When I was in Ukraine this summer, I had the incredible opportunity of working with an NGO called La Strada-Ukraine, a branch of La Strada International, who works to prevent human trafficking, domestic and gender based violence, and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and children. While I learned an invaluable amount of information through the resources and experiences they provided me with, the experiences that impacted me the most were my experiences in the towns and villages. It was a sad realization that although this was my eighth year in Ukraine, it was my first year to be there with my eyes open. In all of the times that I have traveled to Ukraine, I can honestly say that I never knew what was underneath the surface: I never knew of the rampant incest and domestic violence that take place in the villages. I never knew about the gender gap in wages and in the opportunities available in the towns and cities. I never considered how the lack of proper education in the villages and in many of the towns affects the children and the future of the country on a macro level. The stories that were left running through my mind on the flight home forever changed the way I thought about and looked at Ukraine and its people. Some of these women I had known for eight years, and some of these women I had only just met. But the common theme in their stories was consistent: They were oppressed, taken advantage of and grossly mistreated, and I never had any idea that this was ever an issue. As much as I do not want to admit it, I was made aware of my own socialization to the inequalities and gender disparities that women experience, and I have realized what it means to be completely blind to these issues. I was until this summer.
Natalya, who I have known for eight years now, lives in a town a couple hours West of Kiev. She is married with three boys. I spend many of my days with Natalya when I am in Ukraine each year, and I see firsthand the incredible strain that is placed on her life. Her day starts and ends in a frenzy. Between tending to her three boys, one of them being severely autistic, household chores, daily trips to the outdoor market for food to prepare, and the tedious food preparation that goes into preparing three meals per day, a chance to rest is simply not realistic until she goes to bed, which is only for a few hours. She teaches private lessons in her home for some extra income, and every hrivna of that income goes toward providing the best treatment she can afford for her autistic son. Her husband is gone most of the time, and when he is home, he is hardly involved with the children. He uses his time at home to rest after working all day. Although Natalya has also been working all day, and continues to work until the children are in bed, she is not afforded the simple leisure of resting. While I live with this family, I experience firsthand the frustration that comes with the never-ending workload. Even when both of us work all day, we never get everything finished. I often find myself wondering how she could possibly get everything done when I am not there, since we are both working full time and still struggle to make ends meet. I also observe the way that her husband treats her when he arrives at home. If she asks him for help when he gets home, or even on his day off, there is rarely a time when he willingly helps. Her request is usually met with frustration and a scolding of some sort, as he turns back to his computer screen. This summer, when I asked Natalya how she feels about the dynamics of their marriage and their home, her response was saddening: “Yes, I know it is not ideal. I see other families like families in America on TV and in the movies, and I have you all, my American friends, to look at as examples. I see the way many of your fathers are involved with your children and are willing to help around the house and help their spouse. But that is not a reality here. Actually, compared to most Ukrainian men, my husband would be considered very involved. He is considered a very good father and a very good husband. He does not beat us, and does show his love for us. He is just not a family man. He never has been. When I go to his mother to ask her to talk to him about being more involved and helping, she says the same. She does not care how overwhelmed I am. She helps with my boys so that her son will not have to. She tells me that I cannot expect him to change, and that it was my fault for having so many children when I knew he was not a family man to begin with. I do not think that three boys is too many children. In fact, even though our third boy was a surprise, he was angry for awhile because he thought I tricked him and got pregnant on purpose. It is true that he is not very involved with my boys and is very dominant in our marriage, but compared to most men, he is a very good one. And I stand up to him every now and then and tell him what I think. He is learning to deal with that.”
Masha, another woman that I have known for several years, lives in the same region of Ukraine as Natalya. She is married to a pastor of a protestant church there, and the pastors in the region meet together often to discuss church matters. Her husband came home flustered one night, and she and I listened in dismay to what had happened at the meeting. As they were discussing church matters, another pastor in the area had mentioned the fact that they should be more strict in enforcing the rule that women should not be allowed to enter the church if they were menstruating, or for the first six to eight weeks after she gives birth. Masha’s husband spoke up immediately, disputing the rule, saying it was largely outdated and that no one upheld those rules anymore. To his dismay, he was outnumbered in his stance, though he surely thought that the other pastor would stand alone in his intentions to discriminate against women. While Masha’s husband was aware that the rule was very discriminatory and absurd, the other pastor argued that women cannot enter the church during menstruation or after birth because they are unclean. He insisted that someone so unclean cannot enter such a holy place. Interestingly enough, there is a large problem in Ukraine with husbands forcing their wives to have sex while menstruating, but then they call them too unclean to enter a specific building. It was especially interesting because in the protestant church, the old laws of Judaism from the Old Testament in the Bible are not typically regarded as a necessity any longer. It was sadly predictable that if they were to pick one old law to keep in place, it would not be to continue sacrificing animals. It would be the law that oppresses women and calls them unclean.
Katya, a mother of twin girls in a rural village northwest of Kiev, has had similar oppressive experiences with leaders in the church. Her husband was an elder in a church in their village, and they were very involved at the church. However, what was going on behind closed doors in her family was appalling. She was a victim of extreme domestic violence. Her husband beat her and her daughters regularly, mainly due to his alcoholism. Finally, she had enough. Several years ago, she went to the other elders of their church (who were all men) to confide in them and tell them what was happening. In her hope to receive help, she was utterly disappointed. Not only did the elders choose to ignore her complaint, but told her to never speak of it again. She is still married to the man, he is still an elder in their church, and she and her daughters are still victims of domestic violence.
It is extremely common in Ukraine for friends and family to discourage victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse or rape from coming forward. Victim-shaming is a real problem there, and it is considered shameful to speak out as a victim of sexual violence. When I travel there, I feel the silence is tangible. Due to my own personal past experiences, each year I travel to Ukraine with the hope of speaking out against sexual violence and empowering women and children who have had similar experiences as I have had. Unfortunately, under the council of my friends there, each year I am told that it would be unwise to speak openly about my experiences, simply because they do not discuss those problems there. It is considered extremely shameful, and I am told that people will not respect me as much if I do speak out. It was astounding to experience my own mouth being shut, and to realize that this is a daily reality of many women and children in Ukraine. This is not usually the case in the larger cities, but in the rural villages, it is as hush-hush as it could possibly be. As I asked around the several villages I was in, I heard more stories of incest than I ever expected. I have watched many of these children grow over the last eight years, and I wanted nothing more than to do what feels natural and right and tell someone so they could get help. But that is the issue-no one will speak, and there is no one to tell. Police are often bribed out of prosecuting such cases, or they simply tell the women or children to say nothing more about it. Add in the fact that they are women and children from a rural village, and the likelihood of action being taken is close to nothing.
Women are increasingly seen as sexual objects due to the way they are portrayed in the media in Ukraine, and experience sexual harassment in public, especially due to the alcoholism of the men. I have experienced this firsthand as well for the past several years in a row, along with other American girls that have come to work in the villages with me. For three summers now, there has been a middle aged man in a village or in a town that tries to get me to come into his home, his car, or to a secluded area. When they hear me respond in Russian and hear my foreign accent, they become even more persistent realizing that I am a foreigner. Three years ago in a rural village near Belarus, a man walking around in his underwear took me by the arm and attempted to take me back to his house. However, he was heavily inebriated and was easy to break away from. He followed me and the group of people I was with around the village for the remainder of the day.
The alcoholism in the men in Ukraine is a major problem that affects the home, the economy and the society as a whole. In the villages I spend time in, I watch the women spend their entire day working in the fields and herding the cattle. By the time they are elderly, most of them are permanently stooped over at what is almost a ninety-degree angle, and their hands and feet are extremely swollen due to a lifelong endurance of an impossible workload. Many men in the villages work very little, if at all. The women produce their livelihood, clean the home, cook all of the meals and care for the children, only for many of them to be beaten at night due to the high levels of domestic violence in Ukraine resulting from alcohol. Katya quoted a popular Russian saying that many women tell themselves as they internalize the abuse and mistreatment that they endure: “If a man loves you, he beats you.” What was astonishing was that most women were defending their husbands. They are not empowered to make the necessary changes to have a better life, and the government does not give much assistance.
I was able to spend much of my month with widows from the Russia-Ukraine conflict in the East. I sat with them in the depths of their grief and their fear. Now the sole providers of their homes, they were afraid to be left alone with all of their children. They cannot fathom being a sole provider for their children, knowing that making enough money to support a family alone was nearly impossible. Most will not be able to find the same kind of jobs that their husbands had, and if they do, there is a high chance that they will be paid much less. I also encountered many refugees from the East who were living with friends until they could find a new place to live. There are so many IDP’s in Ukraine right now, that there is not adequate help available to help them start new lives. Many of their friends that were on the streets had been subjected to sexual exploitation and violence. This was often a last resort for money needed to survive. Many of the exploited and abused were children. I encountered a bus full of people who had been brought to Kiev from the East, many of whom had been held hostage and tortured for two weeks to a month. Many of the women I spoke with had been subjected to extensive sexual violence while in captivity, and many had been raped by the pro-Russian separatist soldiers who had taken them hostage.
Silence has enveloped Ukraine when it comes to the subjects of domestic violence, sexual abuse and gender inequality. But the silence is more prevalent now than ever before, while the severity of these issues is increasing. Working with La Strada-Ukraine and learning of other NGO’S and non-profit organizations that were working together to fight inequality and gender based violence in Ukraine gave me hope. It gave me hope that there are women in Ukraine who are standing up, embracing empowerment and fighting for change. In the last ten years they have seen considerable improvements in these issues due to the efforts of these organizations. However, these improvements are occurring almost exclusively in the larger towns and cities. In the villages, not much has changed. These issues were right under my nose as I dedicated eight summers to this country, and I never had eyes to see what was really happening. I have seen, I have heard, and now feel responsible and accountable to awaken hope and empower change in the lives of not only Ukrainian women, but women across the globe.