8 March 2016

"We declared war on violence"

SOS Social Crisis Centres in Belarus are saving lives and changing attitudes about domestic violence

Portrait of a small boy held by a SOS co-worker. Photographer: Marko Mägi

For six years now, SOS Children’s Villages Belarus has been working to protect women and children from domestic violence and change social attitudes about domestic violence. An SOS hotline provides women and children in distress with a way to reach out and receive help. Two SOS Crisis Centres provide women and children with immediate safety and support. SOS social centres in the communities offer long-term therapy and activities to build up confidence and support networks. A long-term public awareness campaign is helping to shift public attitudes about domestic violence.

Four hours before New Year's Day, the centre got a call on the hotline: Alina saw no point in living anymore; she was suffering recurring attacks of domestic violence and the future seemed bleak and pointless. It took many hours for the psychologist to show Alina other possibilities besides committing suicide.
 
Those kinds of calls and cases are everyday life at the SOS Social Crisis Centre, located at SOS Children's Village Mogilev in Belarus. The co-workers are not surprised when a lady comes to the centre in the middle of the night wearing dark sunglasses with bruises under the glasses.
 
“We are glad that the social crisis centre is located in Mogilev, but we think that women need protection in each and every country of the world,” the co-workers at the centre say. “We have declared war on violence.”
 
Their battle has not been easy. The biggest obstacle is that there has been no law against domestic violence in Belarus. “It makes it very difficult for the police to help women who need protection”, says the head of the centre, Elena Pushkaryova.
 
What the police can do is detain the violent husband for two hours, maximum for one day. They can have a conversation with him, but that's all the law says there is to do. The next time the police arrive, it might be because of a murder, the co-workers explain.
 
In order to start criminal proceedings or to fine the violent husband, in Belarus a woman must call the police three times and file an application about the violent behaviour. “The fine will be paid out of the family budget, so the family is punished,” says Ms Pushkaryova.

Where the crisis centre comes in

At the SOS Crisis Centre in Mogilev there are six rooms for women who are in a crisis situation. “This is not enough, but it’s something. Six places for Mogilev is nothing for a city of this size, but we take this as six murders fewer than there could be”, says Pushkaryova.
 
The centre offers psychological and legal counselling, psychotherapy and social services – help to find a job or to arrange for children to be admitted to kindergarten. “We normally deal with one family for six months, longer periods if necessary.”
 
Not only mothers get help, but children, too – if they witness or live in a violent family, it means they live in a dangerous atmosphere. That's why psychologists also help them through both individual and group work.

Not alone

 “We don't offer ready-made solutions that we think are right; we simply try to empower the women so that they can find their inner strength to make the right choices – the right choices for them.”
 
Photo: Marko Mägi
“We do it by showing them that they are not alone – there are other women with those kinds of problems; that we are here to help. We don't say that you have to get divorced. Our motto is: change yourself, and the world – including your husband – will change.

What is the reason for domestic violence in Belarus? “There is no hard-and-fast rule – violence can happen in any family, including a socially-developed one,” Ms Pushkaryova says.
 
“What usually happens in Belarus is that women take on too many responsibilities and slowly change into 'house slaves'; we help them to get their self-confidence back again and stand up for themselves – then they do not allow this kind of attitude towards them to happen that allows violence. Violence doesn't come out of the blue, it develops step by step. First, there is some bad attitude, then threats, then violence.”
 
“What is also very bad is that children usually witness domestic violence and nobody explains to them that this is not right, so they take this kind of attitude into their lives and consider it normal behaviour, and the vicious circle goes on and on.”

Breaking the cycle

Breaking the vicious cycle of violence is the main mission of the centre. The co-workers do prevention activities at schools and local companies by giving lectures about what domestic violence is and how to deal with it.
 
In its first year the SOS Social Crisis Centre in Mogilev helped 125 mothers and 240 children who had been suffering from violence in the family.
 
“Before we were there, nobody was dealing with those issues, and today women ask us: 'Where were you before? Our mothers and grandmothers needed this kind of help, too.”
 
Between 2012 and 2014 SOS Children’s Villages Belarus, SOS Children’s Villages Germany, the INGO Ponimanie, and the Government of Belarus collaborated on ‘Safe and Caring Families, without Neglect or Violence’. The project helped reduce child abuse and neglect in Belarus through direct interventions, social services, capacity-building, and the development of closer co-operation between local social and child care actors.

Read more about SOS Children's Villages' work in Belarus

More about End Violence against Children