Women’s activism in Belarus: towards the real gender equality

On 8 March, women the world over will celebrate International Women’s Day, which commemorates women's emancipation and their achievements. However, Belarusians largely celebrate the 8th of March in a different way, putting an emphasis on women as mothers, housekeepers, and wives.

On 17 February, the Council of Ministers signed a national plan on gender equality for 2020. Although Belarus generally performs very well in gender equality indicators, women nevertheless earn 24% less than men and occupy high academic positions in only 23% of cases.

The weak representation of Belarusian women in politics and business should have the potential to galvanise them to demand rights. However, the women’s movement in Belarus is woefully underdeveloped, disorganised, and disoriented.

Staying put or moving backwards?

Belarusian women’s activism has a long history. The first union, called United Belarusian Women’s Committee, appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, advocacy groups were actively involved in promoting both women’s rights and national revival. The first women’s party, Nadzeja, emerged in 1994, and throughout the 1990s Belarusian women pulled together in working associations and rights organisations.

However, starting in the 2000s, the development of women’s activism hit a rut. Today around 40 registered women’s organisations exist in the country, making up less than 1.5% of all NGOs in Belarus. Despite its existence on paper, the Belarusian women’s network, an umbrella organisation of women's rights groups created in 2007, has not achieved significant results. Over the past few years, the Belarusian women’s movement has struggled to form common advocacy campaigns or united and coordinated actions.

Moreover, a significant portion of registered organisations do not even recognise the thriving discrimination against Belarusian women. Vice-chairman of the Belarusian Union of Women, Antanina Morava, has stated that there is no need in Belarus to introduce a gender equality law as the Constitution already guarantees all rights.

The role of women's organisations is often a mere formality for the regime. This is also true of most other GoNGOs (Governmental non-governmental organisations, created and controlled by the government). Organisations such as the Belarusian Union of Women, which comprises more than 170,000 members, receive grants and help the state monopolise the sector by promoting traditional family values.

Despite attempts to unify and hammer out common goals, Belarusian women’s organisations have been so far unable to create a strong movement. In 2007, almost 20 women’s initiatives set up a network for Belarusian women. Belarus also introduced a National Gender Platform for stimulating gender equality in the country. Nevertheless, due to the difference in agendas and goals, the women’s movement in Belarus has suffered from a lack of unity, with every unit acting alone.

Iryna Salamatsina, author of the project Gender Route, told Belarus Digest: 'Women’s organisations have failed to reach the next level as the next qualitative step is recognising the variety of vectors within women’s initiatives, which have their own ideas, ideologies, goals, and vision for the future. Unfortunately, none of this is true when it comes to the women’s organisations sector. The third sector denies the significance of promoting gender rights.'

Violence and participation

Several times, women’s organisations have attempted to create a network which would prioritise political and social issues. Meanwhile, the majority of associations focus on working with victims of violence and violence prevention. Cities have domestic violence hotlines, violence-related billboards, and some form of women’s organisations.

However, a much smaller number of units works to promote social and political rights. For instance, in 2016 women's initiatives monitored the parliamentary election from a gender perspective.

 

The Belarusian women’s movement appears to be unique in that it is mostly non-feminist. A study conducted under the framework of the project ‘Developing a single strategy on Gender Equality issues of the EaP CSF’ revealed that almost 80% indicated that their organisation has no written gender policy or means to monitor it.

Currently, financial organisations and projects prioritise the inclusion of women in business. In 2016, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development financed (and is still working on) a large project called Women in Business, centred around women's participation and education in business. The media continue to write about the top 10 or 25 Belarusian businesswomen. However, in the most recent rating of the best business people, only seven out of 200 were women.

Neither is it the case that gender issues have become a visible part of the political agenda due to women's political participation. In 2015, Tacciana Karatkievič, Belarus's first female presidential candidate, fostered a 'motherly' image rather than promoting women's rights.

On 6 March, Lidzija Jarmošyna, chairperson of the Central Election Commission, told the national press-centre that 'women are not very prone to political participation'. Despite a 30% parliamentary membership, comparing to 12.5% in Ukraine, women’s rights are not a part of the agenda.

Women’s rights also remain underrepresented at the economic level. In 2016, the average salary of Belarusian women was 25% lower than men. According to a recent Internet survey of 1,519 women conducted by TUT.by, 90% encounter discrimination at the workplace. Nevertheless, this is a last-order issue for many organisations.

The three main obstacles to the women’s movement

Three main obstacles to Belarusian women’s movements predominate today. As in the case with youth organisations, the state aims to feign women’s participation by creating large-scale pro-governmental organisations such as the Belarusian Union of Women. Poor coordination of women’s organisations and decreasing support from the state and sponsors weakens the movement even further.

Women's political representation in Belarus and the activity of women's organisations seem to be completely uncorrelated. In 2016, Belarusians elected Kanapackaja and Anisim, who became the first two female oppositional deputies. However, neither deputies aim to address gender issues, and women's organisations do not try to use them to promote their agenda.

Women’s rights groups, much like other organisations in Belarus, have become victims of NGO legislation. Difficulties with registration and receiving foreign funds create additional obstacles for activists. For instance, over the past several years, the Ministry of Justice has registered only two women's organisations, thus keeping the share of women's NGOs at 1.5%.

Despite the fractured nature of the women's movement in Belarus, over the past years many unregistered initiatives advocating for social rights for women have appeared. Recent projects, such as MakeOut, Zdolnaya, and HerRights create new possibilities for women's rights advocacy. Nevertheless, their popularity is low and their activities are restricted by legal issues.

If the state, society, and activists fail to address these existing challenges, the Belarusian women’s movement will become increasingly marginalised and continue to lose ground.




Advocacy crowdfunding in Belarus: the best projects of 2016

On 15 December, the best Belarusian crowdfunded projects of 2016 received awards in Minsk. 15 finalists received funding totaling $19,500. Crowdfunding has become one of the simplest and most accessible forms of civic participation. In a nondemocratic environment, crowdfunding is one of the safest ways of practising social activism.

The best Belarusian campaigns of 2016 were mainly related to social and cultural issues, whereas few projects considered human rights or the environment. The relative unpopularity of such themes can be explained by potential conflict with state interests.

Crowdfunding as a resource for advocacy in Belarus

Crowdfunding is often referred to as a new form of civic participation. According to statistics, in 2014 the world crowdfunding market came to $16bn, while in 2015 the number was more than $34bn. However, in Belarus even traditional forms of civic participation struggle to engage the wider public. The small number of NGOs, passive engagement in public hearings, and a low level of public awareness are all symptoms of the passive and non-participatory nature of Belarusian civil society.

Nevertheless, in 2016 Belarusians demonstrated an unprecedentedly high level of civic participation through crowdfunding. Currently, several platforms help finance crowdfunded projects in Belarus: Talakosht, Ulej, and Maesens. The first two platforms, Talakosht and Ulej, allow users to create a project online and offers non-material support. Maesens suggests collecting money specifically for social projects by offering an auction of meetings.

In addition, Maesens organises an annual contest called 'Social Weekend', in which citizens and experts choose the best projects for financial support. 15 finalists of the 2016 'Social Weekend' received funding from Maesens, while most of the other 40 projects received money through crowdfunding.

The most popular genre of projects on Talakosht, Ulej and Maesens are humanitarian, cultural,å and publishing projects. Examples of notable projects on Talashkot include a translation of The Chronicles of Narnia and a fundraiser for Belarusian athlete Vital Hurkou. Other recent campaigns have included a fundraiser for Nasha Niva investigations and Christmas gifts for Belarusian orphans.

The most successful projects manage to combine crowdfunding with other advocacy tools. Imena magazine, the Swamps Protection Campaign, and the Adnak festival of Belarusian advertising are particularly noteworthy examples.

Charity, Swamps, and a Belarusian Advertising Festival

The largest and most successful crowdfunding campaign of the year has been a project called Imena (Names). The format of the magazine is unique to Belarus. Besides covering personal stories, the magazine offers readers the option of supporting groups in need. Imena also allows visitors to its website to create their own projects and organise fundraising campaigns. The project raised more than $21,000 for the magazine itself and $35,000 to support seriously ill children.

The founder Katsiaryna Seniuk was named 'person of the year' for stimulating Belarusians to participate more actively in society. Seniuk highlights the importance of motivating Belarusians to act and participate rather than just being aware of problems. The project has proved that Belarusian society can change and mobilise to provide essential support for groups in need. On 23 December the Assembly of Belarusian NGOs named the magazine the best media project of the year.

An older but equally successful advocacy project aims to protect Belarusian swamps. The In Defence of Belarusian Swamps campaign emerged as a project to inform Belarusians about the importance of wetlands. The organisers collected signatures and signed appeals to the local authorities in the regions where wetlands are most endangered.

In many cases, the authorities overturned decisions to drain swamps. This year, the project used crowdfunding to gather money to support the creation of a guide to Belarusian swamps. The campaign was also able to persuade authorities to adopt a strategy for conservation and sustainable use of peatlands.

A final example is a campaign for the Adnak Belarusian advertisement festival. Over the last 7 years, the operation of the festival has depended on sponsors. However, this year's campaign to promote Belarusian language and culture through advertising garnered additional material support via crowdfunding platforms. According to ulej.by, the Adnak campaign is one of the most successfully implemented projects, collecting more than $7,000 over a short period.

The organisers encouraged those interested to actively participate through fundraising. Nina Shydlouskaya, the head of the project, reports that the majority of the campaign's goals have been achieved. The campaign was the second most popular crowdfunded project at Ulej in 2016.

The Less Political, the More to Successful

Crowdfunding has become a significant part of civic activism in Belarus. With the development of technology, crowdfunding is growing as a resource and tool for advocacy in the world. In 2016, Belarus saw a significant increase in social participation via material support for projects spread on the Internet.

Top 10 projects at crowdfunding platforms, the best projects on Maesens, and Imena magazine demonstrate that the most successful projects in Belarus in 2016 are humanitarian, cultural and publishing projects. Some experienced advocacy campaigns, such as Budzma or In Defense of Belarusian Swamps employed crowdfunding as a new resource and were able to receive the financial support they required.

It seems that only projects with a low-level of politicisation can be successful in Belarus: advocacy and crowdfunding practises indicate that non-political projects received the most support in 2016. At the same time, neither Ulej, Talakosht, Maesens, or other platforms hosted projects promoting human rights defence, energy, or other topics which could possibly clash with the state’s interests. In a non-democratic environment, projects with a high degree of politicisation have only a small chance of survival.

Despite the increase in civic activism in Belarus during 2016, it is hard to picture how projects with politicised goals, such as Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty or the Antinuclear Campaign could achieve significant results. However, crowdfunding has allowed many Belarusian to safely participate in the civic life of the country by funding important and problematic projects while remaining anonymous.




Belarus between EU and EEU, New Opposition Strategy – Digest of Belarusian Analytics

Over the past month analysts discussed continuing rapprochement of Belarus with the West and potential Russia’s responses to it. Meanwhile, influenced by Russian propaganda, Belarusians favour Eurasian integration over European, although official Minsk finds its result unsatisfactory.

Belarusian opposition changes its strategy in relations with the authorities and plans to push them to negotiations with backing of mass street pressure. However, a Ukrainian sociologist predicts that democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years and conditions for a Maidan do not exist there. This and more in the new Digest of Belarusian Analytics.

Foreign policy

Belarus in the EAEC: a Year Later (Disappointing Results and Doubtful Prospects) – This report was presented in Minsk on March 22, by the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The report is devoted to the analysis of the first year of existence of the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) for Belarus. Among the key findings is that Minsk had great expectations from this association, but now finds it unsatisfactory.

Europe’s Last Dictator Comes in From the ColdArtyom Shraibman, for Carnegie Moscow Center, notices that Lukashenka’s fortunes have changed. Once known as “Europe’s last dictator,” he has won friends in Europe, while antagonizing his traditional ally, Russia. It’s a situation that has left the Kremlin in a difficult position: should it punish Belarus for its pro-Western tendencies? Or should it continue to prop up the Belarusian economy rather than risk further unrest in the region?

Belarus-Ukraine Relations Beyond Media HeadlinesYauheni Preiherman, in Eurasia Daily Monitor, notices that media narratives often distort the reality of Belarus-Ukraine relations. Some observers explain this by the absence of a “strategic vision for a long-term relationship”. The author sees this a typical feature of inter-state relations in the post-Soviet space, where politics is mainly about tactics, and fighting protectionist trade wars is part of the political culture.

Politics

Belarusian Opposition Comes Up With New Strategy: Negotiations With Authorities Due to Protest Pressure – Politicians and leaders of the mass protests discuss the lessons of "The Square-2006". The new strategy is likely to depart from the revolutionary approach to power change and focus on evolutionary approach, by changing relations between the authorities and the opposition through negotiations, backed by mass street pressure.

Ukrainian Sociologist: Maidan will not be in Minsk – Democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years. This will happen only when society is ready for this. Artificial imposition of liberal values does not work, as well as there are no political or social preconditions for Maidan of the Kyiv scenario in Minsk, according to Ukrainian sociologist, Professor Eduard Afonin.

Public opinion polls

Majority of Belarusians want to keep death penalty. According to the March national poll conducted by IISEPS, 51.5% of Belarusians do not agree with the idea to abolish the death penalty; opposite opinion is shared by 36.4%. Women are less in favor of abolition of the death penalty than men – respectively 55.3% and 46.9%. Belarus is the only country in Europe and on the post-soviet space, which still applies the death penalty.

Belarus Between EU and EEU. Nation-Wide Poll – The ODB Brussels commissioned a survey about perceptions, preferences, and values Belarusians attribute to the European Union (EU) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). According to the study, Belarusians have a high-level understanding and appreciation of the EU, a clear opinion that the EU and EEU are competitors while public reasoning is currently swayed in favor of economic cooperation with the EEU.

Peculiarities of Public Opinion in BelarusGrigory Ioffe overviews the key results of a fresh national poll by IISEPS and an alarming reaction of official sociologists to the results, namely, the decline in Alexander Lukashenka’s electoral rating. Siarhei Nikalyuk, an associate of IISEPS, suggests that independent sociologists who are de facto allowed to work in Belarus are playing the role that jesters did in medieval Europe. After all, only a jester was allowed to speak the truth to the monarch, who actually appreciated that.

Other

Advocacy Sector in Belarus: CSO Experience – The study analyses the actual practices of advocacy in Belarus for the recent five years. The researchers see the key factor of success/failure of any campaign in its capacity for politicisation, i.e. whether authorities perceive a campaign political or not. The study was commissioned by OEEC in a series of sectoral studies aimed at summarising data on the development of specific sectors of civil society in Belarus. The presentation was held on March 24.

How to Make Minsk a Cycling City? – Pavel Harbunou, the Minsk Bicycle Society, shares the results of an annual monitoring on bicycle traffic on the Minsk streets, which shows that the number of cyclists has increased significantly in the city. The activists tells what can be done to make Minsk comfortable for all road users. Namely, the Bicycle Society launches a new campaign Street Bike Supervisor aimed to provide a regular feedback on the conditions of Minsk streets.

Ghetto for Each. Why Minsk Art Spaces Live Separately From Each OtherBelarusian Journal online describes the existing art spaces in Minsk, both mainstream and alternative. While a growing number of cultural spaces is a positive sign, it is too early to talk about the impact of these spaces for culture in general. It is more a question of the formation of separate subcultural groups, the original "ghetto" that arise, rather against the wishes of the state.​

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.