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Exploring the Realities of Safety and Women's Rights in Eastern Europe


Women and men do not have equal human rights in Europe (Amnesty International 2022). According to the European Union (2021), one-third of women living in the European Union have been victims of physical or sexual violence. One-fifth of European women have also been victims of gender-based violence (Amnesty International 2022). The United Nations values the safety of women and girls, which inspired the fifth Sustainable Development Goal. The goal aims to eliminate discrimination against girls and women worldwide, reduce violence and exploitation against women, and increase access to sex education, reproductive rights, and contraceptives (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2023).

eastern europe
Eastern Europe



Women's rights trajectory in early modern Russia differed from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Western Europe. Russia’s economy was poorer, citizens worked as serfs, and the state was governed by elite merchants. Muscovite culture was influenced by Russian Orthodox religion rather than Catholicism or Protestantism. The Renaissance and Reformation did not spread to Russia, partly because a small group of elites could read. This was evident by the absence of secondary and post-secondary schools (Kollman 2004, 363).

Russian culture started to change due to Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarussians (Kollman 2004, 363). Less is known about gender roles in Russia due to a lack of records and primary sources (Kollman 2004, 363). Scholars know that women could inherit property. However, Muscovite authorities took land to support the army. During the 1400s, only military officials and religious officials could own land. Two centuries later, land could not be given to churches or women due to military and government control (Kollman 2004, 364).

Some scholars believe that women lost rights, whereas others believe that women could own and manage land (Kollman 2004, 364). One source is “The Domostroi,” a domestic life handbook from the 1500s. The document mentions misogyny, the patriarchy, women’s sexuality, individuality, and rights with God. The handbook states that women and men should be pious, giving, and humble (Kollman 2004, 364). The Domostroi does not mention etiquette, education, and civility. Orthodox texts state men should care for their wives and avoid domestic violence. However, abuse was still prevalent. Some marriages were arranged, and others were not (Kollman 2004, 365).

During the 1600s, the government gave land back to families. Elite women could own land and have property rights in the 1700s (Kollman 2004, 364). However, they were expected to be hidden from men to increase their value among suitors (Kollman 2004, 366). Seclusion was seen as a “luxury” and supported a family’s honor. Insults against a woman’s honor focused on their outfit, hairstyle, or body (Kollman 2004, 366).

Muscovites could go to court, manage property, and sign contracts. Legally, women had similar rights to men (Kollman 2004, 367). However, women could not work as politicians or salon workers. On the other hand, noble women were important because they could pray for the tsar or ask for mercy. Traditionally, tsars were supposed to be open-minded, fair, and faithful (Kollman 2004, 367). Witchcraft accusations were not an issue in Russia because spells were associated with folk magic, healing, and men (Kollman 2004, 367).

Gender roles changed after the arrival of foreign Jesuits in Peter the Great’s court (1682-1725). The tsar was receptive to Western European ideas and cultures. Consequently, Muscovites wore European clothes and received an education influenced by Western Europe (Kollman 2004, 367). During the 1700s, Russian elites discussed women’s role in society. As a result, women were supposed to be obedient wives, helpers, and mothers due to the belief that women’s divine purpose was to assist men (Kollman 2004, 368; Clements 2004, 557). Society believed that women were more expressive and less analytical (Clements 2004, 557). As a result, men governed what women could and could not do (Clements 2004, 557).

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)

After a famine and a bloody worker’s protest, Russian women established the All-Russian Union for Women’s Equality in 1905 to improve girls' education and marriage. Advocates also aimed to change sexual norms (Briatte 2023). Other women desired civil and equal rights (Hauch 2022). In February 1917, the Bolsheviks rebelled against Tsar Nicholas II during World War I. Protestors aimed to remove Russian traditions that led to oppression. Communists prioritized industrialization and agriculture, which led to the expansion of the Russian workforce. Karl Marx believed both sexes were equal and required access to jobs and education. Consequently, Moscow supported daycares, laundries, maternity care, abortion, and improved men's attitudes towards women during the early 1920s (Clements 2004, 558; Hauch 2022). Nine out of ten urban women were literate. Women could work in fields, factories, stores, and offices (Clements 2004, 559). However, women still worked in traditionally female occupations such as education, nursing, child-rearing, and retail (Clements 2004, 560).

During the late 1910s, women gained the right to vote in Austria (1918), Latvia (1918), Estonia (1918), Russia (1917), and Poland (1918)(Briatte 2023). The Russian government removed divisions between legitimate and illegitimate children, pregnancy termination, and same-sex relationships were decriminalized, and supported equal pay (Hauch 2022). Marxist ideas spread from Moscow to Eastern Europe after World War II (Clements 2004, 557). Eastern women found employment due to vacancies left by soldiers (Clements 2004, 562). Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Yugoslavian, Czech and Slovak women also had access to services such as daycares and maternity care. However, they were underfunded (Clements 2004, 562).

Despite women’s gains in education, employment, and suffrage, men believed that women were inferior and should be mothers (Clements 2004, 559). During the 1930s, Moscow favored natalism and families. As a result, women lost the right to divorce and abortion (Briatte 2023; Hauch 2022). In Romania, women were punished for being childless if they were older than twenty-six years old (Hauch 2022). Clements (2004) claims that men saw women and the home as a source of comfort in Stalinist Russia (Clements 2004, 560). Pressure by Moscow could have led to an increase in domestic violence-men became disillusioned with gains from communism and questioned traditional gender roles because women had more freedom (Clements 2004, 564).

Dissolution of the Soviet Union and International Organizations

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. This led to political changes across Eastern Europe. Each country was now responsible for discussing and drafting legislation related to women's rights. Some states joined the European Union, and others did not. Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania joined the European Union between 2004 and 2007 (European Union 2023). Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia have not joined the European Union. Despite legislation drafted by state governments and the United Nations, gender based violence and discrimination is still prevalent in Eastern Europe. There is not enough information or shelters for domestic survivors in Eastern Europe. For example, fourteen women's shelters serve 146 million people. Only thirty-three shelters served 42 Ukrainians before Russia’s invasion. This is partly because officials declined to create necessary institutions. Consequently, most shelters are owned by non-profit organizations (Amnesty International 2022). Amnesty International calls on Eastern European officials to immediately outlaw gender based violence, assist victims with evidence collection, focus on criminal charges instead of reconciliation, and guarantee sufficient protection, support, and reproductive health services (Amnesty International 2022).

Country Reports (2022)


Rape is illegal, but the law does not distinguish marital rape. However, lawmakers added relatives, guardians, and former spouses to definitions of domestic violence on January 6, 2022, and created a national domestic violence database. The penalty for sexual assault is 3-5 years (DoS 2022a 64). However, NGOs noted that Belarussian authorities did not charge perpetrators or reduce conditions that can lead to domestic violence-such as drug abuse or unemployment (p. 64). Exceptions were only made when death or physical threats were involved. Additionally, there are no laws against sexual harassment (DoS 2022a, 67)

During the first ten months of 2022, there were 70,000 reported cases of domestic violence. Nearly 70 women were killed, and 126 people were severely injured. As a result, the government [issued] more than 10,000 protective orders (DoS 2022a, 65). Orders last a minimum of three days and a maximum of thirty days. However, the length of protection orders can be increased. Survivors and perpetrators have the right to temporary lodging until orders run out. If protection orders are violated, the punishment is a fine or two weeks of detention (DoS 2022a. 65).

Survivor questioning and aggressor background checks fall under the police’s jurisdiction (DoS 2022a, 65). The police may extend an order if the perpetrator is aggressive, intoxicated, or has a mental disability. According to women’s rights groups, survivors have limited protection from crisis rooms and protective orders (DoS 2022a 66). NGOs recognized the absence of state-backed shelters, psychologists, and social workers under Lukashenka’s regime (DoS 2022a, 68). The Belarussian president has spoken out against women’s rights. In 2018, Lukashenka noted that a “good belting could be useful” in homes (Amnesty International 2022). Two years later, Lukashenka’s government shuttered domestic violence NGOs and intimidated their workers. NGO Radislava, an organization with a domestic violence hotline and shelter, was dissolved. Volha Harbunova, a coordinator and advocate, was arrested and accused of organizing demonstrations in 2020 (DoS 2022a, 66). Victims of domestic violence avoid reporting domestic violence because they could lose parental rights, their kids could be sent to an institution, and their family would be categorized as a “social risk” (Amnesty International 2022). On July 11, 2022: Minsk pushed for the supervision of councils that assist domestic violence survivors. The legislation created warnings to aggressors, prevention databases, and protective orders (DoS 2022a, 64).

Disabled, institutionalized, and pregnant women experienced discrimination from health facilities. In some cases, doctors persuaded patients to end their pregnancies (DoS 2022a, 67).In rural Belarus, there are not enough medical professionals who can help women through difficult pregnancies (DoS 2022a, 67). Belarussian schools do not provide sex education. However, guides to contraception are available to the public. Minsk does not ban birth control, but some religious groups are against contraception (DoS 2022a, 67).


Domestic violence is illegal in Moldova, which lists five types: economic, physical, psychological, spiritual, and sexual Moldovan law also covers sexual violence against men or women, sexual assault, and spousal rape (DoS 2022d, 33). Domestic violence offenders can be in prison for 15 years. Violation penalties can lead from 3 years to life in prison (DoS 2022c, 33-4). However, minor harm is punished by community service or paying a fine. Sexual harassment is punishable in Moldova; however, protections do not extend to work environments. Non-governmental organizations asserted that the Moldovan judiciary does not adequately punish perpetrators (DoS 2022c. 35-6).

Unmarried adults and their children are protected by Moldovan law (DoS 2022c, 33). Additionally, legislation calls for collaboration between civil society organizations, government officials, and third parties. Victims do not have to report domestic violence to law enforcement because third parties can file complaints in their place (DoS 2022d, 33-4). Moldovan officials have stated their commitment to supporting crisis centers, 24-hour telephone hotlines, shelters, mental and physical health services, and punishing lawbreakers (DoS 2022c, 34).

Despite Chisinau’s commitment to helping domestic violence survivors, there are legal loopholes for aggressors. Additionally, victims who report their case fear social stigmas and re-traumatization. More than a thousand domestic violence cases were reported in 2022. Nineteen victims were killed. More than 4,500 emergency restraining orders and 550 protection orders were issued by the General Police Inspectorate (DoS 2022c, 34). However, La Strada’s Women and Girls’ Trust Line received approximately three hundred fewer calls about domestic violence, marking a decrease between 2021 and 2022 (DoS 2022c, 35).

Chisinau and the United Nations Population Fund collaborated to improve sexual and reproductive health services for Moldovans and refugees (DoS 2022c, 36). However, young women in rural areas and psychiatric facilities did not have adequate access to reproductive and sexual health information. According to the Moldovan Institute for Human Rights, women in institutions were unaware of birth control options or free hygiene products in 2020. Emergency contraception was not easily accessible to survivors of gender based violence because only family doctors could provide it (DoS 2022c, 37).


Rape is illegal, and offenders can face 3-6 years in prison. On the other hand, Russian law does not legally define domestic violence or sexual harassment (DoS 2022d, 53). Law enforcement does not properly punish sexual assault by partners or acquaintances. Police officers mostly ignored domestic violence calls except for when the perpetrator threatened the survivor’s life and did not hand out protection orders (DoS 2022d, 52-3). According to the NGO ANNA Center, seven out of ten women who experienced GBV did not report the crime because they were afraid, ashamed, poor, and/or unconfident that they would get justice. Survivors also avoided going to law enforcement because they had to collect evidence that they were sexually assaulted or faced domestic violence (DoS 2022d, 53). If women went to the police, they might rescind charges due to peer pressure, manipulation from their abuser, and intimidation. Additionally, Russian institutions saw reconciliation and families more important than justice (DoS 2022d, 54).

Due to Russian policies, women who defended themselves from abusers were arrested.

When a man attacked his wife with a knife, she grabbed the weapon and killed him. The woman was sentenced to 6.5 years in prison (DoS 2022d, 54). According to Mediazona and Novaya Gazeta’s study, most women (80%) accused of premeditated murder between 2016 and 2018 protected themselves from harm (DoS 2022d, 54).

Human Rights organizations found that women in Chechnya and Dagestan were kidnapped to become brides, married as children, and followed strict Islamic dress codes. Honor killings were also recorded by Human Rights Groups. Crimes against women in the North Caucasus were ignored and covered up by local authorities, family members, doctors, and lawyers (DoS 2022d, 55). Birth control is more available in urban areas, and sex education is rare in Russia. Sexual and reproductive health services were also available, but survivors avoided using them due to social stigma. Religious and conservative groups promoted increasing Russia’s birth rate (DoS 2022d, 56)


Domestic violence and rape are illegal regardless of gender or marital status. Offenders can face 3-15 years in prison. The former crime is punished by community service, fines, 1 day to six-month restraining orders, and arrests. On June 20, 2022, The Ukrainian parliament accepted the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention). There were 95,000 reports of domestic violence recorded and the Office of the Prosecutor General investigated 1,400 cases. Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and an issue at work. Penalties include fines or up to three years in prison. Some sexual harassment cases were dismissed by courts. Reproductive and sexual health services for survivors and birth control were accessible. However, the availability of health services and hospitals has negatively been impacted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (DoS 2022e, 39-41).

Conclusion: Iceland as a model

Iceland’s policies towards domestic violence can serve as an inspiration for eastern European governments. Persons accused of rape can face up to 16 years in prison. However, the average sentence length is 2-3 years. Sexual harassment is defined as “any type of unfair or offensive physical, verbal, or symbolic sexual behavior that is unwanted, affects the self-respect of the survivor, and continues despite a clear indication that the behavior is undesired” (DoS 2022b 8). Violators can face two years in prison and institutions that allow sexual harassment can be fined (DoS 2022b 9).

Police can forcefully enter a building if someone’s life is in danger. Law enforcement can also remove offenders from a shared home for at least four weeks and dictate a restraining order for 72 hours. Icelandic courts can increase orders to a year and give survivors a lawyer so they can press charges against the perpetrator. The police can detain perpetrators and give survivors medical and legal support. Women’s shelters in Akureyi and Reykjavik are funded by the Icelandic government and are free to use (DoS 2022b, 8). Reproductive services for survivors are available at hospitals and nongovernmental organizations. These institutions offer free counseling and emergency contraception (DoS 2022b, 9). If Eastern European countries take similar steps to Iceland, then maybe incidents of domestic violence will decrease in the region, and women's rights in eastern Europe can prosper.


Amnesty International. 2022. “Eastern Europe and Central Asia: Lack of Protection against Domestic Violence Exacerbated by Crises and Traditional Values-New Report” Amnesty International. Eastern Europe and Central Asia: Lack of protection against domestic violence exacerbated by crises and ‘traditional values’ – new report - Amnesty International.

Bogucka, Maria. 1998. “Great Disputes over Woman in Early Modern Times.” Acta Polonia Historica 78, 27–52.

Briatte, Anne-Laure. 2023. “Feminisms and Feminist Movements in Europe,” Encyclopedie d’historie numerique de l’Europe.

Clements, Barbara E. “Continuities Amid Change: Gender Ideas and Arrangements in Twentieth-Century Russia and Eastern Europe” In A Companion to Gender History, ed. Teresa Meade et. al (Chicester, John Wiley & Sons 2004). p. 555-567.

European Union. 2023. "Country Profiles." European Union.

European Union. 2021. "Women's Rights: Is Gender Equality a Reality in Europe?" European Union.

Hauch, Gabriella. 2022. “Gender and Revolution in Europe, 19th-20th Centuries,” Encyclopedie d’historie numerique de l’Europe.

Kollman, Nancy S. “Self, Society and Gender in Early Modern Russia and Eastern Europe”. In A Companion to Gender History, ed. Teresa Meade et. al (Chicester, John Wiley & Sons 2004). p. 358-370.

Meade, Teresa A, et al. A Companion to Gender History. John Wiley & Sons. 2004.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2023. "5 Achieve Gender Equality and Empower all Women and Girls," United Nations.

United States Department of State (DoS). 2022a. 2022 Country Reports of Human Rights Practices: Belarus.

United States Department of State. 2022b. 2022 Country Reports of Human Rights Practices: Iceland.

United States Department of State. 2022c. 2022 Country Reports of Human Rights Practices: Moldova.

United States Department of State. 2022d. 2022 Country Reports of Human Rights Practices: Russia.

United States Department of State. 2022e. 2022 Country Reports of Human Rights Practices: Ukraine.

Further Reading (International Law and Reports):


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