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Ukrainian activists defend victims of sexual violence


Ukrainian activist Nastya Melnychenko is chairperson of Studena, an NGO which advocates for equal opportunities regardless of gender, religion or race.

Many people are not able to use social media and are afraid to speak out. Others are beginning to speak for them. Isabelle Gerretsen reports.

Ukrainian activist Nastya Melnychenko has experienced sexual abuse and harassment since she was six-years-old. She recalls a relative putting her on his lap and trying to kiss her on the lips. She was called rude for recoiling from his embrace. When she was 21 an angry ex-boyfriend threatened to post a sex tape online.

Melnychenko’s story is not unique. Domestic violence and gender discrimination is widespread in Ukraine, but many victims are afraid to speak up and report these crimes to the police. Melnychenko, now 31 and chairperson of Studena, an NGO which advocates for equal opportunities regardless of gender, religion or race, decided it was time to tackle the taboo and openly discuss the issue.

She shared her experiences in a Facebook post and called upon others to speak out and raise awareness with the hash tag #IAmNotAfraidToSayIt (‪#‎ЯНеБоюсьСказати).

‘I want us, women, to talk today. To talk about the violence that most of us have lived through. I want us to stop making excuses and saying “I was wearing gym clothes during the day and still got pawed.” We don’t need to make excuses. We’re not to blame; those who violate us are always to blame. I am not afraid to speak out. And I do not feel guilty.’

‘I started the campaign with the intention to fight victim blaming,’ she says. ‘I want to try to change public opinion.’

Melnychenko’s powerful message hit home and received over 3,000 likes. Many people took to social media to share their stories. Yulia Behen-Herus, a translator and interpreter from Lviv, tells how she regularly has to put up with sexual discrimination.

‘I’m told “Your place is in the kitchen”, “Why the hell do you need to study?”’

Gender discrimination is prohibited under Article 24 of Ukrainian Law. In 2006 the Ukrainian Parliament passed the law ‘On Ensuring Equal Rights for Women and Men’, reaffirming its commitment to eliminating ‘all forms of gender-based discrimination.’

However, wider research shows that harassment, discrimination and violence are still pressing issues facing today’s Ukrainian women. Nearly 90,000 cases of violence against women are registered annually, according to the UN. In 2014, the average for women was 76 per cent compared to men.

Victims of sexual abuse and harassment often report not being offered adequate support and protection by police and local authorities.

Olexandr Ryazanow, who works in the technology industry and lives in Kyiv, recently offered a lift to a young mother who was escaping her abusive husband. He tells me how he found her waiting at a bus stop with her child late at night. She told him she was fleeing her abusive husband and had gone to the police but they hadn’t taken any steps to help her.

‘A citizen who is not connected to bureaucrats has no real recourse if there's some problem or conflict,’ he says. ‘Such a system is inherently dysfunctional and is not capable of delivering justice.’

The international health charity Doctors of the World has been operating in eastern Ukraine since 2015 providing specialised care for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) in the conflict-hit region of Luhansk in the east of the country.

‘Most of the cases of GBV we see in Ukraine are psychological rather than physical,’ says the charity's international officer Kim Harper. ‘Our midwives and psychologists run awareness sessions and informal talks with teenagers and women about sexual and reproductive health, and the physical and emotional effects of harassment and violence, including what help is available.’

Behen-Herus believes the tide is turning and is hopeful the situation will improve now that people are starting to speak up.

‘There are many people who are not allowed to use social media, who are abused daily and cannot shout,’ she says. ‘It’s the responsibility of those who are in a better position to shout on their behalf.’

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