Heroes on the verge of the abyss: a report from a women's shelter in Mahilioŭ


Natasha and her 14-year-old son Sasha have no place to live. They found shelter at the Social Crisis Centre for Women in Mahilioŭ. Natasha says that her family was saved by the centre and that she will fight for her son.

We visited Mahilioŭ, where a Social Crisis Centre is in operation at the private social-pedagogic institution SOS – Children's Villages Mahilioŭ.

 “People who come to the shelter are heroes”

The centre is financed by the NGO SOS – Children's Villages, which is also the founder of similar villages in Barauliany, Minsk and Marjina Horka. Each village has a support centre for women in difficult situations, including shelter.

Alesya Chernyavskaya, a leading specialist in the prevention of social orphanhood at SOS – Children's Villages, says their organisation has been a member since 1991 of the international organisation SOS – Kinderdorf International, which finances children's villages in 136 countries.

In the last few years, SOS – Children's Villages have been receiving additional funding from the European Union within the framework of the ‘Security. A right to life without violence. Parenting School’ project, as well as the ‘Parenting School’ project (promotion of positive parenthood in Belarus).

“We opened a Crisis Centre in Mahilioŭ thanks to the additional financing from SOS-Kinderdorf International in 2007. On average over 25 women and children pass through each of our five shelters per year, that is a total of 125 people,” says Alesya.

Alesya says the decision to come to the crisis centre for help is a hard one for women to make, and the organisation takes on a huge responsibility:

“A woman agreeing to move to the shelter, most likely, is on the verge of the abyss. She has nowhere to go; she cannot stay where she is. Someone is beaten up at home and someone is under a threat of having a child taken away from them. It can be said that people who come to the shelter are heroes. They make a difficult decision and change their lives.”

“I have no place to go”

Most of the time, those who come to the shelter are mothers and children from families where there is a high risk that the child will be taken away. For instance, if parents have a drinking problem, or leave their young children without supervision and food, it can be decided that the child is in a socially dangerous situation; and if the situation does not change, the child may be taken away.

Natasha's family – herself and her 14-year-old son Sasha – is in a socially dangerous situation. They find themselves in difficulty because they have nowhere to live; the part of the house that Natasha shares with her brother, who is an alcoholic, is unfit to live in.

All last winter, Natasha rented a place, while her brother destroyed the house completely. The house is practically falling apart. It is impossible to live in it. In order to repair the house, a lot of money need to be invested, which the woman does not have.

At night, Natasha works for a cleaning company and makes a little over BYN 300 per month (approximately €123). The woman does not get any help from the child's father and her parents are no longer alive.

Yuliya Barchan, the councillor of the Crisis Centre SOS – Children's Village in Mahilioŭ, says that “Natasha's situation was really serious because she had a teenage son”. It would have been very difficult for a boy to lose his family at the age of 14.

Sasha and Nikita

20-year-old Sasha also has problems with housing. Her son, Nikita, is nine months old. Sasha says she had a choice: either the state took her child or she had to go to the shelter.

Sasha is an orphan who lived with a foster family in the Bykhaw District of the Mahilioŭ Region. When asked about the people who raised her, she is brief: “Good enough.”

When the young woman turned 18, she moved in with her boyfriend, the father of her baby: “After giving birth I came back from the hospital to him, but we lived together only for three months; he started beating me and then kicked me out.” So far, Sasha has not received any alimony from her ex-boyfriend. She has also not taken a paternity test and says that she does not want to have one yet.

There are currently eight mothers who are staying at the shelter with their children. They were either left in situations where they could not cope with their difficulties on their own, or they were being beaten at home. The youngest child at the centre just turned three months, and the oldest one, Natasha's son, is 14 years old. Each woman has her own room, while the kitchen and hall are for common use. Sometimes, if there is an emergency, two mothers may be put in one room.

“Our job is to provide support at a difficult moment, make the family self-sufficient”

At the centre, a number of services are provided for pregnant women, women who find themselves in crisis and mothers who became victims of domestic violence.

Most of the time, young mothers, who are sometimes underage, live at the centre.

“Often young mothers do not have any source of income, they are not emancipated and cannot care for the baby properly,” says the head of the Social Crisis Centre for Women, Yelena Pushkareva. “The state does not have any other way to protect the child than to take him away from his mother. We can help by providing housing to the mother and the child, teach her [the mother] the basics of motherhood and care for the baby. Our job is to provide support at a difficult moment, make the family self-sufficient, so that the woman is able to live without someone else's help.”

The Social Crisis Centre provides comprehensive, professional assistance.

Psychological support is the foundation of the centre’s work. It offers personal counselling and lessons on personal development. In addition, the centre helps women get access to existing social support, health care and other services in the region.

Pedagogical assistance and support include educational events for mothers, training on parenting effectiveness and preparation for so-called conscious motherhood. In this area, there are also self-help groups for women.

The dreaded words: “a socially dangerous situation”

Many women do not trust the state institutions and do not address them for help, because they are afraid of being qualified as being in “a socially dangerous situation”. They are scared that their children will be taken away from them if they go to the police.

“It is obvious that the problem of domestic violence exists, that children suffer as a result of physical and psychological violence. Unfortunately, victims often do not speak about it due to the ‘false shame’,” notes Yelena Pushkareva.

She is convinced that everything depends on the women themselves: “If the woman really wants to change the situation, get rid of violence and keep the children, she will ask for help. They should not be afraid of being classified as someone in a socially dangerous situation. The status only means that the family will be under control and can get help.”

Natasha, the mother of 14-year-old Sasha, adds that “the socially dangerous situation is not scary and it even has its advantages”. She believes that, thanks to their status, she and her child live in decent conditions at the shelter and the school is helping her too.

There is nothing wrong with asking for help

On International Women’s day, on 8 March, there will be a celebration for the women at the centre.

Natasha says that she will definitely attend. There is no other place to go and she knows that her child is safe at the shelter: “I am convinced that Sasha will congratulate me on the occasion. He has been making a card for me for each International Women's Day since [he was in] kindergarten.”

However, Sasha, the mother of a nine-month-old Nikita,  won’t be there. Sasha was planning to stay at the centre until summer but she did not manage to follow the centre's rules. Now, what happens next to her and her child depends only on herself.

The centre's philosophy is that the most important thing is to preserve the family – in other words, the mother and the child. However, Yuliya Barchan says that if there is a threat to the safety of the child then the shelter can initiate the process of taking the child away, which means the mother will leave the centre alone:

“Very young women are often not prepared to care for the child. Due to their young age, they want constant celebrations, love and dates. However, here, these meetings can only take place in a designated room, where they can meet with men and relatives. However, we cannot allow men to come to the common room, where there are other women and children, and argue. At the end of February, Zhenya, who only [just] turned 18, went home. She could not follow the rules either.”

The centre also tried to help a 19-year-old mother, who had three children. However, she could not keep them as she was not able to care for them.

Yuliya says that, based on the centre's experience, it is most of all women who do not have any family support who find themselves in crisis. For these women, who perhaps did not receive love and a good example of a family life, upbringing and education, it is hard to be mothers, even more so because most of them are single parents.

The centre's specialists also note that if a woman cannot manage her parenting responsibilities or is living in a violent environment, then there is nothing wrong with asking for help.

Any woman, of any age and social status, can find herself in a violent situation. As they say at the centre, violence should not be kept quiet – it should be stopped, and the International Women's Day is a good occasion to reflect on this.

Author: Yelena Spasyuk

Article published in Russian by Naviny.by.