November 25 marked the UN-sponsored International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women -- a reminder of a problem that the UN says has reached pandemic proportions. The UN Development Fund for Women estimates that one in three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused. It describes domestic violence against women as perhaps the most pervasive human rights violation known today.
A Tajik woman covers her face. Rights groups say Tajik women face abuse by family members and are often treated like property.
Women are more at risk of death or disability
from violence than from cancer, road accidents, war, or malaria.
And there is a growing link between such violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS. A survey conducted in South Africa revealed that women who are beaten by their partners are 48 percent more likely to be infected with HIV than those who are not.
Women from across RFE/RL's broadcast region have shared some of their own stories of abuse. Only the first names of the victims are used so as to protect their privacy.
Olena, a 35-year-old Ukrainian woman from Kyiv, lived with her Bulgarian husband for 10 years. She told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that after their son was born, his behavior changed drastically: he started drinking and beating her.
"On my son's first birthday, I was hospitalized with broken ribs, damaged lungs, a concussion, and many bruises," Olena said. "I could not neither forget nor forgive this, but continued to live with my husband because of the child. Now we don't live together anymore. He is threatening to take away my son."
There's also the story of a 20-year-old Azerbaijani woman called Mehriban, who spent three years married to a man who regularly mistreated her.
"I was beaten while I was pregnant," she said. "My mother-in-law was also beating me. I gave birth 10 days after one beating."
Mehriban's story ends better than some. She decided to leave her husband after he beat her openly in front of her employer. Now she has become a rights activist in rural Azerbaijan. She's gotten to know a circle of new people, is learning French and is soon to start Spanish-language courses. She has her son with her, and she says she will never marry again.
In Moldova, an RFE/RL correspondent visited the Casa Marioarei (Marioara's House), a safe house where victims of domestic violence can go for refuge. Half of the people living there are children.
The mother of one 5-year-old girl told RFE/RL that they ran away from home to escape the father, who beat them both.
"Where could we go? If I called the police, they would come and tell me that we had to behave better," she said. "They'd write up some papers, charge [a fine]. And then they'd be gone, leaving me there with him, and he would beat me even harder."
In Croatia, a country on the cusp of EU membership, 34 women have been killed as a result of domestic violence since 2006. Activists have warned that the number of cases are on the rise, and say violence against women cannot be properly addressed until it is seen as a serious social problem instead of a private family matter.
"Azra," a 30-year-old woman who asked that her real name not be used, recently left her husband of 10 years because of relentless violence. Speaking to RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Azra says after years of "being beaten and in tears all night," she found refuge in a shelter run by an NGO in the central Croatian town of Karlovac. But she is still afraid for her two children, whom she had to leave with their father until she is able to find a job.
"He abused me psychologically, physically, and financially," Azra said. "If I said I needed to buy cereal for our children, he would say, 'What do they need it for?' If I said the children needed shoes, he'd say, 'What shoes?' He worked. I didn't."
"He beat me often, but he chose parts of my body where he wouldn't leave a trace," she said. "There were small bruises, and the pain was terrible, but it couldn't be seen when you were on the street. I simply reached the bottom; it became a question of life and death. If he didn't kill me, I would have killed myself."
Men With Ribbons
One way to focus attention on the problem of domestic violence is the international White Ribbon Campaign, which urges men to wear a white ribbon on their lapel to show that they oppose violence against women and children.
Started in Canada, the campaign has spread to 50 countries, including Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Campaign organizers are particularly eager to recruit the support of leading athletes from such "macho" sports as rugby, on the grounds that they can set a positive example for young men to follow.
In comments marking the day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the masculine side of society must learn that a true man does not oppress women and children.
Coinciding with the day against violence, the London-based human rights organization Amnesty International has issued a report on the plight of women in Tajikistan.
Amnesty expert Andrea Strasser-Camagni says women in Tajikistan are beaten, abused, and raped within the family, even as Tajik authorities take the attitude that the woman is to blame for domestic violence.
She says married women are treated like servants or as the property of their in-laws, and the violence and humiliation they suffer drive many to suicide.
Amnesty International gives the example of Zamira, who got married at 18 in a traditional Islamic marriage. The union lasted five years, during which time Zamira was not allowed to leave her husband's house.
She told Amnesty that her husband would beat her when she asked to go out. Then one day her husband divorced her according to Islamic tradition, and she was thrown out of the house, along with her son.
Amnesty's Strasser-Camagni says despite everything, she sees hope for the future in Tajikistan, because women there are fighting to change the situation.
"There are a lot of very active women in the country, who try to combat this crime, who try also to challenge assumptions about traditional gender roles in the country, about the acceptance of violence against women," Strasser-Camagni said. "So I think the big hope lies with active people in Tajikistan itself."
Strasser-Camagni calls on the Tajik government to pass laws and make available social support services, and also to conduct public awareness campaigns. Those campaigns, she said, should carry information about the disadvantages to women of polygamous or unregistered marriages.
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani, Balkan, Moldovan, Tajik, and Ukrainian services contributed to this report.
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