Domestic violence affects every second woman in Belarus, but the few shelters in the country can help only a tiny fraction of its victims.

In this house there is no violence and no men. And it is absolutely free. The address is a well-kept secret. Privacy and anonymity are essential for making sure the women here stay safe.

The detached house in the Belarusian capital has space for 30 beds, and most are usually occupied. Women with children have separate rooms; several women on their own share a common room. Interior doors have no locks in case someone needs urgent help, but there is a safe for money and documents. The kitchen is shared, but each room has a fridge. Some staple foods are kept on hand for those in need.

This was the first shelter in Belarus for women victims of domestic violence when the non-governmental organization Radislava set it up 15 years ago. Elena has ended up here twice. A 45-year-old with a subtle smile and quiet voice, she speaks softly of events so painful that she weeps.

Before finding herself in the shelter, she had to spend three nights in a forest. She ate berries and washed herself in the rain. After years working on a local collective dairy farm, she knew how to find drinking water.

This was no reality show. Elena was in the forest to hide from her abusive partner. After he attacked her, she left home secretly, with a severely injured leg. Finally, she called a friend for help before her phone battery ran out of power.

Before she fled her home, Elena’s partner used to beat her senseless, repeatedly and severely. “He twisted my legs and arms, punched me in the head. I could not fully recover from one brain injury before I sustained another.”

She made several complaints, but the police refused to arrest the abuser. One police officer humiliated her and called her a drunk. When the case finally made it to court, the only thing the judge suggested was for the couple to reconcile.

Kira tells a similar tale of how she was forced to seek help outside of law enforcement. When her then husband beat and threatened to kill her, police declined to take action on her reports of domestic violence because, they said, the situation was a “family matter.”

“They even told me that I, and only I, was to blame, because I chose him myself,” she says.

Originally from the southern city of Homel, Kira, 35, is tall, with gray-blue eyes and strawberry-blonde curly hair, which she tidied up when we met. Her ex-husband would call her a whore because of that, she says. She shows me his text messages. There are other strong words, too.

They have two daughters, Eva, 8, and Sofia, 7. It’s been almost a year since Kira and the girls moved to the shelter, where they have their own room. Radislava also dispenses counseling services and, in Kira’s case, legal advice on how to contest her ex-husband’s claim to be awarded sole custody of their children.

Every Second Woman

Elena and Kira are among 451 women who have found temporary home at the shelter since 2016.

Radislava, the non-governmental organization that operates the shelter, was established in 2002 by women who had suffered from violence. In 2004, they set up their first shelter in a two-bedroom apartment in Minsk. Several times they had to shut it down when they ran out of money, until in 2012 a helping hand appeared from nowhere, when Richard La Ruina, a British writer and, curiously, a speaker on seduction, offered funding.

Radislava offers more than safe shelter. “Last week, we received around 30 calls on our hotline. No one asked about accommodation. More than 700 women a year receive psychological support or a legal referral,” says Darya Tsaryk, a staff member.

Who are these women in need? All kinds, it turns out. Wealthy, poor, and middle-class. Women who are tortured by their children or grandchildren. Wives and girlfriends who are beaten, raped, and threatened with death by their partners. Sisters. Daughters. Transgender women. Refugees.

Their stories share many similarities, above all the pain of physical, emotional, economic, or sexual abuse. The prevalence of violence against women comes as a shock. In Belarus, every second woman has experienced some form of domestic violence, according to findings released last year by the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences.

And yet, existing Belarusian law contains no specific regulations against domestic violence. When a draft bill to criminalize domestic abuse was prepared, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka dismissed the issue as Western “nonsense.” He promised to follow “Belarusian, Slavic traditions,” and said a good belting could be “useful” in raising children.

Radislava was a member of the working group that advised the drafters of the bill. The Interior Ministry lobbied for the bill, but after the president’s disapproval, it was rejected last year.

“We are still hoping the law on domestic violence will be approved,” Tsaryk says.

Seeking Financial Security

Radislava organizes events and activities to raise awareness of domestic violence: photo exhibitions, theatrical performances, conferences, feminist camps, and more. Among the recent initiatives was a course in Wen-Do self-defense and assertiveness training.

The organization’s members give lectures at schools. They train public servants who work with domestic violence victims, such as local police. Training police, however, is “quite useless, due to the constant staff turnover,” Tsaryk explains. “You come, give a lecture, and then the person quits because of the low salary.”

Tsaryk joined Radislava five years ago, from a background in journalism. She became interested in the topic of domestic violence while reporting on it. She ultimately chose activism, because “journalism in Belarus is not effective enough to solve systemic problems.”

She still writes, though. She regularly contributes to Imena (The Names), an initiative and crowdfunding platform in support of socially responsible journalism. Through Imena, Radislava has raised 38,000 Belarusian rubles ($18,500) in the last two years.

Radislava also promotes itself on social media and by word of mouth. As it is one of the best-known women’s support groups in Belarus, police often suggest that women contact it directly.

Radislava relies on funding from international organizations, such as the Heinrich Boll Foundation, and anonymous private donors, one of whom donated 60,000 euro ($66,430). Most of this money goes to the shelter.

If there’s extra funding, Radislava sometimes helps women learn a new trade or complete their training as a hairdresser or manicurist, even tattoo artist. The group once paid a student’s tuition fee for two semesters of college. The girl, who couldn’t pay for her studies, had ended up in the shelter on the run from her violent brother.

Life After Radislava

Work at the shelter is demanding and stressful. The staff work irregular hours, sometimes at night, and are constantly on call to serve the needs of other people. Burnout levels are high.

A core team of eight keeps the shelter running: coordinators, psychologists, psychotherapists, an accountant, and an administrator. Other staff members come and go. “It is not easy to find an unbiased specialist who has expertise and no subjective opinions,” Tsaryk remarks.

“There are and will be women who live at the shelter for up to two years,” Tsaryk says. “Although we don’t have any time limits and treat each case individually, at times we have said that it was time to leave. Afterward those women were grateful when they realized they were able to manage their lives themselves.”

Some women reunite with their abuser after just one night, a sign they are not ready for a permanent separation, Tsaryk explains. For this reason, Radislava doesn’t come to women’s homes to pick them up, although staff will meet women at a nearby metro station if needed.

The staff’s first priority is to ensure that a client is out of physical danger, and is not having suicidal thoughts. Nearly seven in 10 clients succeed in starting new lives, according to Radislava. One in five returns to live with their abusive partner, at least for a time, often because they have nowhere else to live, and most of the remainder return to live under the same roof with abusive parents, siblings, or children.

Elderly women find it especially hard to break away from their abusers. “There was a case when a woman cooked for her abusive son and sent his food home, while living in the shelter,” Tsaryk recalls.

For years, Radislava was the only organization in Belarus to provide shelter for victims of domestic abuse. There is now one, though not well publicized, shelter run by a religious organization, and a shelter for women and children operated by the Belarusian branch of the SOS Children’s Villages charity.

There is also the network of 254 state-funded “crisis rooms” around the country, set up to offer temporary shelter for anyone in need, for instance after a house fire. Concerns about safety and anonymity put off many women from using this service. Some fear losing custody of their children if the information about family abuse were to reach the child protection services.

These worries can be left at the door of the Radislava shelter, since it is independent of the state and doesn’t share information about its clients. The group plans to expand into a larger house, with space for 50 beds.

Almost a year after Kira moved to the shelter, Radislava is now looking for a room for her and her daughters in Minsk, as a way of showing child care services that their living conditions have improved. Had it not been for Radislava, Kira says, she would be living on the street. The last time we met, she was smiling and said she felt stronger.

Elena is living in Minsk with her son, working two jobs to make ends meet. She still experiences headaches and memory loss as a result of her injuries, but says she feels happy and safe. Elena keeps in touch with other women she met in the shelter.

“Apart from the psychological counseling Radislava gave, the friendship there also helped me,” she says. Whenever she has time, she visits friends still living in the shelter. “I feel that these women need my help. And I want to pay something back, because nobody will understand them better than I do.”

Hanna Liubakova is a freelance journalist from Belarus, currently based in Poland.