#HearMeToo: Activists in Central Asia break ground in fight against violence

November 29, 2018

“When we respond to comments, we don’t only engage with the person we are responding to. Even if it seems like you are talking to one person, in reality you will be read by hundreds, maybe thousands of people,” says Irina Matvienko, the creator of the Facebook page nemolchi.uz.

As one of the pioneers using social media to raise awareness about violence against women in Uzbekistan, Irina’s work is groundbreaking. The page features stories about incidents of gender-based violence and offers support materials and information for survivors.

Irina, a journalist and entrepreneur, was at first working on her own - drafting and publishing content, responding to comments in detail and fighting stereotypes. As the number of active users on the page grew, she found support from other like-minded women that now help her manage the page.

Irina’s story is not a singular one. Women in Uzbekistan are increasingly using online media to start conversations about issues that affect them. And UNDP Uzbekistan has recognized and supported bloggers who are writing about issues that address gender equality and violence against women in the society. This work is as meaningful as it is timely: the government is currently drafting a law on domestic violence.

Irina’s work is part of a growing movement to counter violence against women and girls in Central Asia, where the problem remains largely unaddressed. Nearly 30 percent of women in Kyrgyzstan and 20 percent in Kazakhstan have reported some form of violence from men, primarily their intimate partners, in their lifetime. The actual figures are likely to be higher. Family pressures, social stigma and low rates of prosecution relegate violence against women to the shadows. Incidents are consistently under-reported, and data is scarce, unofficial or outdated.

The lack of data means the severity of the problem is not fully understood, leading to poor public services for survivors. Civil society organizations that try to fill the breach must often overcome many bureaucratic hurdles to be able to provide assistance to survivors.

Raykhan leads a crisis center for survivors of domestic violence in Aktau, Kazakhstan. With her staff, she provides a safe space for women who have been abused by their partners. But setting up the center was no easy task. Raykhan had to apply four times before she could register her non-governmental organization. In the end, sheer perseverance and her commitment to helping others got her the accreditation.

Many cases of violence against women and girls in Central Asia, as elsewhere, stem from patriarchal traditions and harmful practices. Girls in many parts of the region are subject to early and forced marriage and bride kidnapping, which leaves them vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual abuse.

In recent years, some countries have adopted legal and policy frameworks and national action plans aimed at addressing gender-based violence. The Kyrgyz Republic has made great strides in this direction, passing laws on preventing family violence and forbidding underage religious marriages.

Nazira works as a lawyer in Bishkek. She is supported by a UNDP project that provides pro-bono assistance to survivors of gender-based violence. Even though this means she has to work long hours, she is doing all she can to help women who cannot afford legal representation.

“The biggest problem we face is when the victim is too late in asking for legal assistance,” Nazira says, as she reflects on her daily challenges. “They ask for help after they leave their marriage. But then there is no evidence. Criminal proceedings won’t be initiated until bodily injuries are examined. And the perpetrator won’t be taken into custody.”

She hopes better awareness-raising and improvements in legal proceedings will help survivors receive the support they need, though much remains to be done.

Irina, Raykhan and Nazira have not had easy journeys to get where they are today. And their work has just begun. But their passion and perseverance against tremendous odds are signs that a robust movement against gender-based violence, led by women, is slowly taking shape across Central Asia. Governments, international organizations and individuals must do all they can to strengthen and support the efforts of activists and survivors in putting an end to the crime of violence against women and girls.