The Story of Oksana: A Specter of Violence Against Women in Ukraine

The world celebrates International Women’s Day every 8 of March. In essence, the event celebrates the socio-cultural, political, and economic milestones of women. It stands for the acceleration of gender equality; for the reform of social structures that hinders their actualization; and for the empowerment of all women. This event has been observed as early as 1900s (its origin can be traced in 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City to assert their right to suffrage) and is now enjoying a global recognition.

In Ukraine, 8 March 2012 holds a very different narrative (mind you, this doesn’t have a happy ending).

While flags and placards for International Women’s Day were being hoisted across the globe, Oksana Makar, an eighteen-year-old woman from Mykolaiv, Southern Ukraine, was gang-raped, strangled, and set alight that very day. According to the official reports, Oksana experienced ten hours of gradual burning. It was only in the morning of 9 March when a passing motorist spotted her already dying body at a construction site.

She met two of her assailants in a pub at Mykolaiv before they all went into the apartment of one of the attackers. The assailants were later identified as Yeyhen Krasnoshchok, Maksym Prysyazhnyuk, and Artyom Pohosyan. The local media released information that Prysyazhnyuk and Pohosyan are sons of powerful former officials of the government.

Doctors declared that fifty-five percent of her body suffered from second to third degree burns, with severely damaged lungs due to extreme smoke inhalation. During treatment, her right arm and both legs were amputated to stop the spread of gangrene. Oksana lived for another three weeks after the incident until she passed away on March 29 due to her fatal injuries. She suffered a painful death. She was buried the day after she passed away. In accordance to Ukrainian local burial tradition, Oksana was buried in a wedding dress.

One of the assailants admitted that they wrapped Makar’s naked body in a blanket, dumped her in a deserted construction site, and set her alight afterwards. Three men were initially arrested by the Ukrainian authority on 11 March. Though faced by a scandalous case, two of the suspects – whose parents were identified as individuals with political connections – were immediately released free from any criminal charges after police bail. The two were rearrested after Ukrainians’ massive outcry and the extensive coverage of international media. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych sent a team from Kiev to investigate the case. Four law-enforcement officials were dismissed after the intervention of President Yanukovych. Currently, Krasnoshchok is facing life imprisonment, while Prysyazhnyuk and Pohosyan were condemned to 15 and 14 years of imprisonment, respectively.

Based on the media reports, Oksana’s father and stepfather were imprisoned because of drug dealing while her mother on robbery. Because of this circumstances, she spent most of her childhood years as an orphan.

Beyond the Tragedy

United Nations released a statement on the current status and trajectories of gender issues in Ukraine:

“However, women still face constraints in practicing their political, economic and social rights. Violence against women and girls, including domestic and sexual violence, are pressing issue and impeding realization of their full potential. Women’s participation in decision-making remains extremely low. They are concentrated in low-paid economic sectors and with limited access to top management positions in all sectors of economy. Women make a majority in care and unpaid domestic work, with limited control over assets and productive resources.”

Oksana’s case is actually not an isolated incident of violence against women in Ukraine. A poll conducted by Gfk Ukraine last 2009 (commissioned by “Equal Opportunities and Women’s Rights in Ukraine Programme”) uncovered that 44% of Ukrainians suffered from domestic violence while 30% suffered violence during their childhood. The result also shows that almost half of those people who experienced abuse during their childhood also had to face it in their later years. Women and children abuse were generally regarded as “private family matter” / “domestic management”, and thus should not be eyed with utmost concern by the public. As a Ukrainian famous saying goes, “my house is at the end of the city, and I don’t want to know anything about my neighbors”.
Oksana Makar’s tragic story is just but another case of violence against women that is pervading in Ukrainian society. The brutality of her case, however, is almost unparalleled that it aroused progressive movements from the national population.

Based on the statistics, a question emerges whether what is acceptable within the Ukrainian social circle? Disturbingly, a number of tabloids and blogs appear to shift the blame on Oksana by painting an image of her as “slutty” and “irresponsible”. Some would even point out that her case was expected given her personal background. There are people treating the incident in micro-perspective instead of viewing the over-all dynamics of this systemic violence. Blaming Makar is like lying in the guise of truth. Until people stop blaming the victims in this kind of human rights violation, those in power will continue to do rotten things that the society will just excuse.

Just Another “Big-Wig Crime”

One of the most disappointing episodes in this Makar murder case, however, lies on how the authority handled it. This case was actually associated to “big-wig crimes”. These are offenses committed by children of influential social figures and sometimes those in the power themselves. In Ukraine, these type of crimes were usually swept under the rugs to protect those in high position. “Mazhory”, a term that refers to the children of government officials, businessmen, high-ranking police officers, etc., are widely known to avoid heavy punishments when they commit crimes. This culture of impunity among the new generation elites endangers those who are socially marginalized (and that includes children and women).

Final Thoughts…

The sudden release of Prysyazhnyuk and Pohosyan turned into another page in history books; that political and economic elites walk away from the crime scene unpunished. Ironically, the government and the justice system, the very institutions supposed to uphold the rights and well-being of the citizenry, turn a blind eye when the wealthy and privileged are involved.

The case of Makar, however, reached a different end. Waves of protest from both national and international groups pressured officials to change their initial decision, a hint that violation of basic human rights can be conquered when people started to act.