Time to Boost Belarus’ Fallow Female Potential

Imagine you are young and well-educated. Imagine you study in one of the world’s best universities and conduct research for your PhD thesis on security policy. Imagine that the first question the people who could be your colleagues ask is: Why are you failing to get married? And would you not perhaps like to write a thesis on how to get married?

Outrageous? Sexual discrimination? No, perfectly fine questions to ask in a professional context in Belarus, Russia, and many other post-Soviet countries. For people from the West, the backward (non-existent) position towards gender equality in the former Soviet Union is hard to understand. Even more so for women from the West, confronted with Belarusian men refusing to shake their hands. (Shaking hands is reserved for equals, meaning: men).

'I would like our woman to give birth to no fewer than three children'
 
While Western countries recognized the potential of working women years ago and are struggling to gain from this potential work force and women's brilliant minds for their economies, Belarus apparently performs so brilliantly that women are not needed.
 
In Belarus, where public debates on social issues do not exist, Western women feel as if the clock has been turned back 50 years. Women are supposed to give birth to children between the age of 20 and 30. Society puts them under massive pressure and measures their success in life by whether they are married by 25 or not. The average age of a Belarusian bride today is 24.5 years -- more than 6 years lower than the age of a Swedish bride, even though due to Belarus economic conditions most young people are unable to fully provide for their families and are forced to rely on their parents. As a result, many Belarusian and Russian girls assess themselves based on whether they have a husband by the time they are in their mid-twenties.
 
Instead of aspiring to leading positions, they aim for marriage and children as soon as possible after graduation. The purpose of a woman’s life is to give birth to new Belarusians or Russians. President Alexander Lukashenka has often said things like, “I would like our woman to give birth to no fewer than three children”.  Sons, possibly. Countless Belarusian grandparents call themselves only grandparents after the birth of their first grandson.
 
Women should 'stay at home cooking borscht'
 
Once Belarusian women have given birth, their career is over; if they ever had one at all. Most of women are stuck in assistant positions, in a waiting loop until a boyfriend stoops to marry them. While comprising 53 per cent of the population, women head only 25 per cent of Belarusian businesses. According to Belarus' Labour Ministry, women’s median income is 20 per cent lower than that of men, and unemployed women spend nearly twice as much time looking for jobs as unemployed men. In 2011, researchers Francesco Pastore and Alina Verashchagina found the gender wage gap had more than doubled in Belarus in 1996-2006.
 
In a country that does not have any women in leading positions (except for Lidya Yermoshina, Head of the Central Election Commission, Marianna Schetkina, Minister of Labour and Social Protection and Nadzieya Yermakova, Head of the National Bank) that could function as a role-model, it is difficult for women to believe that they are actually smart and could achieve much more. Especially when women like Yermoshina call on other women to “stay at home, cook borscht“ instead of expressing their political views.
 
Society discourages women from having career aspirations. Moreover, the social structures do not support mums climbing the career ladder. Women are supposed to work and earn money. Therefore there are kindergartens and daycare facilities. However, there is no positive discrimination, no quotas that would support the rise of a woman to the executive suites of their enterprises. Come to think of it, Belarusian men must be incredibly smart. Or are they?
 
According to the Belarusian national office of statistics, women in Belarus have a higher level of education than men: 49 per cent of women and only 42 per cent of men have higher education or vocational training. Furthermore, nearly 59 per cent of all Belarusians who speak English and 63 per cent of all Belarusians who speak German are women. 
 
A sexist conclusion would be that women are eager to marry foreigners and leave Belarus. However, it is not that easy to leave sometimes, for the regime’s heavy hand can be a quite egalitarian force in Belarus on occasion. For example, lawyer Marina Kovalevskaya, who defended opposition activist Andrei Sannikov, was prohibited from leaving the country on the grounds of avoiding military service – an absurd accusation given that women do not serve in Belarus. 
 
According to Article 22 of the Belarusian Constitution, all citizens are equal before the law. Belarusian legislation does not discriminate against women in ownership or property rights. Women have the same rights to vote and to stand for election as men. These “progressive” stipulations are in fact a Soviet inheritance. A presidential decree also established 30 per cent quotas for women in the two chambers of the Belarusian parliament. However, it is telling that the legislature is the only Belarusian institution where quotas for women were established, as it does not have any real power in Belarus.
 
Standing up for women's rights
 
The Belarusian government devotes very little attention to women’s issues even though problems are serious. According to the 2008 survey carried out by the Belarus State University's Centre for Sociological and Political Research, 80 per cent of women between the ages of 18 and 60 had experienced psychological violence and 25 per cent experienced physical violence in their families. The actual figures could be even higher because in Belarus domestic violence is a private issue, and spousal rape is not recognised as a specific crime in. 
 
President Lukashenka himself views women as primarily “keepers of hearth and home“. He is well-known for leaving his spouse in the village upon moving to the presidential palace in Minsk and for openly stating that the presidency is “not a woman’s job”. When women transgress gender norms, they are punished and the very methods of punishment are gender-specific. Earlier this year, Ukrainian activists from FEMEN were beaten and forced to get naked by the security forces for protesting against Lukashenka.
 
Typing in “US women“ into Google search one is suggested terms such as „US women vote“, „US women soccer schedule“,  „US famous women“, „US women in combat“. Typing in  “Belarus Women“  one gets exclusively bride matchmaking sites. In today’s Belarus, sexism is routine, perpetrated by men and women alike, and has shaped Belarus’ image on the internet. Even the Minister of Sports and Tourism endorsed Belarus as a destination for Western men seeking a good time.
 
It is therefore time that Belarusian women start fighting for equal chances. Maybe they want to have brilliant careers, maybe it is their wish to stay at home and enjoy the company of their children. The point is that they should have a choice. Only if they stand up for this right, the government and society may one day come to support them. Belarusian women have much more than their good looks. So, girls, burn your miniskirts!
 
by Volha Charnysh and Nadine Lashuk
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