39% of Latvian women have suffered from violence and at least 115 women endure violence daily in Latvia. Overall, Latvian society remains pretty conservative on gender issues and excuses violence against women. The question is – why?
Latvia has been declaring its adherence to European values since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the early 90s, Latvian society went through a radical transformation where the political agenda was defined by the liberalization of the economy and through embracing basic human rights. In principle, this should have improved the situation of Latvian women, as it is safer to live in a country where human rights are respected by the state, however in practice this was not the case. Latvia has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which came into force in the country in 1992. Additionally, since 2004 Latvia has been a member of the European Union and therefore it has had a significant amount of time to take action to improve the tragic situation of women suffering from various forms of violence. Despite this, according to the first EU-wide survey of violence against women, 39% of Latvian women have suffered from violence (33% and 31% for neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania) and that at least 115 women endure violence daily in Latvia. These results are slightly higher than the EU average, but the level of violence against women outside the family occupies a worryingly high 7th place.
Considering this information, one might think that tackling violence against women is of great importance in Latvia. What happens in reality is not that encouraging. “Gender problems are real but not significant enough” – this stance has a detrimental effect on how Latvian society deals with violence against women. Furthermore, Latvia has a glittering façade which can mislead observers who are not familiar with the situation from inside.
Well-educated women but still abused
Latvia has been praised as a country where women occupy more and more leading positions and where the policy of gender equality is being implemented quite successfully. On a European Union scale Latvia still has a long way to go – it occupies a modest 15th place in the gender equality index, but if we compare Latvia to other parts of the world, the result is considerably higher – Latvia was ranked 15th out of 142 countries by the World Economic Forum in 2014. However, this high position is still problematic. If we compare this data with violence related statistics, the conclusion is not reassuring at all. It seems that having a higher access to education and longer life expectancy do not spare Latvian women the risk of being beaten, raped, and emotionally or economically abused. This is why achievements in the field, such as the “first female president/head of government/CEO” are very vaguely linked to the lives of ordinary women. In Latvia, the majority of female deputies represent more or less conservative parties, women in power do not actually campaign for the necessity for stricter legislation or a change in public opinion on these matters. It is very rare for violence against women or any other gender equality-related topic to come to the attention of the media in Latvia, when it does, it often provokes misunderstanding or even criticism. The lack of understanding of modern feminism, the reluctance to admit that gender issues are never isolated from other problems the society faces, leads to negligence.
A habitual user of the internet in Latvia, who is not really interested in feminist issues, is not very likely to hear about the International Day for Eliminating Violence against Women and that people are working to improve women’s wellbeing, unless they make a purposeful search. Since 2014, those suffering from family violence have the right to be immediately separated from their abuser and it is now the abuser who has to leave rather than the victim. This change in the legislation is praiseworthy, however, it is not enough to overcome the challenges women face in Latvia and their recognised place in society, suggesting that violence against women will not be effortlessly eradicated. According to the Resource Center for Women, MARTA, 15.8% of respondents stated that violence against women is justifiable and 46.5% claimed that violence within the home is the business of the family and that they would not interfere. Overall, Latvian society remains pretty conservative on gender issues and the question is – why?
Preserving traditions, preserving violence
As far as violence against women is concerned, it is often concluded that something has to be done on this matter but it does not necessarily have to be too feminist or radical. The family unit remains central and it is perceived as a fortress, a place to hide from all the storms and injustices of the outside world. The conservative lobby in Latvian politics is fairly influential as it unites together with the nationalist agenda which has an increasing number of supporters. The other, more unusual strand of conservatism is in ideological opposition to Europe. Despite the fact that Latvia has been aspiring to join the alliance of European countries since gaining independence from the USSR, it is now a widely held belief that Europe, together with its human rights and gender equality, is rotten and immoral. Essentially, European values are acceptable only if they are values of the former ‘good Europe’ – those of hierarchy, traditional gender roles and heteronormativity. In this context, dealing with violence against women is only possible in terms of “a gentleman would never beat a lady” or, even worse, “a real lady will never be beaten.”
The conservative lobby is significant not only when it clearly expresses its anti-feminist stance but also the influence it has on public opinion regarding mechanisms which allow institutions to interfere with private family life – from juvenile justice to barring orders. For the time being the hot topic in Latvia is parents’ power over children which is not directly linked to fighting (or concealing) violence against women, but poses the same questions – is family an armed fortress? Is family a safe place by default? Is it understood that bad things may happen in families exactly because the answer to the two previous questions too often has been positive, without solid evidence?
How to manage the post-Soviet legacy?
Modern feminism is not only about changing legislation, it is also about challenging conventional cultural norms and fighting vicious gender stereotypes. Latvia serves as a good example – its laws, at least for now, are promoting gender equality while its culture does the opposite, in a far more destructive manner.
No post-Soviet country can escape the Soviet legacy. Regardless of how many times a day we repeat that we belong solely to the European civilization (thus excluding socialism), it is not France or Germany which affects our everyday experience in Latvia – it is nearly 50 years of being part of a Soviet project, with all its gender controversies. Women of the Soviet Union are still waiting for the interest of social scientists to research their history and lives. It is an unusual situation when the entire lived experience of the women of Soviet Latvia is superficially pitied but not scientifically explored. Post-Soviet feminist studies could bring into light some valuable research to clarify Latvian culture norms. Violence against women in Latvia did not start in 1991 – so it is of vital importance to know why violence has been socially acceptable behaviour throughout history. In order to understand and transform public opinion on this matter in modern Latvia, it is necessary to study Soviet gender relationships and Soviet cultural norms which imposed traditional gender roles on women while declaring complete gender equality at the official level. Without this analysis it is undeniable that violence against women will continue to persist regardless of stricter legislation on this matter; it will simply take other forms which are more difficult to identify and prosecute.
Pro-violence public speeches: are feminists complicating the issue?
Feminists have developed the ability to stay composed when messages promoting traditional values are published in the mainstream media, but what reaction is appropriate when state officials utter pro-violence statements? In 2014, Chief State Prosecutor Elita Jurkjāne sparked massive outrage in the media by stating that in some cases rape victims are responsible for the crime themselves. Later, the General Prosecutor refused to recall this statement and to make an apology, explaining that in a democratic society everyone has the right to express their views – an explanation used frequently in Latvia to justify sexist and racist opinions.
What is important about this story is the widespread negative reaction. It was not stated in this case that feminists are just complicating the issue and over-reacting. Unfortunately, when other gender-related questions are at stake, feminists are not so lucky. This particular case teaches us that it is necessary to speak out when controversial issues arise, overcoming barriers of shyness and feeling that “it’s not all that important.” If rape matters, than all other gender topics do as well.
To conclude I ask the question, what does Latvia stand on the eve of another International Day for Eliminating Violence against Women? We are likely to read some generic articles and TV announcements which will report statistics rather than analysing the issue in depth, as has been common in previous years. Three things are necessary to make a change, firstly the ultra-conservative grass-roots movements should be taken seriously and not treated like powerless internet anomalies. Secondly, a progressive outlook on gender issues should be embraced and promoted, because at the moment the term “feminism” is imported through the backdoor. Finally, communication channels between the three Baltic States should be improved, as they all struggle with similar problems and can help each other more effectively than western European countries who lived through a completely different historical experience.