When strolling around in 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 are watching your every move. The substantial military presence on the street is something you react to and the militarism and instrumental use of violence is not only promoted from the top officials, it is taking place in the public sphere and the homes of Belorussians.
In October last year, authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko rejected a law that aimed to criminalize domestic violence, and stated that it is nonsense from the West, and that “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 the 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 the 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 the President Lukashenka refers to as “Slavic traditions”. It seems like the president is going for the latter.
The statistics are stark. Men account for the 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% of women have experienced physical violence and 7% 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 and there is a high level of militarism and control from the state which socialize 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 (“Бьёт – значит любит”) 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 lead to high rates of alcoholism and although it is not a root cause, it leads to escalation of violence. Violence is also inter-generational, where if you experience 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 leads to a never-ending cycle of violence.
Belarus has the longest paid maternity leave in the world. Men have the right to two weeks unpaid leave, while women stay at home for three years. This leads to women being disconnected from the labour market, complete dependency on their husbands and contributes to the current gender pay gap of 25%. This dependency leads to women staying in the relationship, 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 and their reporting often leads to the family being marked as a “family under risk”. This leads to social workers visiting the family and eventually removing the children. The ironic part is that women are always seen as solely responsible for the well-being of the family and so the questioning by social workers indirectly blames the women for the violence taking place. The lack of effectiveness in the system leads to under-reporting and signals an acceptance of violence, as the 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 from all segments of society.
The situation is not hopeless though, as there are efforts from many proactive women’s rights organizations 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 of 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