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.
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.
Social Entrepreneurs In Belarus In Need Of Education
A guest post from Masha Cheriakova, a social entrepreneur and writer of Heta Belarus dzietka. She has made a major life decision a little more than 3 years ago to develop social entrepreneurship in Belarus. This led her to a purpose-driven life. Now she is a social entrepreneur.
After having worked for the past 3 years with Belarusian social entrepreneurs, I continue my mission to develop social entrepreneurship in Belarus. For the coming 3 years I will be working together with three NGO’s in setting up an acceleration program for 170 aspiring social entrepreneurs.
Together with Olga Kapachenia, I have conducted research on social entrepreneurship in Belarus. Covering online findings about the ecosystem of entrepreneurs in general and offline research in the form of interviews of 15 social entrepreneurs, 20 NGO’s and experts on this field, I have come to know about the challenges and needs of social entrepreneurs in Belarus.
Block 1: Belarusian mentality towards entrepreneurs
All surveyed social entrepreneurs have indicated that the biggest barrier towards developing their social business is that Belarusian people tend to think in problems rather than in solutions. One social entrepreneur described it as the following, “most Belarusians tend to think that they don’t have a power or a say in something. They think that the world will change by itself or by the government.” Another social entrepreneur described it as a psychological block towards change. He said “we need a mental shift that will make people responsible for things that don’t work, instead of relying on the government that does not do enough.”
Another problem identified, is that Belarusians have a big problem selling things or how they view selling items as a form begging. Even if they sell a good product, they still think that they are asking for money.
Block 2: Fear of misunderstanding and paperwork
The biggest stumbling block for social entrepreneurs in Belarus is the trouble of explaining and convincing their family, friends and others that social entrepreneurs is a business with a social mission that reinvests profits back into the organisation.
The second barrier relates to the amount of paperwork and red tape. Many are reluctant to start any enterprise in Belarus because of the big risk of being punished for a minor mistake. “You feel like you are being hunted” is what a social entrepreneur said during the interview. Access to licenses and the required certificates is a major burden for many of the social entrepreneurs interviewed who want to sell a product that is not a souvenir.
Social entrepreneurs indicated a need for entrepreneurial skills
Surprisingly these blocks did not relate to the biggest need of social entrepreneurs. Education and networking possibilities is what social entrepreneurs need most. “Writing a business plan, marketing strategy and most importantly an extensive course in selling, is what we need to develop a social enterprise. With the rest we can deal ourselves” an interviewee answered. Meeting like-minded people was also high on the need’s list. One social entrepreneur explained that interacting with other entrepreneurs, like Andrew Defrancesco, would encourage and motivate him to keep going in times when all seemed pointless.
Creating a social entrepreneurial culture will take time, especially in a country like Belarus, where entrepreneurial aspirations are not well understood or necessarily respected. The first step is to recognize what drives social entrepreneurs and identify the resources they need to succeed. From the voices of the social entrepreneurs we have learned that education is the biggest requirement to make their business successful.
Before looking into the direction of the government or other stakeholders to support social entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurs should prove themselves as an interesting and potential business model for job creation and social and economic growth. Development of an effective education program would be the first step to create powerful and successful examples.
Start with education on (social) entrepreneurship, some recommendations
Based on our findings, our study proposes 16 recommendations to develop social entrepreneurship further. I would like to share the most important recommendations that focus on the biggest need of social entrepreneurs in Belarus: Education.
1. Schools should be able to teach their students about (social) entrepreneurship and help build an entrepreneurial culture. This is mainly a governmental level of change that involves the Ministry of Education to collaborate with educational entrepreneurial organisations to jointly promote curricula that includes entrepreneurship. Educators can creatively reinforce these lessons by, for instance, creating competitions in which students present business plans to a panel of experts, who perhaps are successful entrepreneurs. . At the high school level it is equally important to educate the teachers on (social) entrepreneurship.
2. At the university level, the goal is more specific: Provide more students with the desire, skills and knowledge to start a company. To this end, more universities should establish major and minor degrees in entrepreneurship that cover topics such as business planning, problem solving, project management, risk management, finance and accounting. This coursework might include small, specialised seminars in which students work closely with a professor to create a business plan that is presented to investors or VC firms at the end of the term for possible financing.
Even students who are not seeking a major or minor in entrepreneurship could one day benefit from these courses. With this in mind, universities might consider altering the requirements for some existing degrees (e.g. business and engineering) to include a few entrepreneurship-related courses (the same way an ethics course is required of business graduates). Outside of the classroom, universities could support entrepreneurship clubs in which professors, business managers or established entrepreneurs present insights and training.
3. The media could take a more proactive role by regularly covering (social) entrepreneurial issues and seeking out these success stories. By interviewing entrepreneurs and asking for their experiences and barriers, they will unravel the truth from the myths concerning entrepreneurship and present that to the public. Regarding specifically social entrepreneurship promotion, journalists could be offered a training on what social entrepreneurship is and why it is important to cover the subject in the media. Especially reporting on success stories could benefit the media (as they have a nice topic to uncover) as well as the image of social entrepreneurship.
4. Give guidance to the existing promoters of social entrepreneurship. We have identified a handful of initiatives that have made it their core mission to promote social entrepreneurship in Minsk, such as Social Weekend and Talaka. These NGO’s, private initiatives and youth platforms are setting up training programmes, lectures and gatherings for social entrepreneurs.
However, many of them face barriers, partially because they are not sure about how to promote such an ambiguous term or in some cases they are not aware of what social entrepreneurship actually means and mix it up with NGO’s or a social projects or even CSR. Therefore, it would be good to give these promoters guidelines and definitions for social enterprises. This could be done via a website, which will focus on social entrepreneurship. Or possibly educate a pool of experts/trainers that could be invited to promote social entrepreneurship in different lectures and programmes.
5. Measure the impact social entrepreneurs make. None of the social entrepreneurs surveyed mentioned that they were measuring the impact they were making. The value generated by social enterprises will typically be measured in terms of the achievement of their social, cultural or environmental mission, as well as their financial sustainability.
Measuring, for example, young people that gained new skills, jobs being created, pollution diminished, whatever the aim of the social entrepreneurs, it is crucial to show the world that this is not business as usual. Moreover impact figures can also attract investors and partners. Social entrepreneurs should be trained on what kind of tools to use to measure the impact and how to promote these through various channels.
6. Seek finance through Crowdfunding. Crowdfunding involves raising capital, usually in small amounts, from a large number of people. In the Internet Era, this is predominantly happening online through a variety of crowdfunding platforms – each with their own approach and community. In Belarus only three crowdfunding platform exist today: Ulej.by, Maesens.by and Talaka.by.
While Crowdfunding platforms are a very new and not yet a popular way of raising money, we recommend social entrepreneurs to seriously consider this option. Crowdfunding also allows the building of a community of supporters, as well as getting exposure to the associated press and media ultimately spreading the word about the product and mission that social entrepreneurs try to sell.
7. Setting up a social entrepreneurship service centre or a social entrepreneurial incubator. Within this incubator social entrepreneurs can engage with NGO’s to create conferences, forums and programmes to share ideas and experiences, and facilitate networking. For instance, they could set up mentoring programmes so aspiring social entrepreneurs could benefit from real-life business experience and insights.
This could become the place where social entrepreneurs can meet experienced counterparts, discuss their ideas and get feedback and support on developing their business plans. Incubator acceleration programmes can help develop, identify and train social entrepreneurs with the highest potential, then give them a leg-up by providing human resources support, capabilities development, financing and professional services.
Masha is a social entrepreneur and writer of Heta Belarus dzietka