For the past week, brave women (and some men too, to be sure) in Ukraine have come forward to denounce a culture of silence when it comes to gender-based violence. They have done so by revealing how, at some point in their lives, they lived through, and survived, sexual and physical violence. It is easy to brush aside their revelations, their anger and especially their pain, as many have done: “she asked for it. What was she doing in that place at that time? And what did she expect, being dressed the way she was dressed?”
We would not say these things if a man were stabbed. We would not say these things if a child were severely beaten by its classmates. And we would not even say these things if a dog were run over by a car. Not their fault, right? Innocent victims, right? It is good, therefore, that Ukraine witnessed such an outpouring of support and shock, as women came forward to finally, publicly, say what we have known all along but was never the subject of public debate: that one out of every twelve women in Ukraine has experienced, or will experience at some point in her life, sexual violence. And one out of every five will experience physical violence, according to research done by the UN Population Fund. And if we add psychological violence to this, the numbers rise to unimaginable proportions.
Why is that so? It’s a question that Ukraine needs to answer. If this were a disease, the authorities, media, and society at large would immediately go into crisis mode. Imagine a disease that touches one out of every four women in the country! That is one hundred times more than HIV/AIDS, which is considered a national health risk. But since this is gender-based violence, it is not taken seriously. Worse, it is considered bad taste to bring up the subject. The country simply cannot muster the collective will to confront it, to tame it, and to make it forever part of history. Because, let’s face it, if one out of four women has experienced physical or sexual violence, chances are that someone in her immediate environment – a husband, friend or colleague - was responsible for it.
And that’s a fact – 81% of those who have caused physical violence were people known to the survivor, and 75% of those who have caused sexual violence were. So it’s not the ugly stranger who is to blame – forget about the boogeyman: the perpetrators are amongst us, and they are known to the women who suffered their violence. It is in our homes, our communities and the places where we work where violence is spawned.
The solutions, then, also lie here: in educating girls to be aware of unwelcome advances; in educating boys that no means no; in educating community leaders to see the early warning signs of abuse; in employers maintaining policies of zero-tolerance of harassment in the workplace; in getting law enforcement to take women seriously when they lodge a complaint; in ensuring healthcare providers treat women with dignity and confidentiality when they say they have experienced violence; in convincing the media to expose cases and not downplay them for what they are: gross violations of human rights that have no place in a modern, forward-looking Ukraine. Gender-based violence has no place in a Ukraine that wants to take its place in a community of European societies based on respect for human rights.
The United Nations Population Fund has made the prevention of gender-based violence, and the treatment of its consequences, the cornerstone of its work in Ukraine. Together with government, civil society, the media and the private sector, we are putting in a place the pieces that will, hopefully sooner than later, put an end to this terrible disease. The ratification of the Istanbul Convention will put the onus on government agencies – health, law enforcement, justice and social services, to act decisively, and without judgment of the woman, when she denounces violence. The creation of shelters and safe houses will provide temporarily relief for women and girls who need to escape abusive environments – literally a matter of life and death. But most of all, the silence needs to be broken. All of society needs to highlight the abuse of human rights being committed every day, every hour, every minute, when a women or girl is being subjected to violence. It is the only way to stop this – by being silent no more.