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Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The Voices of Violence exhibition is haunting and emotional

Article by: Naima El Hawary

The Issue at Hand

Gender-based violence (GBV) and discrimination against women is still common: According to the World Bank, 1 in 3 women worldwide are affected by GBV in their lifetime. Women who vocalise their stories often feel ignored, disrespected, or even ridiculed. Oxfam goes so far to describe GBV as a largely disregarded global pandemic. When compared to highly publicised and addressed pandemics, such as COVID-19, there were 46,023,554 more cases of violence against women and girls in 2018, than confirmed COVID-19 cases between 2020 and 2021. Women who experience violence and discrimination, be it sexual violence or harassment, are often forced to feel like they must suffer in silence. To destigmatise the issue, the Danish Cultural Institutes (DCI) recently aimed to give victims of GBV their voices back in a wonderful project run in cooperation with the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

The Project at Hand

Travelling through the three Baltic states (Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia), the Voices of Violence project was connected to major festivals in each of the countries, whilst also being shown online in neighbouring Belarus. It worked as follows: In 2021, the EESC and DCI collected stories from victims of GBV, which were then anonymously told by actresses via a video exhibition. At the forefront of the priorities for the organisers was the creation of a compassionate, safe space. The telling of stories and experiences of women exposed to GBV aimed to make frightening realities voiced. The DCI expresses how the first step towards change and action is understanding and listening. Growing as it travelled from country to country, the Voices of Violence project reminded people that no one needs to remain silenced.

The #MeToo Movement

The project also connected to the perspectives and insights generated by the #MeToo movement that was born in 2017. #MeToo highlighted the frequency and extent of gender-based violence. It also directly and tangibly contributed to a societal shift towards equality of the genders: Baltic and Nordic countries amended many of their laws to increase punishments for sexual harassment. Iceland broadened its criminal law of sexual assault to include a definition of rape as a non-consensual sexual act and Estonia introduced sexual assault as a crime. In Latvia, sexual harassment was previously only prosecuted when it resulted in physical harm, but due to the #MeToo movement, repeated threats and harassment were included in the legislation in 2018.

More To Be Done

The dreaded Communist past of the region made for a strong launchpad for the Baltic to perform well on some metrics on gender equality upon independence. During Soviet rule, women held managerial and professional roles much more frequently than in most Western societies, as Communism required all people of working age to contribute to the economy, regardless of gender. As a result, there were relatively high levels of gender equality in the 1990s and Estonian women can even claim the world’s top spot to this day when it comes educational attainment rates, according to the Global Gender Gap Report. But the picture and despite these positive signs the level of women’s equality is mixed in the Baltic countries.

Struggles and Limitations

The Global Gender Gap Report also shows that women in Latvia and Estonia have few parliamentary or ministerial positions. In all three Baltic states, fewer than 30% of MPs are women. According to Eurostat, Latvia and Estonia had the highest gender pay gaps in the EU in 2020. The fact that sexual assault was not a punishable crime in Estonia until 2017 and that the definition of sexual assault in Latvia is deliberately broad and hard to punish remains a cause for concern. As the Baltics face the rise of far-right groups, such as EKRE in Estonia, issues such as abortion rights have likewise come under increasing scrutiny. Across the Baltic Sea, this is not so much the case in the Nordic countries, which have strong feminist movements that are rooted in decades of struggles and organisational prowess, as well as broad societal backing across the political spectrum. Voices of Violence, therefore, aims to generate a positive impact in the Baltic countries through Icelandic and Danish feminist activism.

An Impactful Story from Latvia

One of the many tragic stories told in the Voices of Violence exhibition is presented by Marta Lovisa Jančevska. She tells the story of a Latvian woman who anonymously told her story after contacting social services. She explains how she was blackmailed by a man who abused her trust. After becoming pregnant with his child, he physically and emotionally abused her and forced her to engage in prostitution. He kept the money she earned to spend on alcohol. His physical and emotional threats toward her and even her baby made her feel helpless, powerless, and too scared to escape from him. Her story of fear and sexual exploitation is shown with the empathy and respect it deserves. By working with female artists, writers, and activists, the exhibition ties feminism closer to literature, film and art in general.

An Impactful Story from Estonia

Linda Vaher gives voice to the story of an Estonian woman in the exhibition. She tells the story of how she was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a kindergarten-age child by an older male family member. Because of the shame and fear she felt, she was more afraid of being caught by others than she was of her abuser. The relative is still close to her family, so she has never told them about the assault, as she does not want to burden them with guilt. Feelings of shame have plagued her for all of her life, especially because she has never been able to tell her story to anyone. The memory haunts her to this day and continue to affect her adult life.

The Virtual Exhibition

The Voices of Violence exhibition is haunting and emotional. It is a vital reminder of the issues women continue to face and creates an important space for dialogue. Spaces like these are incredibly important in the movement toward gender equality. You can access the Voices of Violence exhibition on the website of the European Economic and Social Committee or the larger exhibition on the website of the Danish Cultural Institute, listen to the stories of other women and share your own.

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