Feminism in Belarus: present but unpopular

This year the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked Belarus 30th out of 144 countries in its Global Gender Gap Index.

According to its indicators, Belarus surpassed highly developed countries such as Canada (35) and the United States (45). However, unlike other countries at the top of the list, Belarus does not have any coherent strategy to achieve gender equality.

2016 also saw a record increase of activity at the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), where Belarus presented its 8th periodic report in October 2016. Independent NGOs and initiatives presented seven alternative, or 'shadow', reports disputing the celebratory official narrative on the state of women in Belarus.

They touched upon the issues of gender-based violence, labour rights for men and women, and reproductive health, as well as women with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community, among others. Only 1% of Belarusian NGOs advance women’s rights and among these even fewer identify themselves as ‘feminist.’

Historical and social paradoxes

The official gender equality strategy in Belarus differs from the Western European pro-feminist approach, and focuses primarily on family policies. No politician has ever openly called themselves a feminist in Belarus. Quite the contrary, while the West promotes individuality and women's rights in social, political, and economic spheres, Belarus continues to emphasise family values and maternity for women.

Feminism remains a taboo word in Belarus. Few women openly admit to being feminists, to say nothing of men or influential decision-makers. In fact, most public figures prefer to distance themselves from the feminist agenda. Neither mainstream nor oppositional political parties have a strong feminist or gender equality strategy.

Women constitute 53% of the population in Belarus. They hold about 34% of seats in parliament, live on average 74 years (11 years longer then men), are well educated, and about 70% of them work outside their household. Is it possible that Belarusian women enjoy equal rights and opportunities and therefore do not relate to the global feminist movement as the WEF indicators suggest?

Some argue that the Soviet Union liberated women in Belarus; it provided them with all the opportunities and services which feminists in the rest of the world had to fight for. Not only did women in Soviet Belarus gain access to education and prestigious professions, they also enjoyed state healthcare, access to childcare, and the right to legal abortion. Most of these rights and services carried over into modern Belarus even after the USSR was dismantled. For instance, Belarusian women continue to enjoy generous maternity benefits.

The flip side of this generous policy presented itself later. In the 1960s, the rest of the world was engaging in ‘second-wave feminism'. Women in the US and Europe started to broach the subjects of domestic violence, marital rape, and the exploitation and control of female sexuality. Meanwhile, the ‘woman question’ appeared to be solved in the USSR and Soviet Belarus. However, as women gained access to education and new professions, they also continued to bear the brunt of housework and caretaking.

Who needs feminism

According to a 2012 sociological survey carried out by the agency NewEffector, neither men nor women in Belarus need feminism. Belarus displayed the lowest level of tolerance towards feminist ideas in comparison with Ukraine and Russia.

Only 4% of women in Belarus – compared with 9% in Ukraine and 7% in Russia – characterised themselves as openly feminist. Moreover, only 6% of men in Belarus claimed to support feminist ideas – compared to 11% in Ukraine and 16% in Russia.

Therefore, feminist ideas remain marginal for both state and oppositional politics. Since early 2000, Belarus has implemented four Gender Equality Action Plans, but all four lacked any measurable indicators or allocated budgets. The outcomes remained intangible and had to be taken at face value from the Ministry’s reports.

I shied away from the word 'feminism' although I have been a feminist for most of my life

Non-governmental actors face backlash if they decide to use the word 'feminist' in their agenda. Irina Solomatina, a Belarusian feminist and activist, recalls a story when certain publishing agencies refused to print their materials because they contained the word 'feminist'. 'A few years ago I attended an exhibit in Moscow entitled "Feminist Karandash." This is when I realised what tremendous pressure the curators and organisers faced for using the word. I decided to fight my inner stereotypes and use the word "feminism" more often.'

The only international body capable of holding the country accountable for women's rights issues and gender equality is the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This is a forum where countries regularly report on their achievement in this sphere. Based on Belarus's official documents, along with shadow reports presented by NGOs and initiatives, the Committee came up with several recommendations.

This year the Committee recommended adopting comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, laws against domestic violence and gender-based violence, and comprehensive attempts to eliminate discriminatory gender stereotypes. As experience from previous years and reports has shown, Belarus adheres minimally to the recommendations, but still manages to look good and rank high in terms of gender equality.

Who are the feminists

The unfortunate reputation of the word ‘feminism’ seems to have scared many people away. But in reality everyone who believes in equal education for boys and girls, voting rights for women and men, and equal pay for equal labour should call themselves feminists, regardless of their gender or their interpretation of feminism. However, few women identify as feminists, and feminist men are almost nonexistent.

Belarusian women do not feel oppressed and men do not see how they propagate the patriarchy. While statistics show that every third woman and every fourth man in Belarus has experienced violence in their lives, no one seems to have connected this to gender inequality and discriminatory stereotypes. Few people have woken up to their oppression, either personally or politically. Abuse remains widespread and tolerated.

Meanwhile, experts point to the emergence of new types of online initiatives in Belarus focusing on gender equality which lack the status of official NGOs. They promote a feminist and gender agenda through online resources. Examples include Makeout.by and gender-route.org. Most importantly, they also embrace LGBTQ communities who remain otherwise highly marginalised in Belarus.

The WEF has calculated that at the current pace of progress, it would take the world around 170 years to close the economic gender gap universally. In Belarus, the gap remains wide. The state reinforces the role of the traditional family, and Belarusian society has not yet identified the need for more equal power distribution among its individual citizens.




Made in Belarus. By the Chinese

In the first six months of 2016, according to the Ministry of Interior 4,076 Chinese labour migrants entered Belarus. They now outnumber all other nationalities, including Ukrainians, who peaked at 3,334.

The Belarusian government maintains a firm grip on the labour market, and strictly regulates the number of work permits available to foreigners.

While Belarus attempts to re-engage with the West after the removal of sanctions and Russian investments continue to dwindle, Chinese investors are capitalising on Belarusian projects.

More and more Chinese workers are appearing in the streets of Minsk and other cities. Belarusians wonder what brings them here, what jobs they have, and most importantly, whether they are staying or moving on.

Unlike Europe, Belarus has thus far been spared the influx of refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East. However, as the number of jobs decreases, and Belarusians turn elsewhere in search of employment, they find themselves competing with imported labour as well.

Chinese Labour Migration in Numbers

According to the Ministry of the Interior, in 2015 Belarus admitted almost 32,000 workers. Among them almost half, or 14,000 people, came from war-torn neighbouring Ukraine, and another 7,225 from China. In 2016, as the situation in Eastern Ukraine stabilised to a certain degree, the number of Ukrainian workers decreased, while the Chinese labour force presence increased.

Data from the Ministry of the Interior also informs us that the majority among the 4,076 labour migrants works manual jobs. Only 888 among them are “trained specialists” according to the Ministry’s definition, and another 57 hold managerial position. 43 found employment in the service industry. Apparently, there is a demand for foreign non-skilled labour force in the Belarusian market.

This may come as a surprise to local Belarusian workers. Many have been struggling to find employment in Belarus, as the number of job cuts in industry rose throughout 2015 and 2016 due to the ongoing economic crises in Belarus and Russia. As Belarusians encounter more and more Chinese workers in the streets of Minsk and other cities, they might find themselves wondering what jobs they have, and which industries they work for.

According to a recent interview published by the official news agency belta.by during the president's visit to the Mahileu Lift Plant in July 2016, President Lukashenka remarked that Belarusian workers should be more proactive and flexible in looking for jobs, “If there is no work in Mahileu, then there should be some in Babruisk, Minsk, Hrodna, Svetlagorsk, or Dobrush.” Belarusian workers now face not only internal, but external competition as well.

Chinese Labour Migration in Faces and Stories

The sleepy provincial town of Dobrush, home to 18,000 residents, saw a sudden increase in population when local authorities approved the construction of a cardboard factory in 2015. The Chinese investor and main contractor imported 1,000 Chinese workers, a sizable addition to the existing population. They certainly stand out among the rest of the native Dobrush population.

Their presence might have remained unnoticed had a number of Chinese workers not protested. They accused their bosses of mistreatment and marched to Homyel (about 30 km) demanding justice. The situation was allegedly resolved through negotiation but according to many sources, including Radio Liberty in Belarus, many Belarusians felt impressed by their courage and sympathised with the Chinese workers as they insisted on fair pay.

Most Chinese workers come for a short span of time, work on construction sites in Belarus, and head back home. The case of the Chinese workers in Dobrush suggests that many of them are exploited and abused by their Chinese employers. Lack of transparency and oversight on the Belarusian side jeopardises their status and labour rights.​

But some stay. And to a certain degree, they successfully integrate into otherwise very homogenous Belarusian society. According to the 2009 National Census, almost 84% of people in Belarus identify as Belarusians, followed by another 13% of Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians. In other words Belarus is 97% white.

Wan Syaomun has lived in Belarus since 1999. According to Deutsche Welle she came to study at a Belarusian university when she was 17, later got married, and stayed. Belarus became home. She now owns a translation agency. Her story amplifies the lack of transparency and integration for short-term labour migrants from China.

Short-term Manual Labour Migrants

Belarus attracts short-term manual labour migrants from China, Ukraine and Turkey. And although labour is cheap in Belarus, foreign investors prefer to bring their own labour. One of the reasons lies precisely in the comparative ease of controlling foreigners. For now it seems that Belarus has no competitive advantages in attracting and retaining high-skilled foreign labour. Some experts say that it should instead focus on retaining its own promising individuals who are keen to emigrate.

According to data from the Ministry of the Interior, for every Belarusian leaving the country in search of employment abroad, six foreigners enter the country securing jobs. This 1 to 6 ratio stems from official statistics, which reflect only those Belarusians who chose to provide a signed contract to the Ministry of the Interior before leaving to work abroad.

According to Ejednevnik.by, a Belarusian news outlet, this data distorts the real picture and the true ratio should be 3 to 1 in reverse. Other estimates suggest that around 100,000 Belarusians leave the country seeking employment abroad, mostly in Russia, and only around 30,000 migrant workers enter Belarus annually. The outflow of labour force from Belarus could deplete the national talent pool.

Belarus failed to come up with reliable ways of retaining local talent, wealthy Belarusians send their children to study and stay on in Western Europe or North America.

On the other hand, in times of economic crisis, the remittances wired by Belarusians working abroad to their families have become a strong stabilisation factor for private households as well as the national economy. According to the World Bank such remittances contributed 2% to the Belarusian GDP in 2014.

As Belarus failed to come up with reliable ways of retaining local talent, many wealthy Belarusians choose to send their children to study abroad, and encourage them to find ways to stay on in Western Europe or North America. Meanwhile, the Belarusian government seems to have focused on regulating the inflow of foreign labour force by adhering to a non-transparent system of labour permits granted to chosen investors, mostly from China and Turkey.

This also places Belarus into a grey zone when it comes to labour code regulations. If investors do not hold up their end of an agreement with imported workers, Belarus has little to no leverage with them. While the strategy of importing temporary labour force may be a short-term solution to attract foreign investments, in the long term Belarus should identify more sustainable and modern ways of regulating its labour force markets.




Incident at Belarus Nuclear Power Plant Raises Safety Concerns

On 10 July 2016 there was an incident at the construction site of the new Astraviec Nuclear Power Plant.

According to local whistle-blower Mikalai Ulasevich, a crane dropped the 330-tonne reactor from a height of 2-4 metres during a test lift. Until 26 July the officials either actively denied the incident or simply kept silent.

For Belarusians, this is painfully reminiscent of Chernobyl. When the Chernobyl accident occurred in April 1986, the Soviet government chose to conceal information from the people for as long as it could. This decision exacerbated the situation for the general population, who did not know to take precautions against radiation fallout.

The location of the construction site for the future nuclear plant has also caused tensions with neighbouring Lithuania. Astraviec NPP – just 50 km from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius – poses an immediate threat to residents of Lithuania in the case of an accident. However, despite the significant social and political controversy and safety concerns the Belarusian government has chosen to continue with the project.

The official line vs rumours

The Ministry of Energy, the government entity responsible for the plant, released an official statement only on 26 July. It confirmed that rumours of the incident, now circulating for more than two weeks, were true. The wording of the official press release described "an emergency at the site", which occurred during "the horizontal movement of the frame". On 1 August the general contractor confirmed the safety of the reactor, but suggested that it should be up to the Belarusian authorities to decide whether to use this particular item.

Belarus, the country that suffered the most severe consequences of the Chernobyl disaster in 1989, has now decided to build its own nuclear power plant. The project for the NPP, conceptualised in 2007 and first initiated in 2009, lacks both transparency and public support and controversy surrounding it is plentiful.

First, the Belarusian government could not find enough funding for it, so the money had to come from Moscow with strings attached. Russia agreed to provide $9bn out of $11bn required for the NPP, as a result of which Rosatom, or Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, won the bid as the major partner in construction and supply.

Secondly, the Lithuanian government protested against the choice of the NPP construction site due to its location just 12 Image from tut.bymiles from the Lithuanian border. They also accused Belarusian authorities of violating the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (the Espoo Convention). The recent incident has only added to rising tensions between the two governments.

According to Delfi news agency, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė stated on Tuesday, 26 July:

Incidents at the Astravyets power plant, a nuclear facility that Belarus is building close to its border with Lithuania, show that Vilnius has reason to be concerned about the project's safety.

Lithuania has sent at least three notes to the Belarusian government voicing their concerns for safety.

When nuclear becomes political

As Mikalai Ulasevich, the whistle-blower and member of the Belarusian oppositional United Civil Party stated on Wednesday, 27 July: “The only way to ensure the safety of the Astraviec Nuclear Power Plant is by shutting it down.” This seems to be a common sentiment among many opposition leaders. According to Yury Tsarik, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies on 28 July:

This situation (the construction of the NPP) has provided some real grounds for oppositional action, and allowed them to play on the widespread phobia in Belarus of nuclear energy. Andrey Dzmitryeu (opposition leader of “Tell the Truth” Initiative) has already announced his intention to do so.

Belarusian authorities defend their right to build the nuclear power plant. The project will address the demand for power in Belarus, which has scarce domestic fuel resources. Belarus aims to diversify its energy resources, including renewable resources, replace the import of natural fossil fuels (five million tonnes of fuel-equivalent a year), reduce electric power production costs, and increase the country's capacity to export electric power. Ideally it will also decrease the country's energy dependence on Russia.

Furthermore, the project will generate approximately 8,000 jobs during the peak construction period and 1,000 new permanent jobs when it starts operations, according to the Ministry of Energy. In an attempt to bring down costs and boost the popularity of the project, Belarusian authorities have handpicked 400 students to send to the construction site. According to news portal Tut.by, the young people had to go through rigorous competitive selection to qualify for a summer job there.

Moving forward despite controversy

Ironically, this week experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced their intention to visit Belarus to examine the construction site of the NPP.

The Site and External Events Design Mission (SEED) was supposed to be carried out before the construction site was approved. This constituted one of the Lithuanian government's requirements for Belarusian authorities regarding the plant’s safety.

Lithuania has already announced that it would not purchase any energy from the Astraviec nuclear power plant. They have also promised to bring the issue to the attention of neighbouring countries and urge them to join the boycott, according to the Lithuanian news agency Delfi.

This is not an empty threat. According to expert estimates the Astraviec NPP will produce enough energy for export. Vladimir Nistyuk, from the Belarusian association “Renewable Energy”, commented in Deutsche Welle that: "There is no one around Astraviec willing to buy energy from the plant, yet it could produce a net surplus of energy as early as 2018”.

Undeterred by the rising controversy, Belarusian authorities have chosen to move forward with their plans. According to official information, the first energy unit should be completed by 2018, the second one – by 2020.

Belarus has once again found itself between a rock and a hard place. Going forward with the construction may mean deteriorating relations with Lithuania and possibly the European Union, while freezing the project may antagonise Russia.




Belarusian Partisan with Love: In Memory of Pavel Sheremet

On 20 July 2016 at 7:45 am a bomb went off in a car in Kiev. The explosion killed Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarusian journalist working in Ukraine.

Pavel was 44 years old and was killed in a car of his partner Olena Prytula. Ms Prytula owns Ukrayinska Pravda, an influential online newspaper in Ukraine, one of the media outlets where Mr Sheremet worked.

The Ukraine President, Petro Poroshenko, called the journalist’s death “a terrible tragedy”, and ordered a thorough investigation. Mr Sheremet was driving his partner’s car on his way to work at the time of the tragedy. Security has been dispatched to protect Ms Prytula.

Mr Sheremet is not the first partner and colleague whom Ms Prytula has tragically lost. Georgiy Gongadze, an investigative journalist and founder of the Ukrayinska Pravda, was murdered 16 years ago. His body was found decapitated in the forest outside of Kiev. Mr Sheremet’s murder is yet another name on the list of a whole generation of journalists in the former USSR who have lost their lives due to their work.

Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian periods

Mr Sheremet began his career as a television journalist in his native Minsk. He came to journalism from banking, starting out in 1992 by consulting Belarusian television on economic matters. In 1996 he became the editor-in-chief of Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, a major Belarusian business newspaper.

In 1997 Belarusian authorities arrested him and sentenced him to two years for allegedly crossing the Belarus-Lithuania border. However, he served only three months in Belarusian prison thanks to the intervention of former Russian President Yeltsin.

Sheremet produced a documentary together with his colleague Dzmitry Zavadski (who later went missing) about the ease of crossing the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. The documentary enraged the Belarusian authorities, and shortly after Sheremet chose to leave Belarus under pressure and went to work in Moscow.

After a few years of working for a major Russian TV channel in Moscow, Mr Sheremet yet again found himself in opposition to the government. He continued to work in journalism as long as he could. He befriended prominent opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was also murdered in Moscow last year.

Pavel Sheremet helped Boris Nemtsov write his autobiography and produced a documentary about him. He also paid his last tribute and led Nemtsov’s memorial service in Moscow.

In 2010 Mr Sheremet was stripped of his Belarusian citizenship, which he found out from an official letter sent through the Belarusian Embassy in Moscow. He had to move again, this time to Ukraine, having now been denied the right to freely practise his profession in two countries.

There he was once again successful, participating actively in Ukraine’s social and political life and opening a new journalism school. His colleagues remember him as a highly professional and very personable man. “Ukraine has changed and will continue to change,” Pavel Sheremet wrote in one of his last Facebook posts.

Legacy in Belarus and beyond

Even in exile from Belarus Pavel Sheremet remained active and wrote about events in Belarus. He founded and worked for Belarusian Partisan, an oppositional online newspaper. He liked to call people on the phone and introduce himself by saying: “Hello, this is Pavel Sheremet, Belarusian partisan. I’ve got a question.”

When Mr Sheremet chose to come back to Belarus in 2006 for the opposition march during the presidential election in Belarus, he was once again badly beaten and arrested. Nevertheless, he always stayed true to his pro-European ideas and supported democratic forces in Belarus.

In his own words, given to Radio Liberty in March 2016: “I may not be objective, since I grew stiff in my opinion about Lukashenka, but I think that his fear to lose the grip on power in Belarus is so strong, that he will not let even ten opposition representatives into the Parliament.”

Mr Sheremet's reporting earned him the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 1998. When authorities in Belarus denied permission for Mr Sheremet to travel to New York for the awards ceremony, the Committee to Protect Journalists held a special award ceremony for him in Minsk.

In 2002, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) awarded Mr Sheremet its Prize for Journalism and Democracy in recognition of his human rights reporting in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

Emotional tributes and official silence

Mr Sheremet’s death prompted an immediate shock and triggered an outpouring of grief from his colleagues in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Ms Sviatlana Kalinkina, managing editor of Narodnaja Volya, an oppositional newspaper, who co-authored a book about Lukashanka with Sheremet, said:

He was the first to have an analytical programme on Belarusian television. "Prospekt" was critical of the authorities; he showed us this was possible and even necessary. This is such a tragedy. Thank you, Pasha, for being with us. And forgive us.

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, called Sheremet “one of the best” journalists and said: “Pavel was such a decent man. So sad." Global rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) called Sheremet's killing a "reprehensible act that has sent a shockwave for freedom of expression in Ukraine."

Svetlana Aleksievich, the Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner, reports to BBC:

About six months ago I visited Ukraine, and we had a meeting with Pavel. And I would like his wife, Ms. Olena Prytula, a person he really loved, to know about this conversation. When he found out I was writing a book about love, he said “You know, I travelled to Ukraine for love. And big love, trust me!

This contrasts sharply with the tacit reactions from the official government news outlets in Belarus. Some sources, including Belarusian state television where he started his career as a journalist in 1990s, chose to remain silent. Others either omitted that Pavel Sheremet had anything to do with Belarus, or reminded its readers about Sheremet’s ‘criminal’ past.

Pavel Sheremet’s body will be returned to Minsk, according to his mother. He is survived by his mother who continues to live in Belarus. On behalf of Belarus Digest we would like to extend our deepest condolences to Mr Sheremet’s family and friends.




Belarus Struggles to Contain Cancer

In mid-June 2016 Belarus hosted a regional forum on oncology for the second time since 2004. It brought together leading regional cancer specialists from 25 countries.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 14 million people annually get diagnosed with cancer. In Belarus this number reached 50,000 new patients in 2015. Belarus has achieved considerable progress in cancer screenings and diagnoses at the regional level.

However, it consistently falls behind in cancer morbidity rates when compared to Western Europe, including immediate neighbours like Lithuania, and Latvia.

Sad statistics

Currently more than 270,000 Belarusians have registered as oncological patients. In addition to the usual risk factors associated with cancer, such as ageing, smoking, and diet, Belarusians have now been living for 30 years with the radiation fall out from the Chernobyl disaster. This accounts for the saddest peak in cancer data – thyroid gland cancer increased disproportionately among children living in the affected areas.

The number of people diagnosed with cancer in Belarus has doubled since 1990: from 26,000 cases to 50,000 in 2016 according to the Chief Oncologist of Belarus, Aleh Sukonko. This number will continue to rise and reach 70,000 people by 2020. And the overall number of cancer patients diagnosed and registered with the healthcare system has steadily increased from 2002 and reached 271, 000 in 2015.

16% of patients go to see a doctor when the disease has already advanced to stage four, that is most advanced stage, at which cancer is almost always terminal, says Dr. Sukonko. Only 5% among them will recover.

To put it into perspective, according to Dr. Sukonko the morbidity rate in Belarus for cervix cancer is as high as 36%, compared with 21% in Germany. Screenings could help maximise early detection of the disease, and bring the morbidity rates down. Cancer screening involves testing apparently healthy people of a certain age, typically 50-70 years old.

Belarus has introduced regular cancer screenings aimed at prevention and early detection, but progress has stalled. Cervix cancer screenings among women are an example. Annual screenings are recommended for all women during their regular doctor's visit.Yet the ratio of stage four cancer cases diagnosed during such screenings remains stable at 10% among Belarusian women. In neighbouring Poland, where similar screening procedures are in place, the ratio is less than 4%, according to naviny.by.

What causes cancer in Belarus?

The most common risk factors for cancer include ageing, smoking, sun and/or radiation exposure, alcohol, poor diet, lack of physical activity, and being overweight. In Belarus quite a few of these factors come into play, such as radiation exposure after Chernobyl, overall population ageing, and poor self care with widespread smoking and high alcohol consumption.

Smoking is the leading cause of cancer in Belarus, with around 30% of all cases attributed to it, according to the chief oncologist Dr. Sukonko. Poor diet is the next most common cause, with 25% of cancer cases. The numbers are expected to increase because of the longer life expectancy among Belarusians.

Thyroid cancer is usually rare among children, with less than one new case per million diagnosed each year. However, after the Chernobyl accident a striking increase in the disease was reported in children and teenagers in the most contaminated areas of Belarus and Ukraine. Scientists have estimated up to 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer among residents who were children at the time of the accident, according to the WHO.

Gender plays a role too. Belarusian men most often suffer from prostate (17% of all cases) and lung (15%) cancer. Women face diagnoses of breast (18%) and cervix (10%) cancer. And 10% of all cases among both men and women turn out to be colorectal cancer. Most of these forms of cancer are curable if diagnosed at stages one or two.

How people deal with it

Cancer takes it toll: every seventh Belarusian dies from cancer. It is the second most common cause of death in Belarus after heart disease. The government, recognising the cost to human life as well as the problems of population decline, has pledged to invest in combating cancer. According to Belstat, around 30% of the healthcare budget will go to fight cancer.

While this may mean potential improvement to the national cancer statistics, large gaps in patient care remain. Below is the account of a cancer survivor Ulia Liashkevich, who also lost her mother to cancer in 2007:

My mother was diagnosed with stage four. Little could be done in terms of treatment. But a dying person is not yet dead. They (the doctors) told me I should take her home, that her death will look bad for their statistics, they threatened that they would perform an autopsy on her body. I did manage to make her last weeks painless, but only thanks to my connections and her friends.

Whenever the government does not provide a certain much-needed service, people have to self-organise. Cancer support groups have sprung around the country. Many have an online presence, such as http://oncopatient.by/ and http://news.tut.by/tag/1814-onkomarker.html. Both were created by cancer survivors aiming to provide resources for fellow citizens fighting the disease.

As one Belarusian neurosurgeons, who preferred to remain unnamed, put it:

Say, I have a patient with a malignant tumour in his head, and he has come to see me with his wife. I do not know whom to console, him or his crying wife. And most importantly, I feel like it is not up to me altogether. I am a surgeon after all, not a psychologist.

Much fear stems from lack of information. Most people feel overwhelmed and lost when diagnosed with cancer. Many turn to God, some look for answers in science. But for now cancer patients in Belarus, it seems, need to rely on their immediate family and friends in dealing with the non-medical aspects of this disease.




Belarus Introduces Alternative Civilian Service

On 1 July 2016 a new law on alternative civilian service comes into effect in Belarus. This coming fall,10, 000 young Belarusian conscripts will start their compulsory military service. According to tut.by 20 of these would like to exercise their option for alternative civilian service.

Finally, after more than a decade of debates in parliament and discussions by various commissions, the new law will stipulate the conditions for such an alternative service. Known as “alternativschiki”, these young men will fall under the mandate of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection. In Belarus they will have to serve for three years, twice the time required of regular military conscripts.

Conscripts, dodgers, and ‘alternativschiki’

Twice a year the Belarusian Ministry of Defence drafts young men between the ages of 18 and 27 for conscription. During Soviet times men were eager to sign up. The received wisdom was that for men ‘the army was the school of life’. They had to serve for two years and could end up virtually anywhere in the huge territory of the Soviet Union, usually outside of Soviet Byelorussia.

Since then much has changed. For each conscription round – one in the spring and one in the autumn – the Ministry of Defence aims to draft around 10,000 young conscripts. Many young men successfully dodge the draft. The army has lost its allure since Soviet times and families pay big money and pull many strings to get their sons out of it. Daughters are immune, as the Belarusian army conscripts only men.

Methods for dodging, postponing, or cutting the length of compulsory military service have become common knowledge. Education for one offers immediate payoffs. Men without higher education have to serve 18 months in the army. Having a university degree decreases this term to 12 months. If the individual's university itself offers military training, a conscript's time in the army is further reduced to six months.

Now, starting from 1 July, those with religious pacifist beliefs could qualify for a different kind of deal. The new Belarusian law on alternative civilian services offers conscientious objectors a paid option instead of conscription. It stipulates 36 months – instead of 18 in the army – of paid labour in the healthcare sector or social system institutions, agriculture or railroad maintenance, or other areas as delegated by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection.

Victor’s story

The new Belarusian law covers only religious pacifist beliefs as possible grounds for conscientious objection. In order to be eligible for alternative civilian service one needs to submit a written petition no later than ten days before the end of the conscription term. The committee will then consider the application, and hand down its ruling. This is how the process should work if properly applied. Victor’s story shows how the law does not work in practice.

Victor works at a factory in Brest. He comes from a middle class working family with an alcoholic father. He identifies as a Jehovah’s Witness, and has refused to serve in the army. Victor would eagerly commit to 36 months of alternative civilian service, double the time of a regular conscript. Except he faces criminal charges and a BYR 21m (roughly $1,000) fine instead.

Victor’s story started when the law on alternative civilian service did not exist. And yet even then two Photo of Victor from people.onliner.byconsecutive court hearings ruled in his favour. The court found his desire to serve in a ‘non-military’ way was justified by his religious beliefs. The Prosecutor General, dissatisfied with the decision of the local courts, appealed to the Supreme Court, and won.

Victor filed an appeal on 24 June, and is awaiting the decision. In his interview to people.onliner.by Victor speaks of the possible resolution:

Two courts have ruled in my favour, and on a third attempt under the same article they charged me with a criminal offence. Certainly the law (on alternative civilian services) will soon come into effect, as it is only a matter of time. But why should I depend on it? How can I account for the lack of alternative civilian services up til now? I have never dodged conscription; I wanted to serve my country. And not just for a year and a half, but for all three! I see it as my responsibility to my country, but wish to do so in an alternative way.

Naysayers

Formally Article 57 of the Belarusian Constitution grants eligible Belarusian men a right to alternative civilian service if their religious beliefs did not allow them to serve. However, in reality, no mechanism for enforcing this has existed until now. In the eyes of the Ministry of Defence, men who could not serve because of their religious beliefs were no different from other army dodgers.

Current and previous Ministers of Defence have openly denounced an alternative civilian service, called it outright harmful, and spoke about it in other negative terms. The Ministry has typically seen its biggest challenge as being to make alternative civilian service so unattractive that men would not choose to pursue it. It seems they have succeeded.

The new law takes into account only religious grounds. It stipulates double the term of service as compared to regular conscripts – three years instead of one and a half for those without higher education, and two years instead of one for college graduates. And most importantly, ‘alternativschiki’ will get paid around BYR 2m monthly, which roughly comes to $115.

These conditions certainly make it highly unappealing. Moreover, the Ministry of Defence reserves the right to deny applicants this option without explanation or recourse to appeal. It seems at least for now that the service exists only formally. And the Ministry of Defence has no intention of turning it into a viable alternative to military service.




House of Death or House of Hope: First Belarusian Children’s Hospice

On 16 June the new building of the Belarusian Children’s Hospice (BCH) will open its doors in Baraulyany, just 20 minutes outside of Minsk. First of a kind in the country, it has been helping terminally ill children and their families since 1994. They actually pioneered both: hospice and palliative care.

A team of 25 health care professionals at the hospice helps children who are nearing the end of their lives. They maximise their comfort by reducing pain and addressing psychological, physical, and spiritual needs of such patients.

Palliative care is for children who have serious but stable conditions. It focuses on providing relief from the symptoms, and improving quality of life for both: such children, and their families. Each year more than 250 children receive much needed care in Belarus through children’s hospice.

How it all started

The Belarusian Children's Hospice first appeared in Minsk, in 1994. It was founded by a child psychologist Ms. Anna Garchakova, as a response to the ongoing consequences of Chernobyl. It initially occupied an empty kindergarten in the suburbs, and worked on the sheer enthusiasm of a handful of dedicated people.

In 1998 came the first turning point. Ms. Daryl Ann Hardman, a UK citizen, began her humanitarian activities in Belarus by delivering goods and hosting Belarusian children in her home in the UK. What started as a private initiative soon grew into a full-fledged operation.

Ms. Hardman established a humanitarian organisation in Britain and tellingly named it “Friends of Belarusian Children’s Hospicel”. It started off by purchasing a wooden house on a smallholding in a village outside of Minsk and gifting it to BCH in 1999. They used it for hospice family holidays for many years, until its current main building in the Minsk suburb of Baraulyany was purchased and converted for hospice use.

Shortly after BCH began working on an adapted UK model of children's hospice at home. The main philosophy was to provide care for children with different life-limiting conditions whenever possible in their home, and not at a hospital. Currently according to BCH data, anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 children in Belarus require palliative care.

Palliative care comes to Belarusian children in the form of a BCH medical team consisting of a doctor, nurse, social worker, carer, and BCH volunteers. With the family's help they assess the child's and the family's needs. Then they do their best to meet these needs: medical care, advice, social welfare, psychological support, counselling, social programme, and summer holidays. Families may join a bereavement programme.

A new building, old challenges

For some ten years the UK Fund covered the cost of the BCH staff basic salary bill and provided advice and training in the UK. In 2010 with the training from UK specialists, the BCH set up its own dedicated fundraising and PR department. This now covers 60% of annual staff basic salaries, another 40% still come from foreign funds, namely the UK charity.

In 2011 Anna Garchakova announced the need for a new bigger, more modern building for the BCH. It would cost $4 million.

“While $4 million may seem as a lot, we only need 400,000 caring Belarusian people who would each give us 10$ for a brick”.

So far the BCH has just raised $1.75 million to build a modern, state of the art hospice, also in Baraulyany. The Friends of BCH raised another £250,000 in the UK. President Lukashenka donated land for hospice free of charge with a decree. The new building is due to be opened mid-June amid a fanfare of publicity.

In the earliest stages, the architect of the building came to the UK at the invitation of the Friends of BCH charity to see successful children's hospice buildings. He also met one of the best children's hospice architects in the UK. As a result he was subsequently able to incorporate many of the ideas from this visit into the new hospice venue.

Ms. Daryl Ann Hardman continues to support BCH. She now heads the Advisory Council.

I also revived BCH's Advisory Council and have chaired it for over 3 years as no Belarusian participant has yet agreed to take the chairmanship over. This is a body of mostly Belarusian top managers, company directors, one ex-Minister and some UK advisers, who meet 3 or 4 times a year to offer strategic development advice and fundraising help to BCH's director. The Council has been very focussed in recent meetings on building the new hospice building.

What comes next

The new unprecedented arrangement stipulates that the state will run the medical side of the new hospice, and BCH and partners the other parts, in a building owned by an NGO. This carries some potential for clash of interests between the main stakeholders. Rigid state’s way of operation does not bide well with individualised approach to palliative care.

BCH was tolerated rather than welcomed when it first came on the scene in 1994. Many people were suspicious of it as a western idea that had no place in Belarusian healthcare, others did not understand its aims, some regarded it as a "house of death" instead of a house of light, joy and good quality of life.

Gradually both the Belarusian public, media, medical services, ministries and other governmental departments have come to gain a better understanding of the huge benefits a children's hospice. Namely what added value it brings to the country's healthcare, both in terms of vastly improved quality of care and quality of life of the chronically and terminally ill child and their family.

From the financial standpoint it also means huge savings for the state medical service when a child on 24-hour care is at home instead of in a hospital intensive care department. For the past decade BCH has trained medics from all over Belarus in children's palliative care and hopefully will be able to expand these programmes in its new education centre.




Migration and National Security in Belarus

In March 2016 the Belarusian government approved the new national programme The National Health and Demographic Security of Belarus for the upcoming period 2016-2020.

It aims "to stabilise population density and extend life expectancy". To achieve these admirable goals the government plans among other things to increase life expectancy from the current average of 73.2 years to 74.6 years and to admit 70,000 new migrants.

With that the government recognises the role of migration in national security. However, the projected number of migrants appears to be rather modest. Meanwhile, national statistics agency Belstat recorded 28,349 migrants in 2015 alone.

The large number of migrants contributed to an increase in the overall population outweighing the negative results of high mortality rates. Whether this trend will continue or not remains to be seen, but it already means that Belarus has to learn to harness the power of migration.

Migration Inflow and Outflow

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Belarus and Russia became the only two countries in the region to have positive migration inflows in the 2000s. In other words the number of arrivals exceeded that of departures. Belstat puts the number of international migrants at 28,349 in 2015. Out of these, 22,505 came from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or former Soviet Republics, and the remaining 5,844 from other countries. This brought the above mentioned positive migration inflow to a record high of 18,494 in the last decade.

Evidently the number of incoming migrants in Belarus peaked in 2015 due to the war breaking out in neighbouring Ukraine. However, state authorities like to attribute this increase not so much to the war as to the improving investment climate and economic attractiveness of Belarus.Ukrainians and migrants from other CIS countries adapt well to Belarusian society: they are white Caucasians, mostly Christian, and speak Russian. In other words, they integrate well.

However, in order for the migration ratio to remain positive, Belarusians need to want to stay in their own country. According to Belstat, 9,855 people permanently left Belarus in 2015. And yet, destination countries’ statistics paint a totally different picture.

1.3 million or 453,479 Belarusians resided abroad in 2014. They represent respectively 14.4 per cent or 4.8 per cent of the overall population of 9.5 million. The huge difference between the two estimates depends on whether migrants residing in Russia are counted according to their country of birth or citizenship respectively.

Labour Migration Flows

Ageing and depopulation pose major threats to Belarusian economic security. Migration may help alleviate some of the problems associated with it, but then it requires a special type of migrant, a labour migrant.

According to the Ministry of Interior data, 31,770 foreign citizens received employment in Belarus in 2015. And yet Belarus continues to struggle on this front. The problems include not only attracting qualified labour migrants and retaining them, but also providing them with long-term employment as opposed to one-off contracts.

This number represents a decrease from the 37,868 foreigners registered to work in 2014. The Ministry of Interior attributes the decrease to “the stabilisation of the situation in South-Eastern Ukraine”. 14,045 Ukrainians applied and received official work authorizations in Belarus in 2015.

Next after the most numerous cohort of Ukrainians came 7,225 citizens of China, 2,209 Russians, 1,707 Uzbekistanis and 657 Turks.

Workers from the CIS, China, and Turkey mostly find employment in manual jobs, while the far less numeorus highly skilled workers come predominantly from the neighbouring Baltic States. For now it seems Belarus has no competitive advantages in attracting and retaining high-skilled foreign labour. Neighbouring Poland is attempting to lure the young labour force, and recently introduced the so-called "card of the Pole". What Poland has to offer includes eventual access to other European countries and freedom of travel.

Maybe Belarus should focus on retaining its own talents instead. The Ministry of Interior registers the outflow of labour migrants but only those who choose to provide signed employment contracts. In the past year, 6,328 citizens submitted such information to the Department of Migration, the bulk of these 5,359 travelled to work in Russia. Certainly nothing prevents people from leaving Belarus in search of employment abroad on their own without registering either in their home or destination country.

Other Migration Trends

While Europe struggles with thousands of refugees and migrants from Syria and the rest of the Middle East, Belarus remains a country of transit. A total of three Syrian families with 6 adults and 8 children resettled to Belarus in 2015. They found their new home in Homyel.

Since 1997 Belarus has granted refugee status to 910 people from 19 countries according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). 2015 saw an increase in the number of asylum seekers, again most of them from Ukraine.

Since the 1950s the urban population of Belarus has steadily increased. Currently more than 75 per cent of Belarusians live in towns and cities. Every third Belarusian resides in Minsk or Minsk region. According to the UN forecasts this trend will continue, with the urban population expected to reach up to 80 per cent by 2030.

Interestingly, people in the cities tend to live five years longer than people in rural areas, at 74.4 years and 69.6 years respectively. Hopefully for Belarusians, urbanisation promises longer and more satisfactory lives with better social and medical care.

The national programme appears out of touch with reality, at least in terms of the migration component. If the Belarusian authorities do nothing, 70,000 new migrants are likely to arrive in Belarus in the next five years. The ultimate goals should include attracting a highly skilled labour force and retaining native talents. Respective legislation adjustments, economic reforms and promising investment opportunities could improve Belarus' image for younger, highly skilled labour migrants.

Meanwhile Belarus remains a highly homogenous urban society with almost 84 per cent of the population identifying as Belarusian, followed by 8.3 per cent identifying as Russian. The current population of Belarus totals roughly 9.5 million. The migration trends described above will hardly reverse that in the coming years. Few refugees from the Middle East or Asia regard it as a country of destination. Unfortunately, even fewer highly skilled labour migrants view Belarus as a viable option for work and living.




How Women’s Rights Play Out on Belarusian Stage

If you happened to be in Minsk on 4 April, you should have picked up your free ticket to the public reading of the play “Seven”.

The acclaimed documentary play tells the true stories of seven brave women from around the world who fought and managed to significantly improve the lives of girls and women in their respective countries.

Artistic value aside the production has a very powerful political and social message. In Belarus public servants, experts, business, media and sports stars came together to give voices to the seven characters. And while the settings may be exotic – stories from Guatemala, Nigeria, and Cambodia – the narratives translate well into the Belarusian context: domestic violence, trafficking in persons, fighting for freedom and equality. The performance should ideally resonate with the local audience and lead to rigorous discussions.

Belarusian Renditions of Seven

Belarus joins 32 other countries who have already staged “Seven" translating the script into their respective languages. Written by American playwrights, produced by a Swede, it aims to raise awareness about women's rights in the world by engaging local prominent people as readers of the monologues. It presents a tapestry of stories that include fighting domestic violence in Russia, rescuing girls from human trafficking in Cambodia, and promoting peace and equality in Northern Ireland among others.

The first closed reading of Seven in Belarus took place on 2 November, 2015. The carefully chosen stellar cast of readers included Alena Kupchyna, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aleh Karazei, representing Ministry of the Interior, Aliaksandr Rumak, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Protection, Kiryl Rudy, Aide to the President of the Republic of Belarus, and His Excellency Martin Oberg, Ambassador of Sweden to Belarus among others.

And this is where the play gets both politically and socially interesting. Amazingly enough rather high-ranking public servants agreed to act on stage. This meant adjusting their busy schedules to accommodate rehearsals. This also implies coming under the guidance of an artistic director, albeit as talented and outstanding as Ivan Pinigin. And on top of it all it may be the first time since the diplomatic row in 2012 that the government representatives of Sweden and Belarus play together, literally and figuratively.

Irina Alkhovka, a recognised expert in the field of gender equality and chairperson of the NGO "Gender Perspectives" took part in the second "expert" reading of the play in March. She comments on her experience,

It happened so that during the second “expert” reading of the play I spoke with the voice of Marina Pisklakova-Parker, who founded the first hotline for victims of domestic violence in Russia in 1993. My organisation opened such a hotline 20 years later in Belarus with the support from the UN in 2013. However, neither Russia nor Belarus has adopted the legislation on domestic violence prevention yet. It remains a huge issue, which affects women from all walks of life, regardless of their education and place of residence.

Two more performances will take place until the end of 2016, one of them in Hrodna region.

Against the Belarusian Backdrop

Belarusian society could definitely benefit juxtaposing and discussing the issues brought up in the play. Domestic violence continues to be a widespread crime. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) statistics every fourth woman in Belarus experienced some form of violence or aggression from the partner within her lifetime. And yet, only 29% of women survivors of physical or sexual violence choose to tell their story to lawyers, doctors or law enforcement. This low number testifies to the fact that the society has a high tolerance for violence, and women choose to suffer in silence.

The number also reflects the lack of trust that women have towards state-provided services. The Ministry of Labour, responsible for rehabilitation services to victims, claims the existence and availability of 105 ‘crisis’ rooms nationally. In reality, however, very few of them admit domestic violence survivors. The overwhelming red tape, lack of respective protocols, and outright ignorance on behalf of personnel makes such services virtually unattainable for women.

One of the few consistently operating shelters for domestic violence survivors in Minsk receives funding from abroad, namely from a private UK citizen. Altogether four NGO-run shelters for domestic violence survivors in 2014 admitted as many clients as all 105 of the state-sponsored together.

Table 1. Number of clients assisted by the NGO and state-run shelters for domestic violence survivors (according to Belta.by and NGO data)

Another prominent Belarusian women's NGO "Gender Perspectives" operates the only national toll free hotline for domestic violence survivors in Belarus. Since its launch in 2013 it has accepted over 8000 phone calls. They, too, completely rely on foreign and private funding.

National Priorities

Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs prides itself in introducing international initiatives against trafficking in human beings. Namely, it successfully created a Group of Friends United Against Human Trafficking at the UN in 2010. It also introduced a UN resolution on improving the coordination of efforts against human trafficking. Belarus has capitalised and will continue to do so on such initiatives. Such actions become a potent way of inserting itself into the international arena.

Unfortunately all too often domestic efforts in human trafficking prevention lack lustre. US Department of State 2015 Trafficking in Persons report downgraded Belarus to Tier 3: “Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” The Belarusian government places significant efforts on law enforcement and prosecution components, while the victim rehabilitation services are yet again scarce.

Belarus could definitely do more for women who find themselves in similar situations as the play's seven characters. While a play is a great happening in itself, the ultimate goal should be to use it as a potent tool for driving the changes in respective areas. It could help spearhead much-needed legislation on domestic violence prevention, or expand the opportunities for women’s NGOs, or empower real women. Or alternatively it may sadly remain a great foreign-funded story about women being successful against all odds.




Belarus 110 Years Later

In 1905 his grandmother Ida left the village of Novy Svierzhan, about 60 km (46 miles) to the southwest of Minsk. At the age of 13 she set out to travel with her family to the United States of America. She never returned.

In her perfect English with no trace of an accent she rarely reminisced about her past. One hundred and ten years later at the age of 65 he travelled back to her birthplace to discover his roots and another country.

He found the places, but they carry no memories. He found a country which preserves few traces of his ancestors. And yet Professor Krohn thought it was a trip worth making. But without a local, this would have been nearly impossible.

Belarus remains a country with little infrastructure for English-speaking visitors. The newly appointed Head of the National Tourism Agency, Veranika Darozhka, recognises the potential of ‘nostalgic’ tourism and seemingly has the proper experience to make it work.

Getting to Belarus

According to Belstat, 140,000 tourists visited Belarus in 2015. Roughly 70 to 80 per cent of these were from Russia. By contrast, neighbouring Lithuania accepts around 2m visitors each year. Sweden, comparable to Belarus in terms of population with 9.8m inhabitants. attracts around 5m tourists, and the UK, comparable to Belarus in size, attracts a staggering 31m each year.

Professor Krohn had to start planning the trip in advance. A journey to Belarus cannot be made on a whim. US citizens need to obtain a visa from the Belarusian Embassy in Washington or Consulate in New York. The process requires extensive preparation and financial investment. Preparations in his case included obtaining an invitation from a former student residing in Belarus, confirming that he could stay with them. The cost of a visa was $130.

His teaching obligations brought him to neighbouring Latvia from which he managed to take inexpensive trains to Lithuania and then to Minsk. He got lucky, as no low cost carriers will bring you to Belarus. He found ground transportation services swift and reliable. The only downside was that trains had no designated space for suitcases in them. Upon arriving in Belarus, he realised that English would not suffice. He taught himself to read Russian, but understanding the spoken language was harder.

Discovering Jewish Heritage

Novy Svierzhan remained where it used to be, 46 miles south-west of Minsk. However, for Professor Krohn there was little to discover. The population of Novy Svierzhan currently totals 2,086 people according to the 2009 census. Interestingly, in 1900 according to the International Jewish Cemetery Project, the Jewish population was 732.

Even according to current figures, it accounts for one third. That number of people must have left some heritage behind. However, there remained only two traces, neither of which well preserved. The locals easily directed Professor Krohn and his two guides to the remnants of a synagogue and the Jewish cemetery. Interestingly, everybody, even the youth, knew exactly where to look for them. Both looked dilapidated and abandoned.

The next stop was Mir and Niasvizh. Both cities boast well-preserved major tourist attractions listed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites, including the sixteenth century Mir Castle and a palace. Few people know, however, that the 1921 census of Mir showed that 55 per cent of the population was Jewish. Mir or Mirrer Yeshiva was established in 1815 by prominent local Jews and gained a reputation far beyond the little town, attracting students from many parts of the world.

Except for a small private museum run by a local enthusiast by the name of Viktar Sakiel, no other places in Mir contain information about the once vibrant community. One of the four rooms in his private museum features Jewish culture and exhibits collected in the cellars and attics of his neighbours. He works as a collector, fund-raiser and a tour guide for his little enterprise. Some of the exhibits are for sale, many can be touched, and all can be photographed.

Reworking the Past, Looking at the Future

A few Hollywood celebrities trace their ancestry to Belarus, including actors Kirk Douglas and Lisa Kudrow. Many other less famous descendants of Jews from the former Russian Empire have re-discovered their heritage. However, 110 years seems too long ago for Belarusian history. Except for a few private or foreign sponsored initiatives, there seems to be little effort by the state to either preserve or feature the Jewish past of the country.

Yet maybe the government has recognised the historic, cultural and financial potential of Jewish heritage in Belarus. In early March the National Tourism Agency selected Veranika Darozhka from among eight candidates to become its director. Darozhka’s profile features work for the Jewish NGO network and a fellowship at the University of Jerusalem.

In her interview with the traveling.by portal she states the following: “I take deep interest in promoting Belarus in the international arena. I understand the challenges of the current situation and have a vision of how to deal with them and move forward”. Most importantly she notes among her priorities: “This is so called ‘nostalgia’ tourism because so many people had left Belarus in the past and have now become interested in it. Our country has a diverse, rich heritage to offer to various nations".

This rings true for many Jews in the United States, including Professor Krohn, who trace their ancestry to former shtetl or miastechka in Belarus. And while he certainly admired the nature, hospitality and culture of modern Belarus, he just wished he could see more of his own once vibrant culture preserved and featured. Professor Krohn says:

Except for the incredibly moving memorial to the Jews descending to the killing pit, there is a notable paucity of Jewish sites in Belarus. But then I expected little in this regard and I cannot say I was disappointed. The other point I can make with total honesty is that my first trip to a country in the current Russian orbit was fascinating and enjoyable in its own right. The food was good, the transport well organised, the parks absolutely glorious and the broad thoroughfares remarkably clean and well tended for such a large city.

Belarus continues to be expensive to get to and hard to get around without knowledge of Russian or Belarusian. The new leadership at the National Tourism Agency should generate much-needed initiatives reflecting historic cultural diversity and do away with the unnecessary entry restrictions.




8 Ideas for 8 March: Women’s Day

If you live outside the realm of the former Soviet Union, chances are you never celebrate 8 March, International Women's Day.

However, for Belarusian men this holiday brings an eternal conundrum of how to celebrate the women in their lives – colleagues, mothers, sisters, wives, daughters etc.

In Soviet times it became a very popular holiday for glorifying the deeds of Clara Zetkin, Rosa​ Luxemburg and other conscientious, working women. Since then the emphasis has somewhat shifted, and consequently the femininity and beauty of Belarusian women has come more into focus.

Together with the usual flowers and confectionery, there exist at least eight other things that would make any Belarusian woman happy this 8 March. Below is a sample list of ideas:

1. Close the gender pay gap

According to Belstat statistics, 85.3 per cent of women above the age of 15 in Belarus are economically active, or simply put – work. Therefore, they could all benefit from state policies geared at closing the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap in Belarus remains large: the average woman makes 25 per cent less than the average man.

Women tend to work in service-oriented spheres like education and healthcare, which also happen to have the lowest remuneration rates in Belarus. There are also fewer women among high-ranking managers, decision-makers and business owners, and there is overt discrimination of women in the labour market. As a solution some European companies choose to report their gender pay gap and together with gender equality experts seek ways to close it.

2. Introduce domestic violence legislation

Every third grave crime – and the Ministry of Interior defines only murder or assault and battery as grave crimes – takes place in a family setting in Belarus. This means that Belarusian women face fatal danger from their intimate partners. Older people – both men and women – may also face attacks from their children, who in some instances beat them up to take their meagre pensions away.

And yet Belarusian legislation has no separate law on domestic violence. Considerable progress came in 2014, when amendments to the current Criminal Code defined for the first time the notion of domestic violence, victim, and abuser, and introduced innovative measures including restraining orders. These measures are welcome but insufficient. Domestic abuse continues to go on unpunished.

3. Introduce sexual harassment legislation

Article 170 of the Criminal Code of Belarus stipulates that coercing anyone into having a sexual relationship or other sexually-motivated action against their will using blackmail, overt threats or professional power dynamics is punishable by up to three years in prison. This neither defines sexual harassment nor makes it possible for women to prove anything in the courts. This is why, according to Ministry of Interior data, the year 2015 saw zero cases investigated or prosecuted under this Article.

4. Ensure obligatory paid parental leave for fathers

Traditionally women hear a lot of nice words about their parenting skills on this day. Indeed, women continue to be the primary caregivers in the Belarusian economy for both children and the elderly. According to the Ministry of Labour, men take only 1 per cent of the total time taken off by parents to take care of a newborn. While praise is in order, women’s professional development often stalls following childbirth.

Many employers consequently view women as unreliable workers because they tend to take time off when children fall ill. This translates into lower wages and fewer growth opportunities for female workers. And this in turn feeds into the aforementioned gender pay gap. More equally distributed childcare responsibilities will eventually feed into fewer gender stereotypes for both parents. Furthermore, men will surely better appreciate women’s domestic labour if they themselves spend at least a couple of weeks taking care of children full time.

5. Promote non-traditional gender roles for men and women

Gender roles remain rigid and unforgiving, punishing those people who choose or happen to step outside of them. As a consequence, very few do so in Belarus. Men continue to be mostly breadwinners, while women take care of the house and children.

Even if both parents work outside the household, women tend to do a lot more household chores than men. According to the preliminary results of the UN and Belstat Time Use Survey, in Belarus women every weekday spend more than twice as much time on household chores – 15 per cent of their overall time versus 6 per cent for men, and consequently have only 28 minutes of free time, whereas men have 40 minutes daily.

6. Encourage women to go into STEM education and 'male' professions

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Traditionally men dominate these spheres. Girls tend to choose humanitarian disciplines, which consequently lead them into lower paying jobs. Women also tend to go into ‘service-oriented’ professions: Belstat data suggests that 83 per cent of teachers and 85 per cent of doctors in Belarus are female.

The opposite is true of computer science: boys outnumber girls five to one at maths and IT science schools. And as Belarus has found its place in the international IT markets, programming has become a high-paying occupation. Countries all over the world seek to attract girls and women into STEM professions by setting up mentor programmes, with women leading other women by example and guidance.

7. Encourage women to take on leadership positions

Belarus ranks well on women’s representations in parliament. Today women occupy 30.1 per cent of parliamentary seats. Yet, many would argue that parliament has no real authority and merely rubber-stamps the executive decision of the government.

In the positions of power that really matter women tend to be few. Men hold 22 ministerial positions out of 24 in Belarus. Two female ministers yet again head service-oriented ministries: Mariana Shchotkina is the Minister of Labour and Social Protection, while Liliya Ananich heads the Ministry of Information. There are no women regional governors. Women tend to occupy low and mid level management, but few reach the top management positions either in education or industry.

8. Support women's organisations advocating for real change

Over the past 15 years the number of women’s NGOs has fluctuated between 17 and 38, and has currently stabilised at 30. This accounts for 1.1 per cent of all civil society organisations active in Belarus. Such a low number may testify to two things: low self-awareness among women about their issues, or the lack of financial resources available for women’s causes, or maybe both.

Instead of conclusion

None of these things can in reality be gifted to women, but rather women will continue to work on them for themselves. However, men very much need to be part of this process. This list serves as a suggestion and by no means should be regarded as complete.

And yes, happy 8th of March, International Women's Day to you and yours!




Restrictions and Domination: Gender Imbalance in Belarusian Labour Market

In February 2016 Belarusian national air carrier Belavia announced that the first female pilot had joined its ranks since the company’s creation in 1996. Her name is Svetlana Yeryomenko, and she comes to Belarus from crisis-hit Russia, with strong family traditions in aviation.

The Belarusian labour market with its occupational segregation remains a reflection of the significant imbalance in power between male and female workers. In other words, there are still traditionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ professions in Belarus. According to Belstat data, up to 83 per cent of teachers and 85 per cent of doctors are female, whereas up till now 100 per cent of pilots were male.

Restrictions women face in the labour market

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Yeryomenko comes from a family in which both of parents have worked for the Russian aviation industry. Her husband also flies planes in St. Petersburg. Yeryomenko may very well be breaking ground, but among the small fraction of women who make it into aviation, her exceptional profile proves the rule. Because of the virtual lack of female role models, very few young women even consider this profession. Among those who do, the majority grew up with it.

In her interview, Yeryomenko remarks that modern society no longer distinguishes between ‘male’ and ‘female’ professions. One needs passion, health and proper education to fly a plane, and planes for their part do not care who flies them.

However, Belstat data does not support this claim. Stereotypes persist when choosing a career: some tend to be exclusively male, while others attract mostly women. ‘Female’ occupations happen to be among those with the lowest remuneration in the country. All these factors contribute to the 25 per cent gender wage gap.

Figure 1: Male and Female-dominated Occupations in Belarus

Professional Occupation Sphere Women Men
Education 82,3% 17,7%
Health, Medicine and Social Services 85,3% 14,7%
Hotel and Restaurant Business 76,4% 23,6%
Construction 19,7% 80,3%
Industry (electricity, gas, water) 29,8% 70,2%

 

Self-selection among girls and boys

It may all very well start at school. Belarusian schools continue with their practice of teaching sex-segregated home education classes. Boys learn woodwork and the basics of welding, while girls engage in cooking and sewing. One can neither switch nor opt out.

Girls also outnumber boys at higher educational institutions. Many boys choose to leave after the 9th grade to pursue professional education, rather than spending two more years at school. It seems that girls can afford to get more educated, while boys need to start earning their leaving.

According to the national census of 2009, in Belarus for every 1000 people 179 men and 190 women have higher education, vocational post-secondary education – 256 and 276 respectively, and professional vocational training – 105 and 80 respectively.

Figure 2: Percentage of female and male students at different levels of education

Level of Education Women Men
Higher Education (including universities, master and PhD programmes) 57,7% 42,3%
Professional Vocational Training 33,3% 66,7%

 

Those young people who choose to enrol in universities and colleges generally face equal competition, except when they do not. At least two Belarusian educational establishments discriminate openly against girls: the Belarusian Military Academy and Police Academy. They both set enrolment quotas for girls. In the period from 2011 to 2015 the Belarusian Military Academy admitted zero women in accordance with the quota set by the Ministry of Defence. The Police Academy had a more generous 5 per cent quota for women.

In the period from 2011 to 2015 the Belarusian Military Academy admitted zero women

In 2010, representatives of the Police Academy quoted care for women and need for physical strength as the justifications for setting low quotas for girls. When challenged that neighbouring countries have more female police officers in their ranks, they responded that Belarus has its own peculiarities that require male officers. That may very well be true, but it closes many doors for girls to some of the more lucrative careers in the government, where the Ministry of Interior, KGB and other ‘male’ ministries still reign.

State protection for female workers

The government continues to protect women from possible professional hazards. Up until 2014, the Cabinet of Ministers enforced a decree with a list of professions unavailable to women due either to potential hazards to their reproductive health or their lack of muscular power.

The list included 252 professional occupations, most of which seemed obsolete and unappealing to women to begin with: beamster, blacksmith,and mill operator, for example. Yet some of them raise eyebrows, such as diver, bus driver, long haul driver, and various machine operators.

At least two issues arise with having such a list: firstly, this means that men continue to be employed in these hazardous professions and the state does not seek to protect their reproductive health. And secondly, in many cases where physical vigour was previously needed to perform duties, modern computerised equipment requires no such special powers any longer. But nobody seemed responsible for either revisiting or updating the document. Thus some professions continue to be on the list despite the obvious progress in the respective areas.

A change came about after this document came under criticism during the work of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2011. The Belarusian delegation reporting to the Committee on its progress took note to reconsider the outdated document. And it indeed ceased to exist in 2014, only to be replaced by a Ministry of Labour Provision with almost exactly the same list. Only now the responsibility shifted towards the employer.

The clarification by the Ministry of Labour reads that the employer has the right to hire a woman for such one of these position if they can provide the proper conditions for her. In other words, it is the employer’s responsibility to prove to the Ministry that they are in compliance with the special requirements for women’s safety and wellbeing. Women’s chances of getting hired automatically reduce. Not only do women have to compete with men to get a job in a male dominated sphere, but also the employer has to make extra effort to gain approval for their engagement.

Going forward

It seems unlikely that more women pilots will fly in Belarus in the near future. Or that more women will drive buses or long haul trucks, for that matter. Firstly, most women can’t even fathom competing with men in these areas. Some professions appear so obviously out of reach for young girls that they can’t even dream of them. Secondly, special standards for women’s safety at work mean employers need to spend extra time and effort proving compliance.

The economic crisis could actually work in women’s favour

It is rarely so, but the economic crisis could actually work in women’s favour. After neighbouring Poland became part of the EU, many Polish long haul truck drivers left for more lucrative employment further west where the salaries were bigger. That created a big demand in the market, with little supply among men. Women stepped up and in 2014 there were more than 3000 female long haul truck drivers registered.

In Belarus, at least for now, women continue to steer toward traditional ‘service’-oriented professions, forgoing career opportunities and making less money compared to men. Harmful gender stereotypes enforced through the education system, restrictions imposed by the government, and low quotas for girls upheld by the traditionally ‘male’ universities all contribute to gender inequality and rigid occupational segregation in the labour market of Belarus.

In this context, Yeryomenko should be celebrated as a positive role model for young girls for whom the sky indeed is the limit. As new technologies promote brain power and do away with the need for muscular strength in workers, the state needs to step back and allow the labour market to regulate itself. The smarter worker shall win.




Women Need to Work More to Boost the Belarusian Economy

In January 2016 Kiril Rudy, an Economic Advisor to President Alexander Lukashenka, said that the Belarusian economy was in need of more gender equality. Namely, structural gender inequalities and cultural stereotypes disproportionately affect the female labour force and hinder their professional development. This in turn harms the Belarusian economy.

According to Rudy, women make a better workforce as they tend to be more stress-resilient, lead healthier lifestyles and overall turn out to be better-educated than men. In other words, the quality of female workers seems superior to that of their male counterparts. However, in terms of quantity, women lag behind men. There are fewer of them in the labour market and they earn significantly less than men.

Rudy identifies the root causes of this persistent gender inequality in the labour market: women leave the workforce for an extended period of maternity leave, they retire earlier, and social gender stereotypes work against them. He offers a quick fix to these deep-seated problems in modern Belarusian society, focusing on the first two issues: cutting maternity leave and extending the retirement age for women. In other words, women need to work more.

Gender gaps in salaries and life expectancy

Belarusian women consistently fall behind men in the amount of money they make. According to Belstat, on average a working woman makes only 75 per cent of the salary of a working male, or a quarter less. Other economists also argue that only a fraction of this difference can be explained by controlled variables, such as level of education, years of experience, and number of years taken off for maternity leave. The rest of the gender pay gap remains inexplicable and must therefore be attributed to the mechanisms of discrimination against women in the labour market.

Belarus holds the record as having the lowest retirement age for women among the post Soviet countries

Currently working women in Belarus can retire at 55 years old. Together with Russia, Belarus holds the record as having the lowest retirement age for women among the post Soviet countries. Female life expectancy however has increased to reach 77.9 years. Moreover, it compares favourably to male life expectancy, which is only 67.3. Most men will work professionally until 60. Simple math suggests that an average woman collects 22 years of pension payments, while a man only collects 7.

Current parental leave in Belarus provides a parent with 126 paid days and up to three years of allowed time off with their workplace secured. While both men and women can take time off to care for a newborn, men account for only 2 per cent of such cases according to Ministry of Labour data. Both of the existing policies can potentially negatively affect women’s ability to be employed. Therefore both policies appear outdated and require revision.

Quick fix for complex issues

Some women in Belarus might benefit from the proposed reforms. Belstat data suggests that many women choose to continue to work after they reach the retirement age of 55 for both financial and social reasons. Evidence also shows that many women return to work a lot earlier than after the permitted three years of maternity leave. However, measures proposed by Rudy seem more like a quick fix for a major problem of gender inequality than a well thought-through policy proposal.

Rudy does not mention whether these measures will close or at least narrow the gender gap in wages. He calculates, however, that they will generate an additional 2.3 per cent economic growth and a subsequent increase in GDP. Indeed, the calculations serve to identify ways to boost the Belarusian economy, but not necessarily to close the gender gap. Rudy holds the title of economic advisor, not gender equality consultant.

In recent years Belarus has consistently ranked high in the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) gender indices. However, despite the nominal high representation of women in parliament, generous maternity benefits and low maternal death rates, the government could do more to promote gender-sensitive policies. In particular it could address the issues of labour market discrimination, the gender pay gap, and domestic violence prevention.

While Rudy deserves recognition for publicly speaking out and acknowledging persistent gender inequality in Belarus, he has not put women’s issues at the forefront of his policy proposals. But someone should.

Best practices in gender equality promotion

Gender equality has emerged as a burning, crosscutting issue for international discussion, with delegates at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos taking it on. The general consensus recognises that societies with high rates of gender equality fare well economically. If Belarus indeed wants to close its gender gap and boost its economy, then the proposed reforms should constitute part of a fair package deal to empower women in the long run.

Such reforms would have to be more comprehensive, long term and require a lot more financial and social investment from the government. They should span from allocating additional funding for early childcare to providing professional training courses for women to enhance their professionalism when they choose to return to work. Maybe then women would agree more eagerly to the obvious disadvantages of the proposal to work more.

Existing Belarusian legislation does not effectively protect women from discrimination during hiring or promotion processes. Nor does it stipulate what constitutes sexual harassment at work. The Constitution of the Republic of Belarus together with the Labour and Criminal Codes offer little protection for women when it comes to discrimination. The burden of proof lies upon a woman with virtually no assistance or sensitivity from either the investigators or judicial system.

With its shrinking labour force, Belarus needs to ensure that both men and women enjoy equal rights and benefits in the labour market. And if Belarus has ambitions to join the world economy and look to the West, it must learn from existing international best practices.