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Ukraine TV series raises hopes of struggling teens

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Kiev (AFP)

Katya was shunned by her mother and bullied by classmates in her industrial Ukrainian hometown after she told them, aged 13, that she was a lesbian.

Two years on, Katya, who declined to give her last name, recalls how her mother rejected her and said her daughter may as well have died.

"It was very difficult that my mother did not accept me," she told AFP.

At school, students stopped talking to her and teachers offered no support.

Consolation came where she least expected: an eight-part television series featuring teenagers struggling with bullying and harassment.

Katya, now 15, is one of millions to have tuned into the "Early Swallows" show, which also promoted a rights NGO which offers psychological and legal aid to teenagers.

In Ukraine, a country which lacks robust social support services for children, calls to the La Strada rights centre hotline skyrocketed after the series aired last November.

Lockdown measures introduced to contain the spread of the coronavirus have led to a recent spike in requests for support, with children stranded under the same roof as abusive parents.

- 'Social component' -

Alyona Kryvulyak, a hotline coordinator at La Strada, said her organisation included its contact details to give the TV series "a greater social component".

The group's psychologists and social workers received over 6,000 calls in the month after the series aired, a six-fold increase on the month before, she said.

"The series highlighted the problems that are most pertinent for teenagers right now," said Kryvulyak, specifying that most calls to the hotline were about child abuse and bullying at school.

"From the beginning, we positioned the series as a specific social project," scriptwriter and producer Yevgen Tunik told AFP.

After Ukraine closed schools last month to slow the COVID-19 outbreak, a number of "Early Swallows" episodes were uploaded to YouTube, where they have been watched more than 200,000 times.

The lockdown and the fact the series was made available to more viewers resulted in a new spike in calls to the hotline, La Strada said.

"The number of complaints regarding parental violence and abuse of children has increased," Kryvulyak said.

- Modern tools -

Her comments echoed a statement by Human Rights Watch in early April, which said that across the world "stresses on families, particularly those living under quarantines and lockdowns, are increasing the incidence of domestic violence."

Aksana Filipishyna from the office of Ukraine's ombudsman acknowledged that teenagers were turning to the hotline because of a lack of government support.

State-run centres do not stay open 24 hours a day and are absent from many parts of the country, she explained.

The success of the hotline has underscored the government's lack of resources but has provided a welcome roadmap for improvement, Filipishyna added.

A 2018 law to combat bullying at school in 2018, has resulted in some 200 convictions, which she said was a sign the authorities are at least taking the issue seriously.

But cases like Katya's that do not involve physical violence or were not caught on camera are more difficult to prove, she said.

Filipishyna told AFP she hopes that well-trained and properly equipped state agencies will do more to protect children.

In a nod to the "Early Swallows" series, she said "tools such as videos, films, YouTube are certainly necessary."

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