I was in a downtown Kyiv coffee shop the other day, quietly tapping away on my laptop, drinking tea and (not) minding my own business, when I overheard the same conversation you can hear almost everywhere these days: two female friends were discussing a third friend over a bottle of wine. In particular, they were discussing the huge shiner that was barely hidden by the caked-up make-up on her face.
“Well, what did she expect?” One of the two women remarked casually. “He makes most of the money in that family anyway.”
Irritated, I ended up splashing my tea all over my lap.
In response to such commonly held stereotypes as the one exhibited by the two women in the coffee shop, a new anti-domestic violence ad campaign has been launched in Ukraine. Having written about the TV ad earlier this year, I have now turned my attention to the visual ads that have been popping up all over the capital and elsewhere. The anti-domestic violence push is being coordinated by Ukraine’s Ministry of Family, Youth & Sport, with the UNDP being one of the organizations involved.
I recently spoke with Larissa Kobelianska at the UNDP about the campaign, and got wind of some hair-raising statistics: “50% of Ukrainian women who are on sick leave or have been hospitalized due to trauma were hurt by their significant others,” Larissa told me. Considering the fact that many Ukrainian women work labour-intensive jobs where trauma is a risk, this figure is particularly stunning.
“Our first ad campaign used a very glamorous model,” Larissa went on to say. “This is because many people are of the opinion that domestic violence only occurs among severely marginalized people. In fact, it’s a problem for all social classes.”
Keeping in mind the conversation I’d recently overheard, I asked Larissa about the ad’s tagline: “Enough putting up with presents like this!” This tagline accompanies a woman with an “accessory” that’s actually a series of bruises. I wondered whether or not ideas about equality and finances figured into the conception of the ad.
“Sure,” she said. “Many people believe that if a man provides any financial support for a woman, he’s entitled to do whatever he wants with her. We’re trying to change that perception. We’re also trying to change the famous stereotype of ‘if he hits you, he loves you.’ Abuse is not an expression of love.”
Larissa also talked to me about the latest ads that feature famous Ukrainian boxer Alina Shaternikova with one black eye and a tagline that reads: “I put up with it because I want to win. Why do you?”
“We featured Alina, because we want women to start asking themselves the question – ‘what am I doing here? Why am I letting this happen to me?’ Trauma is part of Alina’s life because she is a boxer, she has her reasons for that black eye. But violence on the home-front is a very different thing.”
Maria (not her real name) is a nurse I’ve met recently via some relatives who used to be concerned about her home situation. She tried to explain to me why she put up with her husband’s violent rages for over a decade:
“He was a very hard worker with a very stressful job… He was a respected man. I wished he didn’t have a temper, but I knew about it when I married him. Of course, I didn’t know how bad it would get. But I felt it was wrong to divorce him on those grounds. I didn’t want to end up alone either. ”
Maria never did get her divorce. Her husband died of a heart attack shortly after she moved out.
“After his death, his family blamed me. They said if I hadn’t moved to my mother’s, he would have never had his heart attack. But he had already put me in the hospital twice by then. It was either me or him.”
Maria struck me as a classic example of a woman who, cowed by a man’s superior status (both in terms of his job and simply by virtue of male privilege), will put up with practically anything for as long as they remain together. Abandonment is a common theme in many Ukrainian families, and those women who manage to “hold on” to their men are often held up as symbols of feminine patience and grace. Anything but being alone!
As an unmarried woman in my mid-twenties, I know that pressure too well. Society coaches us into believing that male bachelors are just fun-loving rascals enjoying their lives to the fullest, while women without husbands are sad little hags.
How bad did it get for Maria?
“The second time, the doctor told me I was lucky to be alive…I couldn’t go to the police, that would have been humiliating. But I needed to leave.”
I asked Maria if she’d seen the ads all over Kyiv. She said no. She said she’d probably look away from such an ad, because she doesn’t want to focus on her past.
“But if a woman walking by is reminded that maybe what’s happening isn’t right, then that’s a good thing.”
Of course, without active steps from Ukrainian men, domestic violence will probably not cease any time soon. The National Network of Male Leaders Against Domestic Violence was recently launched in Ukraine as a way to counter-act the notion that ending domestic violence is a task to be placed squarely on the shoulders of women. While the results of all of these efforts remain to be seen, at the very least, I have hope that the tone of the conversations I keep eavesdropping on in and around Kyiv may change sometime soon.