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SICA Success Stories

Empowering Voices: USAID Helps Activists Support Victims of Sexual Violence in Central Asia

Alina Ilnitskaya, an activist from Kazakhstan, provides critical support to women and girls who have suffered from sexual violence and abuse. Her path to activism is rooted in her own deeply personal experiences. "As a child, I was sexually abused. Between the ages of 10, 11, and 12, I couldn't fully grasp what was happening to me, so I convinced myself it was happening to someone else and that I was merely an observer," she recounts. It took Alina many years to take the first step toward seeking professional help and discussing her experiences. "Survivors of violence frequently battle not only with feelings of shame and guilt but also with denial. Convincing ourselves that everything is okay is a coping mechanism that helps us move forward, yet it signifies the silent struggle many survivors endure," Alina explains. This insight motivated her to engage in activism, with the goal of offering support to sexual violence survivors throughout Central Asia. One of her key initiatives is Būlbūl, an Instagram channel and Telegram bot dedicated to assisting victims of sexual violence.

"Our project's name, Būlbūl, is deeply rooted in the Greek myth of Philomela and carries profound significance for us. The myth tells the story of Philomela, who, after being subjected to sexual violence and silenced by the king Tereus, found a way to reveal what she went through to her sister, Procne, through a woven tapestry. Their story ends with the gods transforming Philomela into a nightingale, a bird that sings with a beautiful voice, despite having lost her ability to speak. In Kazakh, 'Būlbūl' means nightingale, symbolizing the power of overcoming silence and giving voice to those who have been silenced by violence. Just like Philomela, our project aims to empower survivors of sexual violence to share their stories and find support, embodying the spirit of resilience and the ability to 'sing' despite all odds," Alina states.

Founded on the realization that victims of sexual violence often endure their trauma in silence, Būlbūl offers a revolutionary approach to support. This USAID-funded initiative, made possible via Eurasia Foundation's Social Innovation in Central Asia (SICA) program, leverages the power of digital technology through a non-contact digital tool – a Telegram bot powered by artificial intelligence, named Bulka (@BulBulTg_bot). This bot provides victims with a confidential platform for psychological self-help, guiding them through their healing journey with personalized advice and educational materials aimed at fostering understanding and support within the community. The use of a chatbot for contactless psychological assistance ensures anonymity and confidentiality, creating a safe space for victims to express their emotions and seek help. According to Alina, this method aligns with findings from studies highlighting the potential of chatbots in providing psychological support, especially for those who might hesitate to seek help due to stigma or cost. In addition to offering conversation and psychological advice, Bulka shares valuable resources on the subject from various countries, as well as contact information for hotlines and crisis centers in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

In less than a month since the launch of the Telegram bot on February 10, 2024, Bulka has become a sanctuary for more than 200 users, offering them a symptom-based menu for accessing psychological self-help guidance. The bot's capabilities are enhanced with a database for integrating artificial intelligence, a development that promises to offer customized psychological advice, ensuring that victims receive the support they need, even if they are not yet ready to discuss their experiences openly.

“With an alarming 17% of women and girls experiencing physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner, and Kazakhstan facing the highest rate of sexual violence incidents among CIS countries, the urgency for effective support mechanisms like that is undeniable. Bulka is not just about providing assistance; it's about enlightenment, prevention, and community building,” says Alina.

Through its presence on Instagram and the dissemination of educational content, the project is raising awareness on violence and harassment, conducting training sessions on preventive measures, and sharing personal stories that inspire and empower. Moreover, it addresses the cultural context of Kazakhstan and Central Asia, where patriarchal norms and insufficient legal frameworks for harassment add layers of complexity to the issue of sexualized violence. By disseminating information and educational materials that condemn violence and support victims, the team aims to shift public opinion and foster a safer environment for all.

"It has been two months since the assault, but only now am I beginning to move beyond attempts to rationalize or deny the experience. Unsure of whom to share my concerns with, I turn to Bulka [the Telegram chat bot]. It's such a relief to have my feelings acknowledged as real," shares one survivor.

“The Būlbūl/Bulka project was born out of my understanding of how challenging it can be to reach out for help. It was created because I believe everyone deserves help," highlights Alina, emphasizing the foundational belief behind her activism. By blending innovative technology with a deep understanding of the cultural and psychological aspects of sexual trauma, Būlbūl is not only aiding individuals in their healing journeys but also challenging societal norms and fostering a culture of support and understanding. Through its efforts, Būlbūl anticipates a future where victims can regain their voices, free from fear and stigma.

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