In the shadow of men: the Promethean struggle of Belarusian women against the patriarchal yoke

, by Horia-Victor Lefter, Translated by Pauline Gessant

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In the shadow of men: the Promethean struggle of Belarusian women against the patriarchal yoke

The situation of women is a reflection of the struggle that Belarus takes over, at least since independence, between past and future, between Soviet tradition and modernity, between East and West. While many situations are similar to Western issues, the Belarusian authorities lack the political will to prevent and punish domestic violence, but also to take necessary measures to ensure equality between the sexes.

To all my Belarusian friends who, far or near, inspire and help me

Predominantly male, administration and justice are not very sensitive to women’s issues, they shall in principle be confined to their roles as mothers and wives. However, in a world of patriarchal repression, more and more women are no more waiting in the shadow of men and spoke.

“The feminization of poverty”

That’s how an international report designed the situation that women, the majority in fact, know in Belarus (87 men and 100 women , with a life expectancy of 76 years for women against 63 for men - 2007). One of the main causes behind the generally precarious situation of women, is the eye through the prism of Soviet mentality which is still very present in Belarusian society. The woman is in charge of the household, has to take care of the house, educate children and work.

In other words, the woman is a wife, mother and friend. Symbolically, at the base, just a traditional obligation for Belarusian woman to set the table, it has forced the society to have a purely domestic view of women, who often must have the opinion of their husband. This is why the new generations of women, in part at least, must be confronted with a spiritual and physical insecurity. Thus, this poverty comes first, in the psychological (spiritual) pressure that these women endure because of their husbands or partners, in accordance with the testimony of an Amnesty International report issued in 2006 [1] .

The only evidence we have today are the testimonies, indeed the United Nations criticize by the report issued February 4, 2011 the lack of statistics and qualitative data on discrimination against women. But according to an official 2005 Belarusian report, 166 people were killed and 2736 others victims of crime in the family setting.

Unfortunately, for some women, helpless before their spouses and insensitive justice, suicide is the ultimate solution. The few associations, created on a voluntary basis to assist women victims of domestic violence, must first fight for their existence before they can accomplish their goal.

However, Belarusian women, as is often the case in Central and Eastern Europe, are also prey to human traffickers, to be sent to Western Europe, the Middle East or Russia, to be exploited on the prostitution market. If until now the government has been highly appreciated by international reports for the work of prosecuting the perpetrators of such crimes, the same voices bemoan the lack of involvement of the authorities to provide assistance and protection to victims.

Needless then to dwell on the list of international texts signed by Belarus or, even, national laws that Belarusian authorities have adopted with almost no enforcement action, especially regarding the budget. Merely by way of example, the Law on the Prevention of Crime, which entered into force on January 21, 2009, was the first reference to domestic violence. In practice, at the end of 2009, only two shelters were opened throughout the country, partly financed by the government (Amnesty Report 2010, p.39).

Despite all international and national laws or regulations, the United Nations in the latest report on the status of women, fired a warning about the absence of specific legislation on the prohibition of discrimination against women, or even a law on gender equality.

On the other hand, although they have access to education and are more educated than men, significant barriers persist to true equality with men, leading to a material precariousness of women. Continuing the customs, the gender division is still very traditional, for most Belarusian women ,successful marriage remains the primary concern.

Many stories tell of women forced by their social environment, family, to make sacrifices and give up their careers. In this regard, Belarus is known for pursuing the policy of Soviet maternity aid, financial support increases gradually as the family expands. The probability of getting pregnant is unofficially, also, one of the main reasons why companies prefer to hire men.

However, the fact that the state finances education for most students, unless they refuse, may seem in the eyes of Western students, a salutary provision from the welfare state. The matching aspect consists in the requirement for these students to work for the state during two years where the Commission decides, usually in the countryside or in most polluted areas by the Chernobyl explosion of 1986.

Therefore, some women are using marriage in name only, often with soldiers, this has become a business for them, to ensure they will not be returned to the countryside to work.

In a “Western” spirit, women are becoming increasingly active and independent. However, their path to a fulfilling career is much more tortuous than that of a man, less well paid, and decision making at the highest levels of power are almost inaccessible for them.

Little hope that the situation changed with the amendment of the Labour Code by the Act of July 20, 2007 where fathers are now legally more involved in the education of children, including the introduction of paid parental leave.

Moreover, even if the opposition is campaigning for democratic values, its leaders, made up entirely of men, consider indirectly that women could jeopardize their power. Thus, Olga Neklyayev, the wife of the presidential candidate in December 2010, said she had been a mere wife and that it is only through this dramatic context she has been forced to act politically to help her husband.

However, despite this negative balance, the Belarusian woman is strong, devoted to her family, profession and, for some of them to activism in opposition and in the defense of human rights.

Women in decision making

If it is not the women who make the decisions, women are nevertheless more active than men, and act, whether for the official side or for the opposition prior to the decision.

Officially the first lady of Belarus is not the wife of Lukashenka, who never went out of provinces and so much missing in the public arena, but Lidia YERMOSHINA the President of the Central Election Commission. However, although being the organiser of the electoral fraud of the different elections in Belarus, she has no real power of decision, simply enforcing the will of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The latter expressed in 2009 on the occasion of International Women’s Day, “their influence in state administration and in the adoption of the most important political decisions is growing.” If, for example, 30% members of the lower house must be women, the reality on the one hand, is up to the goodwill of the President and on the other hand, has no interest, since Parliament is virtually devoid of authority.

Indeed, most decisions are made by presidential decree, creating a de facto control by the presidential administration and dependence. The Council of Ministers is also composed exclusively of men [2].

But women, even though deprived of forefront functions in the opposition, do not remain with folded arms and lead the fight, becoming visible especially when men are imprisoned. This applies to Radzina, the editor of Charter ’97, a site of opposition, and Irina Khalip, journalist and wife of Andrei Sannikov, a candidate for the December elections.

She received in 2009 the price of the Courage in Journalism. There are also - at least there were in 2000 - more than twenty women’s groups registered by the Ministry of Justice, the most important, the League of Women Belarusians could become an influential factor in lobbying for the interests of women and in solving their problems. However, these are only examples, our “words of solidarity and admiration (being sent) to (all) wives, mothers and sisters of political prisoners.”

So thanked Kirsi Vainio-Korhonen, a Finnish historian, in an article published on Charter ’97, also wishing for the Belarusian women to “have as many women as possible in their democratic government [...] a guarantee of democracy, humanity and goodness.”

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