“We do not need to explain ourselves. We are not to blame, the rapist is always the one who’s guilty. I’m not afraid to speak and I do not feel guilty.” After a lifetime of sexual abuse that started in childhood, when she was molested by a relative, and continued through a relationship with a man who threatened to post naked photos of her on the internet, Ukrainian journalist Anastasia Melnychenko has finally broken her silence.
Posting on Facebook under the hashtag #Iamnotscaredtospeak (in Ukrainian #ЯнеБоюсьСказати), Melnychenko, 32, is publicly sharing her experience for the first time. “I want us women to talk today, to talk about the violence that most of us have lived through,” she says on her post dated July 5. And her words have moved hundreds of other Ukrainian women to post their own tales of abuse.
This explosion of personal testimony is unusual in Ukraine, where abuse victims rarely ask for help and, according to a report by the United Nations Population Fund, only 1 percent will seek relief from medical or social services. But women’s rights activists say violence against women in Ukraine has been on the rise since the start of the country’s conflict with Russia. And with victims getting little support from the state or its lawmakers, campaigns like #Iamnotscaredtospeak provide a much needed catharsis.
“The real number of issues relating to violence are incredible,” says Alona Zubchenko, spokeswoman for women’s rights center La Strada. “Every third women is a victim of domestic or gender-based violence. This problem is latent, so only approximately 10 percent of all victims report these facts and even fewer report to the police. This flash mob is very positive. It helps women who can’t find the power in themselves to report [their abuse].”
The Ukrainian government does not collect gender-segregated statistics on many issues, including domestic violence, but Women & Girls Hub spoke to three women’s rights organizations and all said sexual and physical abuse is increasing dramatically. La Strada runs the country’s only national hotline for abused women, and over the past two years calls have doubled. NGOs link the rise in gender-based abuse to the armed conflict waging in eastern Ukraine, which started in 2014 between government troops and separatists backed by the Russian Federation.
Since the start of hostilities in the east, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has raised concerns about conflict-related violence against women. The OHCHR’s latest report highlights instances when armed groups have blackmailed detainees by threatening to rape their female relatives. It describes what happened to one father held captive by armed groups in the Donetsk region: “They invited a notary to the building. I was offered to sign papers to surrender all my real estate. At first I refused, but then the terrorists’ chief told me that he will bring my wife and my daughter here; Chechen fighters will rape them both in front of me. Then, of course, I said that they can take everything they want – just don’t harm my girls.”
Providing support to women in the conflict zone is a challenge because thousands of people have been forced from their homes. A UNFPA survey showed that women living transiently in east Ukraine are three times more likely to have suffered gender-based violence during the conflict period than other women. In response to this rising rate of abuse, the UNFPA, together with local NGO HealthRight, recently dispatched 21 mobile teams to remote towns and villages around the region. Each team consists of two psychologists and one social worker; HealthRight’s Halyna Skipalska says they have already identified 7,000 cases of gender-based and domestic violence.
“We have in the east so many women surviving violence relating to the conflict situation,” she says. “Also we see that now many families face much more economic problems and as a result of this their families survive difficult life circumstances. Partners do not work and cannot earn money, they use alcohol or drugs, and all these issues have an influence on cases of violence.”
Support services are struggling to keep up. In a country of around 45 million people, there are only nine shelters or safe houses for abused women, and the entry requirements are strict – many do not accept women with children or women who are registered in a different region. Nationwide, there are only three rehabilitation centers for survivors, and none for offenders.
Another hurdle is the law itself: in Ukraine, domestic violence is not criminalized, for example, so perpetrators are currently fined an amount similar to that for a parking ticket.
Rights groups are hoping the situation could improve in September, when the Ukrainian parliament has the opportunity to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a piece of legislation that sets out minimum standards on the prevention and protection of abused women. Countries that ratify the treaty are obliged to establish services such as shelters, hotlines and legal aid.
Before then, advocates are looking to Melnychenko’s Facebook movement to give the country’s lawmakers a push and prompt them to vote for change. “For now, women are living with permanent violence,” says Zubchenko. “They can suffer sexual violence no more.”