part is that women are seen as solely responsible for the well-being of the family, and so the questioning by social workers indirectly blame women for the violence taking place. The lack of effectiveness in the Belarusian system leads to under-reporting and signals an acceptance of violence, as state institutions are not dealing with the issue properly. Not surprisingly, a lot of calls from women to the national support hotline in the country reveal that perpetrators often are KGB, military or police officers. This further increases women’s distrust in the authorities’ will to respond to incidents of domestic violence and is indicating how acceptance of violence is socialized throughout all segments of society.
The situation is not hopeless though, as there are many efforts from proactive women’s rights groups and multilateral organizations that are working for change and saying no to violence. Even some of the ministries are working actively with the issue, although they are not supported by the president. These efforts need to continue to come from all levels of society together. Raising awareness about the economic cost and individual suffering caused by violence is the first step to adjusting Belarus’ patriarchal mentality – and the country is showing the first signs of being willing to consider those adjustments – even if the president is not.
Emma Lygnerud Boberg is a masters student at the International Development and Management program at Lund University, Sweden. Her main interests are post-Soviet states and gender issues. Emma has previous experience from working in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus as well as for the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida).