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#metoo in the East? Women's rights in south-Eastern and Eastern Europe

Just over a month ago on April 10, Marija Lukić, pioneer of the #metoo movement in Serbia, went on her second trial against Milutin Jeličić Jutka, former president of a small local municipality of Brus in the centre of the country.

Hana Srebotnjak
8 May 2019
Women wearing prisoner's uniforms take part in a protest against a proposed law that would prohibit abortions due to irreparably damaged fetuses. Krakow, Poland on 2 July, 2018. Photo by: Beata Zawrzel/Sipa USA/PA images. All rights reserved.
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As was the case in the previous trial, Marija received a string of insults from onlooking Jutka’s supporters (around 50 in total) as she walked into the court room.

This time six women, including journalists and activists, decided to come in support of Marija. They called their act ‘Brusy riot’ inspired by the Pussy Riot concert that took place in Belgrade that same evening.

Upon arrival to the court the small ‘Brusy riot’ group was affronted by Jutka’s aggressive supporters. As Natalija Miletić, a Serb journalist that came to support Lukić later recounted, the bystanders attacked the women for not being in school or taking care of their children.

Lukić’s case and the treatment she has received since she publicly accused her molester on the symbolically chosen 8th of March in 2018, illuminates the gloomy state of gender relations in the Balkan country, and in south-Eastern and Eastern Europe in general.

The #metoo movement

The #metoo movement started in United States as early as 2006 as a platform helping the victims of sexual violence. The campaign picked up strength and went viral after Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano used the hashtag in October 2017, following a string of accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein that came to the fore, encouraging women across the world to speak up and share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault.

The #metoo movement was criticised for ignoring the difficult position of women to share their experiences in other places in the world and for disregarding similar grassroots actions in the Global South.

Many women outside purely celebrity circles became inspired by the acts of Milano and other women that joined in, and the movement soon spread across many states, particularly Western countries.

In Spain women began to use the hashtag #Yotambién (#metoo) to share their experience, in Italy #Quellavoltache (#this time when) and in France a similar, #BalanceTonPorc (#denounce your pig) campaign took up. The movement was powerful in attracting attention on gender-based issues and the sheer extent of sexual harassment and violence that women across the world continuously face.

#metoo beyond the West

The #metoo movement was criticised as a largely western phenomena, ignoring the difficult position for women to share their experiences in other places in the world as well as for disregarding similar grassroots actions that emerged in the Global South.

In Nigeria for example the campaign #BringBackOurGirls began in April 2014, a few days after 276 girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram. To this day half of the girls remain missing.

In Argentina a similar movement began when Chiara Páez, a 14-year-old girl, pregnant at the time, was murdered by her boyfriend and buried in the garden of their house in April 2015. The shocking event ignited the #niunamenos (‘not one [woman] less’) movement that resonated across the whole Argentine society and soon spread to Latin America, a region where the rate of femicides is exceptionally high, and in the case of the Austral nation where the movement originated, rates are getting even higher.

These are but two examples of gender-related movements outside the global north making visible grass-roots mobilisation in specific contexts across different regions, but what about South-Eastern and Eastern Europe?

#metoo across south-Eastern and Eastern Europe

Marija’s case shines a spotlight on the state of women’s rights in the region and begs the question to what extent the #metoo movement took root in the region, both South-Eastern as well as Eastern Europe.

According to a 2019 OSCE survey, out of the 15,179 women interviewed in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Ukraine, 70% of them have faced some form of gender-based harassment, including gender-based domestic violence, stalking and sexual harassment, with psychological violence being the most prevalent. And alarmingly, 74% of women responded they don’t know whom to turn to when facing such situations.

Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić, who wrote extensively on rape during the Yugoslav wars as well, commented on the situation for women in the Balkans, sayingas we travel from north to south, and from west to east, women’s voices are heard less and less. When we reach the Balkans, they turn into a mere whisper.”

Overall, the grasp of #metoo in the regions of South-Eastern and Eastern Europe has been relatively poor.

According to a 2019 OSCE survey 70% of women in the region have faced some form of gender-based harassment and 74% don’t know whom to turn to when facing such situations.

In Hungary the campaign has been largely limited to liberal and cultural circles. In Poland, around 36,000 posts using the #JaTeż (#metoo in Polish) and the #metoo hashtags appeared in the media between 15 and 22 October, however the campaign soon lost its initial momentum.

In Romania hundreds of stories appeared on social media after #metoo took root, but the movement did not produce any substantial results. The campaign wasn’t that successful in Slovakia either, where most of women’s confessions concerned men who already passed away.

In Croatia in contrast no movement appeared. What did make the news after #metoo gathered widespread attention were but a few sensationalist articles criticising feminism.

Why?

“Differences in reactions to the campaign are a matter of history and conditioning”, explained Drakulić.

Under communism women’s emancipation was a given as they came to represent a part of the proletariat that formed the backbone of the system. In many countries living under the communist regime women were, for the first time, given the right to vote, to education, work, abortion, maternity leave and so on.

These legislative shifts were largely top-down however and did not necessarily transpire into overall changes in perceptions across societies regarding gender relations. As on the paper women were now fully emancipated, this also prevented them from demanding more. This led to huge discrepancies between their public and private positions, which as Drakulić explains, continues to be the daily struggle of women living in these regions.

Many women in this part of the world simply do not benefit from an open environment that would be receptive to their confessions, and debates on gender-related violence rarely take place in the public. Those that do decide to speak up often face humiliation, threats and further harassment, as it occurred when Marija decided to speak up.

In November 2017 Serbia ratified European Council’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women (the Istanbul convention). Since then, on average 1572 restraining orders and 689 eviction orders are issued monthly with men receiving them in 85% of cases and women 15%, according to a local Autonomous Women’s Centre.

In Croatia the convention was only adopted in 2018, with Slovakia and Bulgaria condemning it as promoting ‘gender ideology’ and thus refusing to accept it. Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and Czech Republic have likewise not ratified it as of yet.

Justice for Marija and other women in the East?

Speaking at the International Civil Society Week conference that took place in Belgrade, Serbia in April, Marija spoke about the threats and harassment that followed her public condemnation. On the other hand, she also applauded the level of support that countered the negative reception.

Marija Lukić speaking at International Civil Society Week 2019 in Belgrade, Serbia in April 2019. Photo by: CIVICUS. All rights reserved.None

Every two days Marija receives at least three tweets from Serbian women sharing similar stories. Indeed, after she placed a charge on Jutka, at least six other women accused him of similar harassment. Only her case made it to the court, however.

Marija’s evidence against the former municipality president and a member of Serbia’s currently leading conservative and populist Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is abundant, including 15,000 inappropriate messages he has sent her since 2015, when she first met him during a job interview.

But despite all of this Marija received no institutional support when she began her campaign against her molester. Rather, she was continuously discouraged and threatened against speaking out particularly in light of the political shelter that Jutka has as a member of the SNS.

On February 27th this year Marija went on a public TV broadcast to share her story but the cable network “lost connection” for her community of Brus only, further demonstrating the hurdles that Marija, as a woman accusing a public official, has to go through.

Under communism women’s emancipation was a given as they formed a part of the proletariat. As a result of being fully emancipated on paper, women were prevented from demanding more, which led to huge discrepancies between their public and private positions.

The #metoo movement has definitely been an important part of raising the issue of gender-based violence and harassment in the public sphere as well as in emphasising the sheer extent of women that face such attacks on a daily basis.

But approaching the #metoo movement homogeneously ignores structural inequalities women go through across different regions and hence reproduces the myth of women’s universality - the experience of a woman is one and the same regardless of where she comes from -, a term used by many scholars such as Spivak and Mohanty.

Apart from formal acknowledgments, societies in Eastern and south-Eastern Europe still have a long way to go in having gender-related discussions in order to ultimately: empower women to speak-up, increase awareness of the injustices they face and counter the patriarchal notions in the region that continue to denounce any kind of pressure for women’s rights as mere ‘gender ideology'.

This article has been produced in partnership with CIVICUS in the context of the International Civil Society Week conference 2019, held this year in Belgrade, Serbia.

The partnership developed a blog for the ICSW 2019 that is not particularly Latin American but tackles Global Civil Society which is one of DA’s thematic axis.

Unete a nuestro boletín ¿Qué pasa con la democracia, la participación y derechos humanos en Latinoamérica? Entérate a través de nuestro boletín semanal. Suscríbeme al boletín.

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