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East: Domestic Violence -- An Unspoken Problem In Many Postcommunist Countries (Part 1)

Domestic violence affects women around the world, but it is a particularly challenging problem in postcommunist countries. In many countries in the region, governments have made strong statements about defending women's rights and have promised to abide by international conventions protecting women from discrimination and abuse. But in practice, few states acknowledge that domestic violence exists or have laws against the abuse in their criminal codes. In part one of a two-part series, RFE/RL looks at the issue of domestic violence in countries of the former Soviet Union and reports on new initiatives to increase public awareness.

Prague, 24 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the United States, over 4 million women are victims of assault by boyfriends or husbands each year. The American Medical Association estimates that one American woman in four is likely to be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime.

In Europe, the problem is just as prevalent. According to statistics in the European Union, one in five European women experiences violence at the hands of her male partner at some point in her life. In Britain, a woman dies every third day from such brutality. In Finland, over half of adult women have been victims of violence or physical or sexual threats.

European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs Anna Diamantopolou says that while violence at home and in relationships may be one of the most prevalent forms of violence, it is also "the least visible and hardest to tackle."

A global problem, domestic violence is barely acknowledged in the postcommunist region. Seldom discussed on national airwaves or in state parliaments, domestic violence remains securely hidden in the protected sphere of the family. In most countries in the region, there are few statistics compiled on how many women are assaulted each year.

Laws protecting women are also lax in many postcommunist countries. Domestic violence is not prohibited by law in Armenia, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, or Georgia. Marital rape is not a crime in Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania, Tajikistan, or Ukraine. In Slovenia, domestic violence is not considered criminal in cases of so-called "light" injury -- a definition that includes fractured noses and ribs, light contusions, and punched-out teeth.

Women's rights activists attempting to confront domestic violence in postcommunist countries are starting at ground zero, and seeking to build a public awareness of the problem.

Zuzana Jezerska is the regional project manager for post-Soviet countries for the United Nations Development Fund for Women. Jezerska is currently running a public-awareness campaign in nine regional countries -- Moldova, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Jezerska says that the issue of domestic violence is a new concept in most of the region's countries: "[The] general population is not aware of the problem of domestic violence. It is still a hidden issue. And it is not treated as a public problem, but as a private matter. It means that still, domestic violence is considered to be an issue of privacy. This is a very bad situation, because it is the understanding of all of the population -- including government representatives, including media, etc, etc. So there is no awareness on this problem."

Women, Jezerska says, are often as unaware as men of the devastating pervasiveness of domestic violence. While they are the ones receiving the beating or emotional abuse, many women in post-Soviet countries do not feel their husbands are treating them unfairly. Jezerska says that in her work she seeks to inform women of what domestic violence is and why it is wrong. She says she often comes across women who disagree with her message. This tendency, she says, is a region-wide phenomenon, and reflects how completely violence against women is accepted: "When you are asking or speaking about the domestic violence issue, it raises a very negative reaction, because people are saying 'We have no domestic violence at all.' So it is very difficult to work on this sensitive issue in certain countries and in certain regions."

Few official statistics exist on the numbers of women abused by their partners. One way of tracking statistics on domestic violence, however, is to compile data on the number of women killed by their husbands or boyfriends.

Jezerska says in Russia the numbers are extremely high: "The problem is very high. We have some statistics. For example I can just quote: In Russia, 12,000 to 14,000 Russian women died as a result of domestic violence in 2000."

Many activists say that domestic violence has become a more pressing problem since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They say Soviet rule sought to increase women's equality in public and private spheres.

The breakup of the Soviet Union over a decade ago triggered an economic crisis throughout the region, leading to the collapse of local health care facilities and a dramatic increase in alcoholism, a prominent contributor to domestic violence.

These factors, combined with the resurgence of more traditional notions that a woman should play a secondary role in society, have added to public acceptance of violence towards women.

But Jezerska says it's a myth to believe domestic violence is a new trend in the region: "Domestic violence [also existed] during [the] Soviet regime. But as I've told you, it was not so visible. It was inside. It was part of cultural tradition. You can find, in the region, a lot of proverbs which are telling you that a beaten wife is the only good wife and things like this."

Jezerska says progress is being made in some countries. She notes that Ukraine passed its first law against domestic violence in December. The new law will make it easier for women to prosecute their male partners for assault.

Jezerska also says that in some countries, specifically Lithuania and Tajikistan, public awareness of domestic violence is quite high: "Quite high. Quite high. Why? Lithuania, of course, it is a Baltic state. It is a little bit more of an advanced country in terms of the domestic violence issue and the treatment of domestic violence issue. It was introduced earlier. In Tajikistan, because there are very active NGOs, quite professional NGOs and crisis centers, they did a lot in this field and the population is aware."

But public awareness of domestic violence does not necessarily mean the problem in those countries is any less grave. Jezerska says that although many Tajik citizens know what domestic violence is and say it is wrong, assaults against women continue. She says in recent years, Tajik women who have grown frustrated with their inability to escape the abuse have begun to self-immolate, or commit suicide by setting themselves on fire.

But Jezerska says acknowledging domestic violence is the first critical step toward eradicating the problem. "We are certainly at the beginning of something new in these countries," Jezerska says. "But it's the beginning of a long, long road."

(Part 2 will look at domestic violence in Uzbekistan.)