Only 1 out of 10 women survivors of violence seek help from the police, globally. But even those that do often withdraw from the justice process due to poor responses from police or other judicial actors. Women’s access to justice starts with believing survivors and taking action, every day. Through this special editorial series for the 16 Days of Activism, UN Women showcases the voices of survivors and programmes that transform lives and communities.
Believe Survivors. Act Now. Milena’s Story, Moldova
Trigger warning: The following story includes descriptions of gender-based violence.
“I was abused at the age of 14, by a boy I had a relationship with. He was a year or two older than me. It happened at my home, in my own bed. He started touching me in a way I didn’t like. I froze, I was in shock. I could not do anything,” recalls Milena Rusu, from Chisinau, Moldova.
In the Republic of Moldova, sexual harassment and violence is a taboo topic. Victims of sexual harassment fear being blamed or stigmatized, and rarely report the incidents. Rusu continued the relationship with her abuser for six months before breaking up. At the time, she didn’t recognize the incident as a sexual assault since she was in a romantic relationship with her abuser. Instead, she tried to forget the incident.
“This memory was blocked, as if nothing happened. But the memory returned to me suddenly,” she shares. Almost two years later, Rusu saw a video on Instagram that triggered flashbacks of her own assault. “This is how I started realizing it. I think I was concerned about this before, I wanted to do something… but didn’t know why. I had no explanation for my feelings.”
“Lessons on sexual education and consent must be delivered in schools. I didn’t understand what happened to me, but I am sure that he (my abuser) didn’t realise what he did either.”
Rusu was determined to fully understand what had happened to her. She learned more about the issue, discussed with gender equality activists, and became active in her community to raise awareness about sexual harassment and abuse. In 2020, she joined a UN Women youth mentorship programme, funded by the Government of Sweden, and implemented by Moldovan NGOs, Genderdoc-M and Women for Women. The programme engages youth within local communities to promote gender equality, tolerance and diversity. The participants received training sessions on gender equality and human rights, learned to identify abuse and challenge sexist comments and sexual harassment.
After completing their training, Rusu worked with her colleagues to develop a self-help guide for survivors of sexual violence. Informed by real stories from survivors of sexual violence, aged 12 – 21 years, the guide gives practical guidance on how to seek help, report abuse, and access resources for trauma recovery.
One of the biggest barriers that Rusu (and many others) faced when speaking up about her abuse was a culture of victim-blaming.
“The question, ‘why didn’t you report?’ is overwhelming. It made me think…[about] what could have happened if I had taken measures,” says Rusu. “Even the therapist I was going to at the time told me that I was partly responsible for the abuse.”
What works to end sexual violence and harassment
Almost one in five men in Moldova have sexually abused a girl or a woman, including in romantic relationships, according to a 2019 research published by La Strada and UN Women.
How you can take action
- Listen to survivors, refer them to appropriate support services, and amplify their stories using #OrangeTheWorld
- Fund women’s rights organizations. Start by taking the #Give25forUNTF25 challenge
- Speak up. Challenge your peers to reflect on their own behaviours, call out sexist comments and behaviours, and speak up when someone crosses the line
Stopping sexual violence starts with recognizing the problem. Survivors and activists like Milena Rusu agree. “The concepts of consent and personal boundaries were not explained to me,” she says. Women and girls face abuse every day and the violence is so normalized that they do not realize that their rights have been violated. This can be changed, she says, with education and conversations with boys and girls.
“Lessons on sexual education and consent must be delivered in schools. I didn’t understand what happened to me, but I am sure that he (my abuser) didn’t realise what he did either,” she adds.
Since 2020, the programme supported by UN Women has trained 25 youth leaders to raise awareness among their peers and communities. Thereafter, youth leaders have started nine youth-led community-based projects in different parts of the country to raise awareness about sexual harassment and abuse in relationships and sex education in schools. Rusu is now developing a network of teenage girls to create a safe space where they can talk about their experiences, find the support they need, and help other girls.
“This mentoring programme focuses on feminist values, intersectionality and diversity. Through workshops and training sessions, youth address the root causes of gender inequalities and stereotypes that perpetuate gender-based violence and discrimination,” explains Dominika Stojanoska, UN Women Country Representative in Moldova. “The programme has shown that youth activism and engagement is key to eliminating gender inequalities in our societies.”