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Victims of sexual assault speak out

Flora MurphyJuly 27, 2016

A hashtag has given a voice to victims of sexual violence in Ukraine, Russia and beyond. Many women are challenging the stigma that surrounds sexual violence and revealing a shocking picture of the scale of the problem.

Image: Fotolia/Artem Furman

When Ukrainian social activist Anastasia Melnichenko decided to share her experiences of sexual violence on Facebook, she had no idea her post would become a catalyst for thousands of women in Ukraine, Russia and beyond to do the same. Melnichenko published her personal post on July 5 with the hashtag #янебоюсьсказати, Ukrainian for #IamNotAfraidtoSay:

“I want women to speak out today. I want us to talk about violence that many of us have experienced. […] We should not have to explain ourselves. We are not the guilty ones, the attacker is always guilty.”

While Melnichenko wanted to encourage other victims to break their silence, response to the hashtag has been so widespread and unexpected that not only Melnichenko, but also many across Ukraine and Russia were shocked.

Elena M. writes on Facebook: “I think this is one of the most terrifying, honest and strong actions that I have ever seen. And it is extremely important.”

The growth of #IamNotAfraidtoSay is facilitating open and public discussion of the problem of sexual violence. Accounts of victims’ experiences range from childhood traumas and violent street harassment to rape and domestic violence.

Daria A. shares her experience on Facebook: “I was just under five years old. He was a teacher for the painting course that my grandma took me to. I don’t remember so much. Just that he dragged me into the storeroom, saying that he wanted me to help him get some canvases.”

A “critical mass”

Tatiana Pechonochnik, director of the Kyiv-based NGO Human Rights Information Center, believes the issue of sexual violence in Ukraine has been bubbling below the surface for some time. She says a “critical mass” has been reached, requiring just one catalyzing Facebook post for the discussion to "explode" across social networking platforms. The hashtag #IamNotAfraidtoSay gives victims the strength and courage to speak out for the first time about their experiences of sexual violence, which many have kept hidden from close friends and families.

Svetlana A. on Facebook: “I was five years old. We were on the train to Briansk. […] There was a kind man sleeping on the other lower bunk bed. I woke up during the night because his hand was underneath my duvet and was trying pull off my pants. The next morning I told my mother. She didn’t believe me – she thought I’d made it up.”

The social media discussion, dubbed an online "flash mob" by the media, has made the sheer scale of sexual violence in Russia and Ukraine blatantly clear. It's not that the rate of violence against women has increased, but rather people can no longer deny it exists, writes Bogdan Z. on his Facebook account. "We know because victims have decided to speak out. ... It seems that this violence is closer to all of us than we imagined."

For some women, however, it was not an easy decision to publish their stories, even though they agree it's important to draw attention to the topic of sexual abuse.

Symbolbild Gewalt gegen Frauen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Wolfraum

Anastasia M. comments on Facebook: “I thought about it for a long time whether I should take part in the flash mob. But I’ve decided that I need to, just so that the men, and women, in my friend-feed can understand the scale of the problem. It’s something that has to be talked about. It’s essential. We should talk about it to our daughters - or maybe even more importantly to our sons.”

Breaking a taboo

A culture of silence exists In Russia and Ukraine when it comes to sexual violence. Views that women like to play the victim, or that they are personally responsible for being attacked because of their choice of clothing or their decision to walk alone at night, are deeply entrenched in society. Victims who turn to the police are often met with indifference or further humilated by being required to provide solid proof.

Maria Mokhova, director of the Sisters Crisis Center in Moscow, wrote in a commentary piece for DW's Russian department that only an average of 12% of victims report sexual violence to the police. Of those, a mere 3% of cases make it to court. Since police frequently regard sexual violence in the home as a “family matter,” a culture of impunity exists around domestic violence.

Skeptics and critics

The hashtag #IamNotAfraidtoSay is not without its critics, the majority of whom are men. They not only question the validity of the victims’ statements, but also whether there is anything to be gained by spreading traumatic experiences across social media.

Vladimir S. argues on Facebook: “Where is the guarantee that all these stories are true, and not just made up among friends? If a crime has been done, then there should be an investigation.”

Kostya A. writes that he fails to see how the flash mob will help anyone. "I highly doubt that it will become easier for those who have poured out their soul on social media. Will there be fewer cases because of that? Absolutely not.”

Even experts have criticized the discussion. Psychologist Olga Makhovskaya in an interview with Russian daily newspaper "Vechernyaya Moskva" writes that the victims are "refusing to take responsibility for their own lives and are constantly searching for help from somewhere." She says she doesn't think it is worth voicing these experiences. "Returning to the event only brings back the trauma.”

Criticism also comes from the Orthodox Church, a strong conservative force in Ukrainian and Russian society. Hieromonk Markish, renowned cleric and author of many publications on the Orthodox faith, suggests that on such sensitive issues, it would be better for victims to turn to a priest for support than to share their experiences with the general public. He says that he considers many of the victims commenting on the discussion to be "suffering from the illness of exhibitionism."

Online discussion to offline action

Symbolbild Gewalt gegen Frauen
Image: Fotolia/Miriam Dörr

While there have been no official statements from leading politicians in Russia about the flash mob, the Moscow City Duma has announced it would offer free self-defence classes in parks around the city from July 24. Those attending will learn how to protect themselves from potential attackers, as well as receive advice on how to behave and dress in order to avoid harassment. Although these classes may provide some women the confidence to fight off attackers, such an offer fails to get to the root of the problem. It also places the responsibility for behavior and safety precautions with the potential victims and does nothing to stop the perpetrators.

Until authorities begin to address the issue on a broader basis, victims will seek channels such as the hashtag discussion launched by Melnichenko. The real challenge for Melnichenko and her supporters is now to take the momentum from #IamNotAfraidtoSay and introduce change offline.