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UN in Belarus > Library > Publications > Women
Belarusian Women as seen Through an Era
1.BELARUSIAN WOMEN IN A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
History is never nameless, for human names are written in its pages. More often than not, they are the names of women.
Nowadays, while striving to assimilate a wide range of ideas and experience from international women’s organisations, the young, progressive Belarusian women’s movement is rooted in history, despite its "growing pains" and thirst for new ideas. The aims and objectives of many women’s organisations today often develop the ideas of that same historical Belarus. From the 12th century onwards, Belarusian women have been showing the world their beautiful, tragic faces, like the frescoes of St. Sofia’s Cathedral in Polotsk.
The history of early Eastern Slavonic women like Ragneda, the lover of freedom, and Yefrosinya, the great enlightener from Polotsk, was not just a powerful boost for the development of literacy, but also a basis for the first Human Rights defence institutions, political diplomacy, and cultural education centres where independence began to take shape.
The St. Yefrosinya Belarusian Women’s Fund stated its humanist ideas as follows — "We the women need to do everything possible to consolidate democracy and unite the people by overcoming national, religious and political barriers". This call was based on part of the preamble to the General Declaration of Human Rights. It states that acceptance of the dignity and equal unalienable rights of all members of the human race is "the basis for freedom, justice and world peace".
Eight centuries separate us from the feudal province of Polotsk, the ancient birthplace of Belarus. The light of one person comes to us "like a sunlit moon" from the depths of the 12th century. Without her, one cannot even begin to imagine the cultural and spiritual dawning of the Eastern Slavs. Her name was Yefrosinya of Polotsk, though her real name was Predslava, and she lived from 1112(?) to May 23, 1173. She was the daughter of Prince Georgiy Vseslavich of Polotsk, and one of the most enlightened women of her time.
She became a nun, thus leaving a tempting wealth of power and a world of material comfort behind her. Taking the name Yefrosinya, this initiator of Eastern literacy and the Polotsk Renaissance started simply by copying ancient manuscripts. Then she founded convents and churches with the first scriptoria, which provided books for the new schools she had set up. Everyone had the right to learn, irrespective of their class or sex. These progressive measures led to subjects such as nature study and rhetoric being put onto the curriculum, although it was unusual for the period.
Yefrosinya of Polotsk was one of the first woman politicians, as well as an excellent diplomat and peacemaker. She knew how to be compassionate for those who were suffering, stop local princely wars, and symbolised a moral revival in the Eastern Slavonic middle ages.
The work of another famous person is also connected with Polotsk. Frantsisk Skorina, the great teacher from Polotsk, appeared on the European stage in the first half of the 16th century by becoming the first printer. Other spiritual leaders, state figures, and writers like Simeon of Polotsk, Symon Budniy and Kirill Turlovskiy also have a place alongside Frantsisk Skorina.
The concept of equal rights for women was first developed and substantiated in the late 16th century. The Renaissance ideology, plurality of faiths, and social trends gave litvinki (Belarusian women of the time) a relatively wide degree of freedom. Women began to take an interest in social affairs, which resulted in them feeling they were playing a part in the future of the country and the people. This early historical incidence of enlightenment and the progressive idea of the freedom of the individual occurred while Polotsk province was on the rise. However, women’s rights were only granted both philosophically and legally at the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which had Belarus as its heartland. The famous Grand Duchy Charter of 1588 declared that defending the rights and interests of every free person "from the highest to the lowest classes" was a priority of the law. The Charter provided Renaissance-inspired solutions to numerous legal problems, and this most important document in Belarusian history was based on the Renaissance ideal of the sovereign individual. The humanist angle is particularly well expressed in the articles which concern women. From that time onwards, women’s dignity was protected by the Charter, which was evidence of a female revolution, uncommon in early law. What is more, several clauses also defended women "of the simple class" (Section XII, Articles 5&6). The first laws of the Grand Duchy made provision for equal property and inheritance rights, punishment for rape, and the death sentence was abolished for pregnant women. Penalties were prescribed for moral crimes for the very first time, and a special type of female character began to appear in this legal and moral climate. For example, Anna Mazovetskaya of the Radzivill line, the energetic wife of voivode Karol Rudiy II, ruled Trokskiy province for a long time after his death. In general, the wives and daughters of feudal lords of the Grand Duchy had plenty of opportunities to influence the economy and politics. It was a time of free-thinking and personal dignity. This was confirmed by the abundance of women in encyclopaedias of science, culture, education and enterprise from that period. It is no surprise that the 16th century is now called the Golden Age of the Belarusian/Lithuanian state. The Grand Duchy Charter had a profound effect on the history that followed. Proof of this is that despite constant claims being made on the Belarusian land (particularly by Poland and Russia) and bloody wars, epidemics, and crises that shook the foundations of its statehood, the influence the Grand Duchy Charter’s humanist ideas had on social and women’s movements could be felt up until the mid-19th century.
Belarus became part of the Russian empire after Rechpospolita was divided three times in the late 18th century, although this historical turnaround had its advantages and disadvantages. At that time, when Europe was moving towards overthrowing absolutism, feudalism and serfdom were flourishing on the ancient Belarusian land. As far as women were concerned in the Russian empire, even an progressive document like the Decembrists’ Charter (which also affected Belarusian society) stated that "females are not accepted into the Union".
As capitalism developed and women became more involved in manufacturing, their issues drew even broader public response. Differing opinions and approaches to these matters became more widespread. In Belarus, the local population was being actively russified, and so defending the language and rights of the nation became particularly important as a means of protest. The national moral code respected women purely as the guardians of the national gene pool and younger generation, whereas the people felt women had the right to liberty, a personal life, and strong feelings. That is why the unique brand of feminism which one can find in Belarusian folk songs is so incredible. The people have kept their image of women as primogenitors and a source of soulful warmth and moral fortitude. This is reiterated both in ancient and modern Belarusian literary classics.
It is customary to think that the first woman writer was Yevpraksiya, the supposed author of The Life of Yefrosinya of Polotsk. If so, the next on this elite list is Solomey Pylshtinova of Navagradak, a woman with a totally different character, as the title of her 1760 book My Life’s Adventures shows. She was the first woman doctor and writer, and her travelogue of a trip from Vienna to Istanbul, then St. Petersburg is astounding in scale. The emancipation of Belarusian women soon attracted new followers who defended not only personal values, but also national dignity and the independence of their Motherland. Adam Mitskevich’s famous poem The Death of a Colonel was dedicated to Emiliya Plyater, one of the daring women who took part in the rising of 1830-31. She mustered a 400-strong detachment who fought in the Vitebsk region. After Emiliya’s death at the age of 25, her famous colleague Ignatiy Domeyko became a national hero in Chile.
Women began to aspire to nationalism and liberation. The 1863-64 rising in Poland, Belarus and Lithuania was mercilessly crushed by the Tsarist government, leaving a deep scar on Belarusian history. The ideas of Kastus Kalinovskiy, who led the rising, appealed strongly to women since he refused to accept sexual inequality and gruelling female labour. This defender of the people aimed to solve women’s issues from a revolutionary democratic standpoint in the belief that only true social transformation could change the fate of women.
This period is also associated with the work of Kamilla Martsinkevich, a talented pianist who was the daughter of a renowned Belarusian writer. This brave 19th century dissident is especially attractive to women today. She was even declared to be mentally ill due to her anti-governmental activities, but was released from the workhouse following protest meetings held by the people of Minsk. This was perhaps one of the first cases of a woman with undesirable views being incarcerated in a psychiatric ward, but it was far from the last. When an uprising flared in 1863, Camilla was arrested once again for active involvement in the fight. Muravyov the Hanging Judge’s anger was terrible, and he sentenced her to be "exiled to Perm province, to be put under strict police supervision for being a woman who is both dangerous and completely unreliable in the political sense…".
Eva Filinskaya, another colourful 19th century political exile, emerged at the same time as Kamilla Martsinkevich. Orphaned at a young age, she set about teaching herself as much as possible, then actively joined in the struggle against the violent empire. She was arrested and exiled to Siberia with her children, and wrote her famous memoirs upon returning to her Motherland. Angrily rebelling against repression, poverty and illiteracy, Eva Filinskaya began teaching village children. She took up her pen and wrote a two-volume novel entitled Gersiliya in 1849. Sympathising with the common people, she condemned the lazy landowners and branded the social system as antihuman. Gabrielya Puzinya from Svir wrote her memoirs on the same topic. The new women’s mentality was soaked in the ideals of national liberation. Recalling an uprising she had taken part in herself, the famous Polish writer Eliza Orzeszko wrote an essay entitled Gloria Victis! ("Glory to the Defeated!").
The authorities saw the Belarusians of the western lands of the empire as a peasant nation. The Belarusian language was banned from the education system and administrative work, even though it was most people’s mother tongue. In 1904, the results of the 1897 Census of the Russian empire were published. The population of Minsk province (the most representative in terms of structure and population) was 2,147,621, broken down as follows – hereditary noblemen 0.34%, officials of noble origin 0.34%, clergy 0.25%, merchants 0.16%, petty bourgeois 23.6%, and peasants and Cossacks 76% (see Table 1.1). It is indicative that among the noblemen, preferences were shown for the Belarusian language (57.83%), Polish (27.75%), and Great Russian (8.80%), see Table 1.1. 89.61% of peasants also named Belarusian as their mother tongue. Peasant women were the main preservers of national culture. In villages, people sang and played ancient songs, heroic legends were passed on by oral tradition, and traditional rituals were respected.
A new form of social protest appeared in Belarus in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the women’s emigration movement. There were also some lighter sides to the generally bleak picture of socio-economic and political enslavement, however. Like everyone else in the empire, Belarusians had the opportunity to be educated at home, then carry on their studies in other cities, e.g. Vilnya, Moscow, St. Petersburg. The first women’s courses appeared, mostly in medicine and teaching, and women’s groups and clubs were opened.
At the time, when female lawyers or doctors were seen as anomalies (or "two-headed calves", as the press wrote at the time) even in Western Europe, Belarusian noblewomen began fearlessly travelling to major universities and industrial centres. They would leave their homes to try and get the same kind of education as men, and thus gain their independence. Consequently, patriarchal views on women’s education and social roles began to be broken down.
An era of political upheavals and revolutionary explosions was drawing near. In that respect, classical capitalism gave Belarusian women the first railways, new factories, the telephone, and the telegraph. However, it also brought with it the tragic experience of World War One and the first mass political movements which would later shake society. As a result, it became impossible to keep women out of politics, economics and culture.
The Women’s Defence Society (the first Belarusian women’s organisation) was set up in Minsk in 1901 by Count Chapskiy, a man from "high society". It was influenced by the liberal opposition movement and its members were mostly the wives of officials and entrepreneurs. The WDS had its own legal advice service and a bureau which organised lectures on astronomy, history and literature, amongst other subjects. The WDS ran a course on women’s hygiene for various social classes of urban women, as well as Sunday schools and creches for workers’ children. Women began to go into business, not often, but with great success. At her noble Lithuanian estate, Countess Pototskaya (nee Sapega) specialised in producing high-quality seeds. She did experiments in her greenhouses to acclimatise various plants and breed new varieties. As a result, this businesswoman and scientist was able to display several new strains at prestigious international shows (10 types of rye, 13 sorts of oats and 10 kinds of barley), and then went on to do charity work and build a free hospital.
Another charitable businesswoman was Princess Paskevich-Erivanskaya who owned a lavish estate in the Gomel region. Once serfdom had been abolished, she made use of the major changes to women’s role in society, particularly in a field which had previously been closed to them — activities involving the handling of money. After turning her enterprise into a model business, she began to give sizeable amounts of money to charity by building homes for young girls and the elderly.
In the 20th century, the proletarian masses moved into politics, including numerous courageous and self-sacrificing women. Aloiza Pashkevich (alias Tyotka), the poetess and public figure who launched the 20th century Belarusian women’s nationalist movement, extolled the virtues of freedom and emphasised the need for a social explosion in her famous poems The Sea and Under the Banner. It is not surprising that her poetry was distributed like political tracts. Tyotka was a poetess of women’s free spirit and rebellion, and also took part in setting up the first legal Belarusian press, publishing house and national theatre. She was a staunch defender of the rights of women workers and peasants, and hugely popular among revolutionaries and democrats in many countries. The main aim of Tyotka’s life and work was to urge the Belarusian people to stop being slaves and defend their national and human dignity. Her articles for women in the newspapers Nasha Niva and Nasha Dolya also covered this topic. She was likewise highly involved in publishing democratic and humanist brochures, and a youth magazine called Luchinka.
Tyotka’s ideological associates Pavlina Medelka, Konstantsia Buylo, Zoska Veras, Nadzeya Shnarkevich, Appoloniya Radkevich, Paluta and Mariya Bodunova, Kazimira Yanovskaya, Appoloniya Girkont and Leonila Goretskaya opened the first Belarusian schools and libraries, wrote children’s poetry in Belarusian, and organised art and craft clubs and folk choirs.
However, this was an extremely bleak period of history for Belarusian women. The outbreak of World War One in 1914 was a tragedy for the Belarusian people, especially women. The western provinces of the empire were transformed into a frontier zone, young men were called up into the army, and older men were sent to do defence work. 65% of enterprises ground to a halt, and the amount of arable land was reduced by 15.6% even in unoccupied provinces. The numbers of farm animals also dwindled, which threatened women and children with hunger, and led to carriageloads of mainly women refugees leaving those areas.
The wartime death toll increased daily and the disproportion between males and females was constantly on the increase, so patriotic women united, using their experience of fighting for their rights to assist their fellow countryfolk. In the autumn of 1915, Zoska Veras participated in the work of a society in Minsk which looked after war victims, and opened six free shelters capable of housing 200 people. In 1916, Zoska Veras began arranging gardening and bee-keeping courses for refugees.
The Vilnya women’s organisation which Tyotka had founded back in 1911-12 mostly aimed to help poor and needy children. It opened six Belarusian schools in the city, and all the pupils were given free meals. Tyotka also devoted a lot of effort to caring for the wounded. Even this incredible woman’s death was symbolic. A typhoid epidemic was raging in the Lida region which took Aloiza the mercy sister away while she was nursing her sick compatriots.
1917 was a turning point in history because the February revolution gave women the right to vote, thus opening up new horizons for women’s initiatives. However, events took a much more complex and tragic turn, and the Belarusian borders were redrawn again. After women had suffered throughout ages of war and hard labour, and many of them had fallen victim on the way, their hopes for a better life turned out to be unattainable, even though they had seemed so close.
The October revolution, civil war, German occupation of 1918, and the Soviet war with Poland in 1919-20 were fateful events which completely flattened Belarus (see Box 1.1). The country was left torn between two worlds, with 108, 000km2 of its western territory (40% of the total) along with its four million inhabitants (38% of the total) being annexed by Poland. Its eastern lands were made part of the USSR and later became known as the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR).
The Soviet state took on the task of dealing with women’s issues. Decrees were issued to grant men and women equal voting and socio-economic rights (an eight-hour working day for both sexes for equal pay). The first code governing marriages and families was issued in 1918, making marriages secular, guaranteeing sexual equality in marriage, allowing married couples to choose the husband’s or wife’s surname, and giving children born out of wedlock the same rights as the children of married couples.
Belarus was a part of the USSR and, living under Soviet law, was a characteristic example of a state in which although full legal equality between men and women was declared in social and family life, equality at work and at home was more often than not only theoretical. Women’s issues and their content were mainly defined by the current needs for building socialism and not because of women’s specific interests, the presence of which was not even discussed. Through all the years of Soviet power, the women’s movement was under strict party control in open and concealed forms. An example of this are the ‘women’s departments’ which began to be created in 1918, functioned with party approval and under its watchful eye. Over a decade of existence, they gradually transformed into bodies for mass cultural education. Stalin declared their goal achieved and, in 1929, abolished them.
The 1930s heralded a new stage in state policy when the status of women altered inside the women’s movement itself. Women were simultaneously acclaimed as being a "powerful force" in industry and agriculture, as well as the mainstay of the family. The active debates on women’s issues which arose in the 1920s thanks to Party women’s departments were now banned. Moreover, the Stalinist government reassessed its previous policy on women and family life. Abortion, which had been legal since 1920, was prohibited in the mid-1930s, and it became much more difficult and expensive to get a divorce. It was officially pronounced that families had become truly Socialist, the emancipation of women had been accomplished, and women’s issues had been solved.
In reality, it was a different story. Women had not actually become independent political subjects, but their energy and enthusiasm were necessary to keep the new system alive. Male and female equality meant licence to use them en masse in industry from the very first years of industrialisation. The Soviet propaganda machine immediately turned this into something to be proud of. In the 1930s, it constantly emphasised that the USSR had already overtaken the major industrial nations in terms of female labour. At the time, 40% of manual and service workers in Belarus were women, and in 1940 there were even more than the USSR average. The government’s aim was to swell the numbers of the working class which it looked to for the most support. However, there were no more males to increase the working class, because hundreds of thousands of men were serving in the army, militia, and immense state security services. The deportations and repression of the collectivisation period had also affected mostly men. Reconstruction work required new labourers, so it was the turn of the women. Tens of thousands of girls left their villages to work on industrial building sites, often doing the same physically demanding work as men. Women mastered the skills of building, plumbing, milling and train-driving, and started working in health risk industries like smelting and printing. State propaganda described this as "women’s desire to be useful to their Socialist Motherland", and many women truly believed this. In the mid-1930s, around one third of Belarusian women workers were part of the Stakhanovite movement, which became a kind of socialist productivity contest. At that time, the names of "labour heroes" were echoing around the whole country, but their peers failed to see that this socialist competition was striving to make labour more intensive.
Although the Soviet authorities declared that men and women should have the same wages, official statistics show that women earned less. In 1926, a working man’s wage was 59 roubles, 92 kopecks, whereas a women’s was only 28 roubles, 93 kopecks. Moreover, this gap widened from the late 1920s onwards. History has recorded women’s attempts to protest at the difficult conditions they were living in. In 1930, some women workers went on strike at Minsk’s Oktober garment factory, demanding improved living conditions. But women’s speeches in defence of their rights ceased when the time of the repression dawned. Very few of the women who were just 20 years old back in the 1930s are still alive today, so there is no-one to ask if they were happy in their declining years.
Women’s attempts to protest against harsh living and domestic conditions have been recorded by history. In 1930, part of the October Minsk Sewing Factory’s workers went on strike, demanding an improvement in living conditions. Soon after, women stopped standing up for their rights, the age of repression had begun. Nowadays there are few women left alive who were as young as twenty in the far off 1930s. There’s nobody to ask whether they were happy in their declining years.
Rural women are a case apart. During the collectivisation, they were violently forced into collective farms, worked for next to nothing, and did not have even basic civil rights. Collective farm women were only issued passports for the first time in the 1960s. They were slaves of the state, whose authority was represented by a man — the collective farm chairman. Solving many of the women’s personal problems depended on whether the chairman was a "good" one or a "bad" one, since women were humiliatingly forced to discuss such matters with him. Only 2% of collective farm bosses, 1.2% of those in charge of farms, and 5.5% of section heads were women, a proportion which has remained virtually unchanged to this day. The voice of authority was always male for rural women, while they were made to work in the fields and farms. Men were always in charge of machinery on collective farms, but women responded to the famous call of "Women, to your tractors!" and took up this difficult profession too. Consequently, 8% of tractor drivers and 25.8% of combine harvester drivers were women by the late 1930s. Collective farm work was not regulated, so most women had no leave, received no sickness benefits, and sometimes had to do heavy work while they were ill. There was hardly any payment for strenuous farm work. The main sources of income for the families of collective farm workers were their smallholdings, but they were also tended by the women (see Table 1.3).
There were fewer and fewer men in the countryside. Many millions of people died in the USSR as a result of the Stalinist terror of 1929-53. Over 600, 000 people were victims of repression in Belarus, and over 68% of them were peasants (see Box 1.2). A lot of peasant farm heads were shot, and the "lucky" ones were banished with their families to cross the country in stages until they reached far-off regions. They left their bankrupt farms behind them since the elimination of the kulaks (rich peasants) led to all property being confiscated. Wives, mothers and children remained in the dekulakised farms, and they were expected to feed the country. Many of them did not even have the strength to feed themselves. The tax system swept away everything that was produced in collective farms, state farms and even smallholdings. All through the 1930s, the rural population in the republic was constantly threatened by famine. It came in 1933, when half the collective farms and farmers themselves had no food whatsoever in southern areas of Belarus. 130 people died of hunger in Narovlyany and Yelsk districts, including children, women and the elderly.
The years of the Stalinist repression were dramatic for the fate of the Belarusian intelligentsia, who were mainly accused of being national democrats. Not much was needed to be tagged as an "enemy of the people", it was enough to speak in favour of one’s mother tongue and national culture. In the history of the Belarusian national liberation movement of the early 20th century, one cannot find a more outstanding female figure than Paluta Bodunova. She was jailed both in Poland and Moscow’s Butyrki prison. She is the only woman who was a member of almost all the national political organisations from 1917 onwards. Her dream was to see an independent sovereign Belarus, and she was also a member of the government of the Belarusian People’s Republic. In the mid-1920s, Paluta Bodunova left her political activities due to serious illness. She was a physical wreck and lived thanks to support from her sister, but nevertheless, she was arrested in 1937, never to leave the NKVD’s torture chambers again, and was shot in 1938. Some people were destroyed physically, like Paluta Bodunova, while others were sent to special women’s GULAGs, like the poetess Larisa Geniyush who wrote a book of memoirs entitled Confession (see Box 1.3). In the GULAGs were many wives of scientific and cultural figures who had been arrested with their husbands for being wives of "enemies of the people". Being sent to the camps offered at least a slim chance of survival. Dina Kharik, wife of the purged poet Iza Kharik, returned from a camp in 1956, but was unable to find out what had happened to her two children who had been left behind in Minsk. Not all the women could cope with the exhausting work and intolerable conditions of the camps. The wife of Moyshe Rafalskiy, director of the Jewish Theatre, perished in a hard labour camp. Those who did not lose their freedom were humiliatingly branded as "wives of enemies of the people" for many years.
The 1920s and 1930s were very difficult for Belarusian women, with hard labour, a low standard of living, and terrible political repression which lasted until Stalin’s death in 1953. Statistics about the Belarusian citizens who were rehabilitated show that women were 11% of those repressed in Minsk and the Minsk region alone during the Terror.
However, there were yet more ordeals ahead for Belarusian women, this time because of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. Two million Belarusians, mostly women and the elderly, were involved in building defence installations on the banks of the rivers Dniepr, Western Dvina, Sozh and Pripyat and near the towns of Mogilyov, Vitebsk, Orsha, Bykhov, Gomel and many others. 1.5 million people had to be evacuated to the east of Belarus, particularly women and children. Hundreds of thousands of hungry, poorly-clothed Belarusian women evacuees had to operate factory machines, suffer in workshops with almost no heating, or drive tractors and combine harvesters to provide the army with what it needed to fight.
Over 800, 000 women served on the front in various troops during the war. Women became snipers, missile troops, machine-gunners, radio operators, doctors, nurses, and medical orderlies to name but a few. One Belarusian woman, Zinaida Tusnolobova, was well-known for personally carrying 128 wounded men off the battlefields. She was seriously injured in February 1943 and got frostbite in her arms and legs, which had to be amputated. She continued her struggle, however, by speaking on the radio and in the press, calling for people to fight until victory was theirs. Zinaida Tusnolobova was given the title of Heroine of the Soviet Union, and the International Red Cross Committee awarded her the Florence Nightingale Medal.
More than 50, 000 women fought the enemy in partisan detachments or were part of the European Resistance movement. There was even an all-female partisan detachment operating in France under the command of N. Lisovets from Minsk. This detachment was called Motherland and was made up of women who had escaped from a camp in Herouville in May 1944. They took part in military operations, and N. Lisovets and R. Semyonova-Fridzon (another member of the detachment) were later appointed lieutenants of the French Army.
Many women’s bravery during the war earned them government medals. Over 16, 000 Belarusian women were given military decorations, and ten were named Heroines of the Soviet Union. However, these figures hide the unrecognised work done by thousands of Belarusian women in factories in the east of the country. Others suffered enormously and were degraded during the occupation, or were packed off to do hard labour in Germany. Still others survived the war but lost their children, husbands, or even their entire families. War turned their lives upside down and twisted their fates. After the war, a large number of women were doomed to face ill health, shattered nerves, loneliness, poverty, and discrimination because they had lived in occupied territory. Historians rarely recall that hundreds of thousands of women spent their youthful years of love during the war. "If there hadn’t been any love, there wouldn’t have been any children born in 1941, ‘42, ‘43, ’44 or ‘45".
The aftermath of the war had painful effects on the lives of women (see Box 1.4). Many women were widowed and the death of husbands devastated families. The male/female ratio of the population had gone out of balance, making it difficult to start a family again by getting remarried. Fate had dealt mothers a heavy blow by leaving them to bring up fatherless children on their own for the rest of their lives. They somehow had to give them a good start in life in spite of the difficulties and social collapse. At the same time, women also played an active part in restoring the economy. In 1950, they accounted for 45% of the manual and white collar workforce in Belarus, and in the years that followed the number of women working in the republic has never dropped below that, reaching 53% in 1985 (see Table 1.4).
The state wished to improve the demographic situation and increase the birth rate, so in 1944 it increased paid maternity leave for working women from 63 to 77 days, fixed as being 35 days before and 42 days after the birth. Food rations were doubled after the sixth month of pregnancy and for four months while mothers were breast-feeding their children. These measures did not concern collective farm women, however. Due to the lack of machinery, horses, and male workers, women were forced to hitch themselves up to ploughs and harrows. Then they would tend the crops until harvest, receiving little or nothing in return. For instance, by January 1, 1948, 94% of collective farm workers earned no money at all, while 41% were simply given 200 grams of grain a month in lieu of payment. They were only able to survive by living off their smallholdings. In 1944, however, in order to boost the birth rate, it was decided to award mothers with ten or more children the Order and title of the Mother Heroine. For those with seven to nine children was the Order of Maternal Glory, and the Motherhood Medal went to those with five or six children. Rural women traditionally had lots of children. Raising income tax for single people and small families was another attempt to increase the birth rate. Men aged 20 to 50 and women of 20 to 45 with no children had to pay 6%, or if they had just one or two children, they paid 1% and 1.5% respectively.
The state tried to help women by raising the child benefit age limit to 12. In 1956, women gained the right to receive a pension five years before men at the age of 55, even if they had worked less, and this still applies today. Additional benefits were available to women with five or more children under eight, and they had the right to a pension at 50. In 1957, the country moved over to a five-day working week. This was intended to give women more time to bring up their children while maintaining their traditional gender roles in the home and society.
However, the pre-war birth rate had still not been re-achieved. In 1950 it was down by 5% compared to 1940, and in 1960 by 9%. Even banning abortions had not helped this, since illegal operations became more and more frequent in towns and the country. They were performed secretly in homes, often by unqualified people at a high prices. Since there were no official statistics, it is hard to calculate how many women actually risked their health while the ban was in force. In November 1955, abortion was legalised again for the first time in over twenty years. In 1975, working women’s pregnancies and childbirth were fully paid for by the state, no matter how long they had worked for. The number of paid days off for taking care of sick children were also increased.
The government actively promoted its steps by creating an artificial media image of the ideal stable Soviet family. Meanwhile, families were in crisis due to the processes going on in society. There were shortages of food, consumer goods and housing, and women were overworked, which brought the already low birth rate down even further. In 1965, 24.4 children were born per 1000 Belarusians, in 1970 – 16.2, in 1985 – 16.5, and in 1990 there were only 13.9. The number of women with three or more children also went down. In 1970 there were 25.4%, in 1980 – 12.2%, and 9.1% in 1991, and the number of women without children went up at the same time. This trend caused families to reduce in size, going down from an average of 3.7 members in 1959 to 3.2 in 1989. The process was more rapid in the countryside. In 1979, an average rural family numbered 3.3 people, like in towns, but only 3.0 in 1989, when the size of town families remained unchanged. The number of single-parent families also rose each year. In 1970, 17,000 divorces were registered in Belarus, and 31,000 in 1985. Statistically, one in three marriages ended in divorce, and the amount of women preferring to have children on their own increased accordingly. In 1980, 6.4% of babies were born to unmarried mothers, and 8.5% in 1990 (see Table 1.5).
Soviet women were conditioned in a climate of duplicity and dual morality. From childhood, they were told that they were emancipated and had equal rights with men. Indeed, girls had access to secondary education, as did boys, were usually more hard-working, and often left school with better grades. In Belarus, 60% of students in higher education were girls in 1985-86, and there were 62% of them in advanced secondary educational institutions. Generally, women’s educational growth rates were much higher than men’s. Soviet propaganda used these figures to glorify socialism, but in fact it was difficult or impossible for girls to get places in higher education to study certain prestigious subjects. Discrimination against women also continued after graduation, when they were given lower priority when it came to allocating jobs, which traditionally went to men first.
As a rule, women only got work which was unattractive to men or took jobs men had left. Most women worked with next to no prospects of promotion. If women predominated in a profession, it was a clear indicator of the job’s low social prestige. One consequence of discrimination in manufacturing was the difference between male and female wages. The number of women doing intellectual work grew annually as their educational standard was mostly higher than men’s. However, the highest proportion of women was to be found in jobs which demanded certain executive skills, not constant creative growth. These included secretaries, clerks, typists, cashiers, tally clerks and accountants. According to the 1989 census, 1 in 13 women were employed in such professions. The most prestigious low-paid "women’s" jobs were librarians, cultural education workers, schoolteachers, doctors, economists and book-keepers. According to official statistics, 76% of teachers were women in 1984-85, but only 29% were headteachers.
Women were more and more often to be found doing extremely tough and low-qualified manual labour. They would lay tarmac, repair railway lines, work on building sites, or do loading and unloading work. One of the lowest paid and least prestigious jobs was as a cleaner. About 90% of streetsweepers and cleaners were older women.
Even in the mid-80s, more than 200,000 women toiled in bad conditions in the Belarusian building material, wood, and paper industries or agriculture. Despite an official ban on women carrying over seven tonnes per shift in brick factories (where they made up 69.3% of the workforce), they would still handle over 40 tonnes of bricks during a shift. It is difficult to imagine this was still possible at a time of technological progress.
Better organisation of labour in brick factories was unlikely, seeing that women were working in identical conditions at the country’s leading tractor and automobile plants in Minsk, as well as in other giant factories. Although women working in jobs they were prohibited from doing were liable to be dismissed, in reality they kept their jobs. For instance, women worked at the tractor, automobile and engine plants in Minsk, Grodno mechanical engineering plant, and Brest agricultural machinery factory. They were doing heavy work in foundries and other industries women had been involved in since the 1920s. In 1987, 43.1% of workers at the tractor plant were being paid to work in a variety of tough or dangerous conditions. A study showed that women’s redundancies increased as workplaces became more mechanised. 56.9% of unskilled manual labourers at Minsk tractor plant were women, but only 1.2% of assembly line operators and 2.3% of adjusters. This was a typical picture in Belarusian mechanical engineering, and in light industry 99% of weavers, 95% of seamstresses and 96% of carpet-makers were women.
The hard manual labour and dangerous conditions caused more frequent illness at work, since women are more receptive to psychological and physical stress, noise, and vibrations. As a result, Belarusian doctors noted a rise in miscarriages, premature births, and post-natal infections in cases where mothers had been working in harmful surroundings, particularly while pregnant. Over 10% of children were born in the seventh or eighth month of pregnancy, with underdeveloped central nervous and immune systems, and there were also more mentally or physically disabled children born. The infant mortality rate rose particularly because of these types of problems. In the mid-1980s, the USSR had the 55th highest infant mortality rate in the world.
Despite the fact that wages were officially supposed to be equal, this was not the case in practice. There were even considerable wage differences between men and women working in the same places. This was explained as being due to women having lower qualifications. Opinion polls done at Minsk tractor plant in 1986-87 show that 71.7% of women and only 38.7% of men in the same workshops were earning a monthly wage of under 200 roubles. In the whole of Belarus, the actual discrepancy between women’s and men’s wages was about 30% in 1985.
On the one hand, women were being called the "weaker sex", and on the other they were being overloaded with more obligations than men. An ideal woman had to be a responsible worker, do her housework, bring up her children, and remain attractive throughout. Patriarchal relations were typical in the majority of Belarusian families, with men free of any of any household responsibilities. Studies into the time management of families of workers, civil servants and collective farmers in 1985 reported that women were three times busier in the home than men (208 and 67 minutes respectively in workers’ families, and 235 and 83 minutes for farmers). Women spent 40% of that time cooking and feeding their families, which was much harder due to constant shortages, queues in shops, a lack of prepared foods on sale, and very few domestic appliances. As a consequence, women had only half the free time men had. Working men had 175 minutes and farmers 152 minutes each day, whereas women had 90 and 60 minutes respectively. Women also had twice as heavy a burden if one takes the extremely demanding patriarchal morality into account as well.
Female involvement in politics depended on their loyalty to the system. 30% of the seats in elections to the Belarusian Supreme Soviet were reserved for women. Thanks to the single mandate electoral system, there were even more of them in the Supreme and local Soviets (women held 37% of the vote in the 1985 Belarusian Supreme Soviet elections, and even 50% in local elections). Naturally, this was also an excuse to declare that Socialism had solved the issue of equal rights for women. However, it is well known that the Supreme Soviet was a facade for the socialist system, and its role was merely to pass resolutions which had been prepared in advance. As soon as the system of reserved places was abolished after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of women in parliament went down to 3%. Despite comments made before and after the Soviet Union broke up, women as a social group are almost isolated from politics and the decision-making process.
The socialist experiment to emancipate women left many of them feeling dissatisfied and disappointed with their position in society. Emancipation, i.e. the freeing of women from male authority and giving them their rightful place in the social and family hierarchy, never really happened. As a matter of fact, the majority of Belarusian women insistently refuse to accept the very word emancipation. They do not associate it with freedom, but with the exploitation of female labour at work and in the home, and not having the right to make decisions themselves. At the same time, feminist ideology has begun to break through with great difficulty, but even those women who call themselves feminists lack the theoretical knowledge. Antifeminism was and still is powerful and aggressive in Soviet and post-Soviet societies. Most women are still unaware that feminist theories can be a basis for creating alternative culture, or that women can exist without being treated as second rate or marginal, and discriminated against. As they were told for so many years, their main hope is that by changing the system, they can become a driving force for social change. By making themselves noticed and growing stronger, they could become equal partners in the decision-making process.
2.1 Increased female poverty during the economic crisis
2.2 Women in non-production branches of the economy
2.3 The increasing number of women in low-paid jobs
2.4 The social issue of increased female poverty
2.5 The "female face" of unemployment in the Republic of Belarus
2.6 Social mechanisms for beating poverty
2.1 Increased female poverty during the economic crisis
The transition period in the Belarusian economy has been marked by a worsening of long-standing women’s problems. In these rapidly changing socio-economic and political conditions, it is now time to rethink the position of women in society. When solving women’s problems, one sees just how civilised market reforms really are.
The Belarusian economic crisis followed a long drop in production which began in 1990 and caused a major slump in gross domestic product up until 1995. This was mainly caused by industrial output going down by 41% during that period coupled with an agricultural recession. Agricultural production dropped by 26% in 1995 as compared to 1990, the retail trade turnover went down by 61%, and employment was down by 14%. In 1996, increases were recorded in all these areas, except employment, which continued to decline (see Table 2.1.1).
Following the collapse of the USSR, the Republic of Belarus began a wide-ranging programme of economic reforms, but decided to implement them in slow stages. In 1992, this prevented production cuts and halted the drop in the standard of living. At first glance, this seemed to confirm that the strategy had been chosen correctly, and that it was capable of providing people with the maximum amount of protection from the negative consequences of reform. However, in 1993, major doubts began to arise as to whether these staged economic reforms were the best plan in terms of long-term development prospects.
Slow economic growth is holding up institutional and structural transformations in society and making the problem of increased female poverty worse against the backdrop of general impoverishment of the Belarusian population. Compared to 1990, the number of people whose income was at minimum consumer level or lower went up 13 times in 1996 (equal to 65% of the total population1 ). Single-parent families with children and people aged 60 or over were hit the hardest. This is also an indicator of poverty among women, since they are mostly at the head of single-parent families, and the majority of elderly people are women.
The problem of women’s poverty is growing more acute due to the inadequate social welfare system for financially vulnerable sectors of society. Despite the fact that the proportion of gross domestic product spent on social security remained stable and even increased, it fell considerably in real terms, due to a 34% drop in the GDP itself in 1996 (as compared to 1990). The social security payment system is still not as efficient as it should be to cope with its requirements, especially as far as underprotected groups such as women, young people and the people with physical or mental disabilities are concerned.
Discrimination and persistent gender stereotypes in society are major factors contributing to this increased female poverty. At the Beijing Conference, it was stated that 70% of all work in the world is still being done by women, but payment for their labour does not exceed 10%. Women do not have access to resources, and cannot influence or control their usage. They only own 1% of the world’s property, and the contribution made by women towards vital social processes and the economic development of society is greatly underrated.
The essence of the existing concept of women’s issues can be summed up as follows. Firstly, its founding principle is true legal and social equality for men and women. Secondly, the way to true equality lies in women’s involvement in socially-orientated production, which is an important condition for individual self-fulfilment. Thirdly, it is impossible for women to attain a higher social status without radical changes in everyday life, such as mechanisation in the home.
On the one hand, solving women’s issues in Belarus will only be possible by implementing comprehensive reforms aimed at extending ownership rights in society and developing market infrastructure. On the other hand, a specific welfare system should be created for financially vulnerable sectors of society, which would allow the republic to develop further both socially and economically.
2.2 Women in non-production branches of the economy
An analysis of female employment in Belarus has shown that the number of women employed in production is going down as compared to men, but is increasing in non-production branches of the economy (see Table 2.2.1).
By the end of 1995, 2.3 million women were working in Belarus, or 51.6% of the total number of manual and white-collar workers and collective farmers. This breaks down as 31.4% in production, and 20.2% in non-production branches. By comparing the figures from 1990 and 1995, one can get a picture of major trends in the changing structure of male and female employment. Employment in production branches hardly changed at all for men, but went down by 1.2 times for women (from 37.1% to 31.4%). In general, the proportion of men employed in the non-production area also altered very little, but changed radically within its various branches. The number of men working in civil service and non-governmental organisations doubled, there were 1.5 times more of them in housing, public and various consumer services, but the proportion of men employed in education was halved.
Along with the trend of fewer women being employed in production branches, another persistent tendency is for increased female employment in non-production branches. There were 1.5 times more women in health care, social welfare, education, housing and public services, credit and insurance, civil service, and non-governmental organisations, but only half as many in the fields of science and scientific services. These changes to the structure of female and male employment partially reflect general changes in the economy. There were fewer people employed in industry, agriculture, construction, science and scientific services, and employment in non-production branches went up. However, this is only partially true, and the changes to the male/female employment structure show that a process of increased female poverty had intensified. There were considerably more women in non-production branches, particularly education, which is a fairly accurate indicator of their reduced social prestige and, consequently, wages. As a result, increased female poverty implies an increase in the amount of women working in unsatisfactory conditions in production branches and low paid jobs in non-production branches.
2.3 The increasing number of women in low-paid jobs
If one compares the educational level of men and women employed in Belarus, there are 1.4 times more women with a higher education than men; 1.9 times more with a specialised secondary education; and 1.2 times fewer with a partial or complete secondary education (see Table 2.3.1).
In production branches, the amount of women with a higher education was 1.5 to 2 times lower than men (except in trade and public catering, where it was 3 times higher), though in non-production branches, there were 2 to 3 times more women with a higher education. One would think that women’s work in education, health care, culture and the arts would be valued and paid accordingly, but that is not the case. In these branches, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the workforce are beneath the official poverty line which is defined as 60% of the average minimum monthly consumer budget (this figure stood at 1 ,116 ,123 roubles in late 1996)2 .
Studies of the structure of female and male white-collar workers show that there are twice as many women as men. The amount of women in civil service positions is a little lower than men, and 1.6 times lower among chief specialists. There are 3 times more women specialists than men, especially among accountants, economists, medical workers, and teaching staff. They also happen to be the lowest paid professionals, although they carry out some of the most vital social functions by educating and preserving the physical and intellectual potential of society (see Table 2.3.2).
Consequently, although they are much better qualified, more and more women are only applying their higher education in the least paid jobs. These include accounting staff, where there were 30 times more women than men in 1994, and 60 times in 1995; medical personnel, where women outnumber men by 10 times; teacher training staff, where there are 5 times more women than men; and culture and arts employees where there are 3 times fewer men than women. The contradiction between the social value of these jobs and the low wages has led to an increase in women in those professional areas. This is proof that state organisations need to reassess their social policy priorities for managing social development.
2.4 The social issue of increased female poverty
The more than 40% reduction of gross domestic product over the last five years coupled with the high and rising inflation rate from 1990 to 1995 obviously caused most people’s financial circumstances to deteriorate.
The sharpest drops in income were recorded among people relying on support from the state budget and social security. Although the minimum wage has been increased many times, it does not compensate for losses sustained due to inflation, and the minimum wage/minimum consumer budget ratio continues to fall. It stood at 53% in January 1991, 19% in January 1994, and a mere 7% in December 1994, and per capita financial income is now drawing near to minimum consumer budget level.
The concept of a poverty line has now been introduced in Belarus. People or families whose income falls below the officially determined minimal survival level are considered to be beneath the poverty line. Citizens are classed as financially insolvent if their monthly income is below 60% of the average monthly minimum consumer budget for a family of four during the previous quarter. According to this definition, 52% of the Belarusian population were beneath the poverty line by April 1, 1995. Table 2.4.1 shows the poverty distribution for the Belarusian population in 1994, as calculated by the World Bank mission using data from the Belarusian Ministry of Statistics and Analysis.
According to a UNDP poll carried out in Belarus in 1996, over two-thirds of women and men are at various levels beneath the poverty line, and more than four-fifths are dissatisfied with their situation (84.8% and 83.4% respectively).
The results of this poll allow one to assess how women and men felt in these conditions of increasing poverty. 58.5% of women and 48.1% of men considered that their situation had grown worse over the last year (1996). This trend was also confirmed by people’s own evaluations of their economic status. 49.4% of women and 43.1% of men thought of themselves as poor, 49.4% and 56.0% as fairly well provided for, and 0.7% and 0.9% as rich. People identify with various social groups by relating themselves to those around them. If they feel they are living like most of their friends, they consider their standard of living to be average. An overall drop in the standard of living is now seen as the norm, which shows that people are demanding much less out of life (see Box 2.4.4).
The acute deterioration of the general economic situation in 1996 affected women more than men. Above all, this implies that their income had dropped down to or below their minimal requirement. Consequently, according to those polled, 62.3% of women and 50.3% of men were receiving low wages or small pensions.
The financial situation of the people polled can be estimated from their replies concerning per capita family income over the previous month (in Belarusian roubles). The standard method of grouping data in percentage quintiles was applied to analyse their income level — 20% with the lowest incomes, 20% with the highest incomes, and three groups of 20% with average, below average and above average incomes.
According to the survey and against the backdrop of the falling standard of living, the main socio-psychological cause of increased female poverty is women’s economic passivity. Men and women have varying strategies for survival during the economic crisis. Men are more active than women, with 29.9% of them earning a secondary income (as opposed to 18.4% of women), 9.1% in business (2.7% of women), and 10.6% changing jobs or retraining (7.0% of women). Women show much less initiative, with half of them (and one third of men) doing nothing to improve their situation even though they understand what needs to be done.
There are a number of explanations for women being more economically passive. Firstly, in spite of their higher levels of education, women have a lower esteem of their ability to work, are less sure of their value on the labour market, feeling they are unable to compete. Only 10.2% of women (and 17.2% of men) believed they possessed all the qualities necessary to be successful in their lives. Secondly, 21.8% of women remarked that they were not young enough to be active (and 16.6% of men) and 15.7% lacked audacity and decisiveness (as did 11.6% of men). Thirdly, poor health is an important reason for the passive behaviour of one third of working women (and one sixth of men). This is not just "sick leave", however, but their actual state of health, a fact which has been confirmed by other figures. Furthermore, women bear almost all the burden of housework, thus seriously reducing their activity outside the home.
The complex economic situation has negative effects on the general health of the population. According to the poll, only one third of women and half of the men were satisfied with their health. There is a noticeable link between a reduced standard of living and deteriorating health. 49.1% of those polled stated that they had experienced health problems in the last few years, including 58.5% of women and 37.3% of men whose health grew worse during 1996.
61% of people from families whose financial situation was on the decline last year noted that their own health had worsened. Women are more worried about their own health and the health of their children than men, with one third (and one fifth of the men) stating they were worried about the health of the younger generation.
Women are often more affected by the current socio-economic situation than men. Female emotional states such as being sure/unsure, optimistic/pessimistic, happy/sad, hopeful/despairing, courageous/afraid or active/apathetic depend a great deal on the family income. The lower it is, the more often women experience emotional or psychological discomfort (such a clear link was not discovered among men).
The situation of women and their emotional moods are made worse by the fact that they count on the state to worry about their material well-being more than men do. Paternalist directives mean that women often play no active part in improving their financial situation. Three quarters of the men and women polled felt the state was to blame for their life getting worse over the past few years.
According to data from the survey, the issue of increased female poverty is not just a financial problem, but one deeply rooted in the inequality of women and men. It leads to negative social consequences, such as women being overworked in the home, having a lower opinion of their ability to work, and being both physically and psychologically dissatisfied.
Unfortunately, it must be stated that while families were becoming less and less self-sufficient, there were severe cutbacks in the state support provided for by the law governing benefits for families bringing up children. After the law was passed in 1993, the number of people receiving benefit for children over three years old went down from 47.4% to 31.2% in the first six months of 1996, as did the actual worth of the benefits parents received. This legislation stated that the amount of combined income which entitles families to benefit and the size of the actual benefit were linked to the minimum wage. Even though this wage has been increased numerous times, it still does not compensate for losses caused by inflation, and the minimum wage/minimum consumer budget ratio is constantly on the decline. When the law was adopted, the minimum wage was equal to just 47.2% of the minimum consumer budget, and in December 1996 it was a mere 8.1%. It therefore became necessary to amend the legislation. A proposal has been made to link the amount of state benefits and size of combined income entitling families to receive them not to the minimum wage, but to the minimum consumer budget for a family of four. If such an amendment is made, the size of benefits will increase, as will the number of people receiving them.
2.5 The "female face" of unemployment in the Republic of Belarus
By the end of 1996, there were 182 ,500 people registered as unemployed, which represents 3.8% of the working population. In 1996, the number of unemployed people had gone up 79 times in comparison with the 1991 figure. The surge in the unemployment rate was observed in 1992, when it increased tenfold as compared to 1991. In 1993, it went up 2.8 times compared to the previous year; in 1994 it was 1.5 times higher than 1993; in 1995 it was 1.3 times more than in 1994; and in 1996 it was 1.4 times more than the 1995 figure. The proportion of women out of the total number of people unemployed went down from 80% in 1991 to 63.8% in 1996, and has remained relatively stable over the last four years (see Table 2.5.1). This degree of stability can be explained by the slow economic reforms and measures to provide social protection for the population which are taking effect.
A characteristic feature of the Belarusian labour market is its so-called "intellectual unemployment". The number of unemployed men with a higher or specialised secondary education was 30% in 1993, and this figure was 43.7% for women. In 1994, these were 23.6% and 37.5% respectively, 21.7% and 33.7% respectively in 1995, and 21.5% and 31.6% in 19963 . As a result, the "intellectual unemployment" phenomenon has gone down among men by 1.4 times, and 1.3 times for women.
Analyses of groups of people who were unemployed in 1996 show that 26.3% people left their jobs of their own free will, 22.8% were dismissed due to staff cutbacks, 11.4% had just left school or higher education, and 39.5% for other reasons. The number of men who quit their jobs voluntarily went down by 1.3 times in 1996 as compared to 1993, and there were 1.5 times fewer women. The number of people made redundant remained almost unchanged throughout that period. The amount of male school-leavers and graduates dropped 1.6 times, and female graduates reduced by 1.3 times. The number of other people out of work increased by approximately 1.5 times4 .
The law of supply and demand is creating much harsher conditions for workers on the job market. In 1991, the number of unfilled job vacancies was 28 times higher than the number of people registered unemployed. However in 1992, there were already 1.3 times fewer than the number of registered unemployed, 5.3 times less in 1993, 5.5 times less in 1994, 11.6 times less in 1995, and the figure was down by 11.5 times in 1996 (see Table 2.5.2). In addition, nearly four-fifths of vacancies on offer are for manual labour, although this trend is decreasing since the proportion of manual jobs went down by 1.3 times in 1996 as compared to 1991.
The periods of time people spend out of work are also increasing. In 1993, out of the 33.6% of unemployed men, only 0.6% had been out of work for more than a year, as opposed to 3.3% of the 56.4% of unemployed women. In 1994, 2.1% of the 36.2% of men were out of work for more than a year, and 7.5% of the 63.8% of unemployed women. In 1995, 4.2% of the 35.6% of men were out of work for more than a year, and 11.5% of the 64.4% of unemployed women (see Table 2.5.3). There is a persistent increase in the amount of time spent out of work, and in 1995, 7 times more men and 3.5 times more women had been out of work for a long time than in 1993.
According to monitoring of the regulation of employment in the emerging labour market done in 19955 , the most common trend associated with increased periods out of work is psychological distress. This eventually leads to a sharp drop in job-searching activity and reduced opportunities for finding a job. 16.3% of women out of work for up to 6 months felt tired out and desperate, as did 24.1% of those unemployed for 6 months to a year, and 33.8% who had been out of work for over a year. The feeling of discomfort among people who had not worked for long periods was 1.5 times more common than among unemployed women in general. Consequently, 20.6% of women out of work for up to 6 months were actively engaged in job-hunting by offering their services to various organisations, as were 13.9% who had been out of work for up to a year, and 11.2% who had been unemployed for over a year. The long-term unemployed were only half as active, which takes its toll on their chances of finding a job. 15.6% of those out of work for less than six months felt that they had virtually no chances of getting a job, as did 24.1% of those unemployed for 6 months to a year, and 30% of those who had not worked for over a year.
Every year, employment programmes are developed in order to help people (including women and young people) find work and gain access to social security. The 1995 programme made provision for a range of measures aimed at helping the unemployed find work; providing financial benefits; offering career advice and retraining opportunities for the unemployed; assisting people with finding jobs if they are unable to compete equally on the labour market; promoting small and medium-sized business and self-employment; plus increasing the efficiency of the State Employment Service and improving its facilities.
The employment programmes particularly focus on professional training and retraining for specialists. Between a third and a half of the total unemployed population require retraining. People in particular need of social security can receive retraining as a priority, for instance people who have been jobless for a long period, young people, people with physical and mental disabilities, single parents, parents with numerous children, and women bringing up children who are not yet going to school.
2.6 Social mechanisms for beating poverty
There are a number of problems in this area, since the emerging market is mainly forcing women of working age with higher or specialised secondary education out of production, particularly specialists of various types (such women accounted for two-thirds of all unemployed women). On the other hand, the market is capable of taking on at least two-thirds of the unemployed, albeit in very different capacities with considerably lower socio-professional status. Major social problems of unemployment cause more bad moods and depression, which then alters women’s behaviour negatively while job-hunting, and increases the time they spend out of work.
In the current economic climate, social mechanisms are either seriously fraught with problems or completely unworkable. In these circumstances, state policy’s main tasks are to optimise social market mechanisms to let them use internal resources, and to implement mechanisms for beating female poverty by developing entrepreneurial activity, providing professional retraining, and introducing flexible working hours.
Entrepreneurial activity as a social mechanism for beating poverty
The private sector forming inside the Belarusian economy is creating a demand for entrepreneurs and businesspeople to run private enterprise in the future. According to new laws governing property, employment, entrepreneurial activity, the relinquishing of state control, and privatisation, men and women now have equal opportunities to be involved in entrepreneurial activity. For most women, however, entrepreneurial activity is more of a theoretical issue than a practical one. The sociological monitoring6 carried out in 1995 showed that 9.1% of men and only 2.7% of women had started their own business or were in commerce, whereas 29.9% of men and 18.4% of women had a second job. However, there were 10 times more people wishing to go into business than those who were actually involved. This is the gap between real objectives for women’s business and official attitudes to it as an alternative to unemployment.
One must not forget that only a third of those polled (men and women) have any money in savings, while two-thirds do not and simply live from hand to mouth. Only half of those with savings would risk investing them in developing their own business. One third of the people surveyed were stopped from doing this due to a lack of contacts in the trade sector, one third lacked any contacts at all, one fifth were worried by instability in the republic, and another fifth were afraid of registration formalities or unfamiliar with privatisation mechanisms.
However, the material and socio-psychological prerequisites are not yet present for women to start going into business in Belarus. What is more, in the rest of the world, small business and self-employment are largely becoming a field for female labour. For instance, only 5% of people who went into small business in the USA in 1972 were women, but there were already over 30% of them in the 1990s. Today, over 5 million American women work in small or home-based business, and there are 50% more women starting out in small business than men. According to forecasts by specialists from the Department of Women’s Business and Self-Employment, women will make up a half of all people engaged in small business by the year 2000.
Professional retraining as a social mechanism for beating female poverty
This mechanism aims to allow women (especially the unemployed) to alter their impressions of their own professional profile. Firstly, professions should be well paid and, secondly, rate well on the labour market. However, this social mechanism operates in an extremely unconventional way and shows up problems from the Soviet period of economic growth. One of these is that women with a higher or specialised secondary education often need to retrain for jobs which require somewhat lower qualifications. In 1996, the most popular areas women retrained in were accounting (44.1%), secretarial assistants (34%), and sewing machine operators (20.4%). Women tend not to requalify in areas related to their own specialisations, but go in for totally different professions which usually do not require higher or sometimes even specialised secondary education due to their low socio-professional status.
According to the 1995 monitoring report7 , 40% of women learning new professions used to be mechanical technicians and electrical engineers, 20% were construction engineers, 10% were economists, and about 10% were scientific staff or from creative professions. Obviously, this is leading to competition, an element which was absent from the national economy in the past.
Deep down, however, former engineers and technicians might not accept new job situations, seeing that their previous specialisations were far removed from the new areas they have been trained in. Things are even more complex, however. Two-thirds of retrained women have the necessary common sense, ability to come to terms with new circumstances, and pragmatic or indifferent attitudes to their previous professions to let them make a compromise. One in four women stated that their new professions had to correspond entirely with their desires and inclinations, two-thirds wanted them to be more or less appropriate, and one in ten had no preference. Only 3% of women felt uncomfortable and admitted that their new professions were not what they wanted or were inclined to do. In new situations, women must accept the new market criterion of "are there any prospects for this profession on the job market?" when assessing their professions, then they can behave accordingly.
Mechanisms for flexible working hours
So far, the national economy lacks the objective conditions necessary to implement this mechanism, but the subjective requirements are present. Up to half of all employed women work less than a full day, one third do contract or subcontracting work, one third do less than a full working week, one fifth are involved in temporary or seasonal work, and one fifth work in services.
The prerequisites needed to implement the mechanism are absent because of the underdeveloped service sector in the national economy. This means two-thirds of retrained women are unable to really evaluate their job opportunities, irrespective of their age or social status. Only 14% count on finding work straight after they have retrained, 20% expect to within 1 to 3 months, 7% in six months, and 53% have no clear idea.
All things considered, retraining is the most viable mechanism, but it is only 33% effective. It leads to absurd expenses, financial and social problems, and some of those polled return to train again if there was no demand for their labour on the market. However, the growth of the non-production sector owing to the development of flexible working hours is not actually a social answer to the problem. The fact is that flexible working hours almost inevitably entail less social guarantees, reduced availability of social security, lower wages, and worse working conditions. Since the state should guarantee social status and reliable income for its people, it is now faced with the question of whether flexible employment really is a viable way to solve the problems of unemployment and beat poverty in general.
Based on the responsibilities agreed on at the Beijing Conference, the Belarusian government prepared and passed a National Plan of Action in June 1996 to improve the situation of women. The areas covered by the plan were developed and adapted into a national programme entitled Women of the Republic of Belarus which was approved in August 1996. It covers the period up to the year 2000 and is divided into four sections which, if realised, would reduce the severity of the most acute women’s problems of the transition period. The first section cites measures intended to improve the situation of women on the labour market and prevent female unemployment. The second addresses the need to increase women’s involvement in the government and civil service. The third section aims to protect mothers and children and strengthen families by providing more financial support for vulnerable members of society. Chapter Four attempts to solve women’s socio-psychological issues and retailor them to fit the new socio-economic conditions.
It is most necessary for the progress of reforms and the provision of a better standard of living that women be actively involved in the republic’s economy and that they be helped in this by fundamental economic reforms. Measures to support non-governmental organisations can be an additional way of mobilising women’s abilities in the material and spiritual spheres. In the new economic conditions, the creation and implementation of social policy in relation to women is no longer the sole prerogative of the state. A wide range of social organisations, funds and associations which express the interests of various social groups should take part in developing political strategy allowing women to participate in the planning and implementation of social policy.
3.1 On the brink of a new era
3.2 Looking for new solutions
3.3 Teachers need support
The availability of knowledge and the extent to which it is distributed are indicators of the overall progress of a society. Education acquaints people with humanitarian values, allows them to reach modern professional standards and opens the door to full participation in public life. Democracy is only effective if all forms of discrimination in education are removed, if a wide choice of different kinds of education is provided, and if the free circulation of scientific, religious and philosophical ideas is guaranteed.
Belarus has made significant achievements in the field of education. The current literacy rate is 98.4%. The Belarusian Constitution guarantees each citizen the right to receive an education in accordance with his or her needs and abilities (see Box 3.1.1).
According to quantitative indicators, the level of education among women is higher than that among men. Women make up 58.4% of the total number of workers with higher education and 65.8% of those with specialised secondary education. Large numbers of women are also studying in higher education (51.9%) and specialised secondary schools (56.9%) (see Graph 3.1.1).
Socio-economic and political transformations in society have forced radical changes in education. New approaches in educational policy have been mapped out which will introduce world-standard educational systems that allow a higher level of development for women students.
Secondary education, usually received at school, plays a crucial role in women’s education. A school reform programme is currently in being implemented to introduce obligatory ten-year basic and 11-12 year in-depth secondary education geared towards subsequent entry into higher education. New kinds of educational establishments are being opened in order to widen the range of subjects and develop humanitarian and socio-cultural fields in the country. There are currently 85 grammar schools and lycees in the republic.
In accordance with the new approaches, there has been a renaissance in secondary education for women. In Zhodino in the Minsk region, for instance, a women’s high school has been functioning since 1992, providing a special programme designed to prepare girls for both work and family life. Along with core studies, special subjects have been introduced into the high school’s curriculum: world art, etiquette, the psychology of relationships, family and the law, interior design, painting, choreography, handicrafts, cookery, first aid, and so on. In this school, as well as a general secondary education, girls can study for certificates to be junior nurses, secretary-typists and for the most successful students — bilingual secretarial assistants (see Box 3.1.2).
Without question, opening new kinds of schools, especially those which are for women, is of great significance in raising the standard of women’s education. Lycees and grammar schools, however, tend to open in towns and cities where there are better facilities and better-qualified teachers. Urban education systems function more effectively, creating a skills gap between students from rural and urban areas. Rural school-leavers are finding it hard to compete with their urban counterparts and, accordingly, have fewer opportunities to continue with their studies. In 1996, only 21% of new entrants to higher education were school-leavers from rural areas. In order to raise educational standards for the most able students from outlying areas, lycees are being opened in regional centres in the republic. It is also planned to set up lycee and grammar school-style classes in those rural schools where conditions allow.
The new socio-political conditions are stimulating changes in the professional and technical education of women. Age restrictions for entry to day courses at polytechnic institutes have been removed, increasing the chances for women, especially those with children, to get a professional and technical education. Training programmes in new professions are being introduced for women (market-gardener, bilingual secretary-typist with shorthand, quality controller for food products, embroiderer, and others). A very significant step in promoting women’s professional development is the creation of new integrated educational organisations such as professional and technical training centres where schoolchildren can receive professional training, try their hand at various professions, and then continue their studies in their chosen field.
The secondary school system is reacting effectively to the changing conditions. In order to improve educational standards, new kinds of educational establishments are being opened — out of 148 establishments, 23 have now been given the status of colleges. With the introduction of additional specialities, a transition is now being made towards training students to be specialists in more than one area, thus making them more employable. Most of all, these changes have affected educational establishments which were traditionally orientated towards ‘women’s work’, for example in medicine, cultural studies, the humanities, and teacher-training.
The new demands for high educational standards have also led to changes in higher education. New universities and academies are being founded on the basis of the leading higher education establishments, and there is a shift towards receiving two degrees of higher education — BA and MA.
Within the higher education reforms, significant work is being done to improve educational content, modernise educational programmes and develop new courses, including those connected with women’s issues. The Ministry of Education and Science is preparing to introduce an obligatory human rights course for students with a special series of lectures on the rights of women. Also being developed is a system of gender studies, with such programmes having been introduced at the Management Academy of the President of Belarus, Belarusian State University, and the European Humanities Universities. A scientific school has been created which investigates the genetic foundations of power. A series of lectures on this topic is being read at the Belarusian Commercial University, postgraduates are being trained, and a research centre and laboratory have been set up.
The gender studies programme is still in the development stage, and progress depends on the solving of many problems : training specialists in the field, increasing funding for educational and research projects, introducing special courses into both higher and secondary education, and generating programmes for increasing the Belarusian public’s awareness of gender issues.
Not only the content of education but also its organisational structure have been affected by the reforms. Before the reforms, all education was free and carried to a single standard under strict state control. The democratisation of society, the increased demand for education, and the need for new specialisations have brought about the appearance of private education, most commonly in higher education. In state higher educational establishments, private tuition has been introduced for those who do not make it through the competitive entry procedures. Around 16% of the republic’s students are paying between US $600 and $1500 for one year’s study at private higher educational establishments.
The majority of Belarusian women hope to receive their education at state establishments, mainly for financial reasons — the state offers social support for students at its establishments, thus removing some of the economic obstacles preventing education (see Box 3.1.3). One of the advantages of state establishments is their higher level of student training, because experience shows that non-state higher education establishments are not always in a position to provide it.
One non-state educational establishment is the first Belarusian women’s college, called Envila, which was opened in 1994. There is no age limit for entry into the institute and its students are women not only from Belarus, but also from other newly-independent states. The institute has three departments (psychology, translation and economics) in addition to which there are a skills development faculty, a preparatory department, and a scientific research centre called The Woman of the 21st Century. All the departments teach subjects which any woman needs in addition to her chosen specialisation. These include : production, computer science, psychology, elocution, basic medicine and home-providing, etiquette, design, choreography, and the history of art. As well as their degree, graduates can qualify as a ‘bilingual secretarial assistant with knowledge of a foreign language and computers’ and ‘governess’ (see Box 3.1.4). While training the businesswomen of the 21st century, the institute teaches its students to be able to adapt to complicated social conditions using modern educational techniques, thus allowing the greatest possible realisation of women’s talents in family and professional life.
Market conditions are stimulating changes in the ways women workers develop their skills and retrain. In modern economic conditions there is a special role to be played by training and retraining women in new specialities. Education as a way of curbing the social consequences of unemployment is being used more and more actively to raise women’s professional mobility and competitiveness on the job market. In nine months of 1996, women accounted for 63.3% of the unemployed people sent on professional training courses. The 1997 employment programme includes a range of measures on women’s training which envisage special educational courses which provide training in running a small business and farm management.
The republic has a system of postgraduate education, and 48% of those improving their qualifications within it were women in 1995.
More women are becoming scientifically qualified. Of the total number of those who defended a postgraduate dissertation in 1995, 40.5% were women (see Table 3.1.1), but there were significantly fewer of them among higher scientific qualifications. Only 4.8% of the total of those who defended a doctorate in 1995 were women. The number of women academics is practically at a standstill. In all the time of the existence of the Belarusian Academy of Science, only one woman has ever been elected to become a member (see Box 3.1.5).
Of the total number of workers raising their qualifications and undergoing training or retraining in 1995, 40.3% were women.
Socio-economic and political transformations have brought about changes not only in the education system, but also in the way women plan their lives and the way they look at education. When choosing a profession or specialisation, many women have to look at their personal talents, wishes and inclinations first, rather than at the demands of the job market. The complicated and unpredictable economic situation is forcing women to make the choice between ‘a bird in the hand’ and ‘two in the bush’. More and more, the demand for education is becoming a pragmatic one (people look for a high salary and the social advantages a profession might have, or study only those subjects which are necessary to remain in education etc.), and financial concerns are paramount in choosing a profession.
At the same time, in the new economic conditions, the prestige of having a higher education is rising (see Box 3.2.1). In 1996, there were an average of two applications for each place in higher education, with the figure rising as high as 10 in some subjects. There are now over 200,000 students in higher education in the country, the highest ever number in Belarus.
Once in higher education, women tend to specialise in the humanities (see Graph 3.2.1).
Women play an especially large role in higher education institutes which specialise in cultural studies, education, and foreign languages, although in recent years, women have begun to study law and economics more and more frequently. Nevertheless, in a whole range of important and prestigious fields, the role of women is clearly not in accordance with their capabilities. The disproportionate numbers of men and women in the humanities and natural and applied sciences has caused a ‘feminisation’ in a range of areas. These negative tendencies occur because of the lack of an accurate mechanism to determine industry’s demand for specialists. The training systems, especially in private establishments of higher education, do not always take into account the real demand for a profession, and are often based on no more than the interests and capabilities of the establishment itself. Unregulated acceptance onto courses is leading to an oversupply of staff, a mismatch in the number of women specialists and the future needs of society, and is having a negative effect on the future employability of women with higher education degrees. To solve this problem, it is important that Belarus develop a staff-training scheme which takes into account the current skills base and forecasts for future socio-economic development. This will allow women’s problems in finding employment to be solved more efficiently, and then financial and material savings can be made on their education.
Women’s attitude to education is also affected by institutionalised inequality. Despite their higher level of education, women have a lower social status than men. As one type of work becomes more complex or prestigious, so the proportion of women falls.
Society does not always allow women to achieve their full intellectual potential. Everyday problems, the difficulty of combining domestic and professional duties, patriarchal views on women’s roles, mistrust, and occasional negative attitudes towards their knowledge and intellect are all fundamental causes of the institutional inequality of women. They lead to tension in education and in personal and professional life, which saps the spiritual and physical strength necessary for intellectual growth.
The differences in the economic and social positions of men and women also lead to stereotyped behaviour in the younger generation. Boys are brought up to be representatives of the dominant group and geared for success. Girls, without clear role models in professional careers or in women’s intellectual achievements, are led into passive behaviour and a lower social standing, although it must be noted that recent years have seen changes for the better in this respect. Democratisation of society, new types of education, and the political and economic changes in society are giving women new and important aims in life. As the understanding of the place and role of women in society changes, so the importance of education as a valuable life-skill also rises. Two early indicators of this tendency are the sustained rise in the number of women entering higher education in recent years (see Graph 3.2.2) and the number of women increasing their standards of scientific education. Out of the number of people defending a dissertation in 1995, women made up 36.7%, 46.2% of which were under 30 years old. Until recently, running a higher education establishment was a privilege accorded exclusively to men, but during the past few years, four women have become members of this traditionally male group of university rectors in the republic (the rectors of the Belarusian State Cultural University, Minsk Philological University, the private women’s college Envila, and the private Brest Institute of Humanities) (see Box 3.2.2). A generation of women focused on professional achievement and raising their social status is now more and more active in society. For them, education is an indispensable condition for their successful self-realisation.
Around 10% of the active population of Belarus works in education, and 82.2% of these workers are women. The economic crisis does not allow for departments to be fully funded, which has an effect of the financial position of their workers. Low wages have meant that the most qualified and mobile teachers, mostly men, have been leaving education for more prestigious professions.
The government is currently looking for funds to directly support workers in the education sector : a differentiated pay-scale has been introduced which depends on results in professional examinations, bonuses have been introduced for teachers with experience and for those with scientific and honorary titles, and a fund has been set up to award bonuses and provide material support. These measures, however, do not change the general picture, and teachers’ standard of living leaves a lot to be desired.
The ‘feminisation’ of education also has a negative effect on the situation of women teachers. The preponderance of women working in education not only reduces their chances of finding a husband and increases the number of single women, but also has negative psychological effects on teachers, teacher-pupil relations, their psychological well-being, and consequently on their effectiveness as teachers and tutors. In a republic where the number of broken homes is increasing and where there is no tradition of boys being taught by their fathers, the ‘feminisation’ of education is leading to aberrations in the socialisation of the younger generation. Boys’ self-knowledge as men is not being developed to the full, and they are showing more typically feminine characteristics, such as being over-emotional, communicable, conformist and fashion conscious. The ‘feminisation’ of schools is linked to the intensive yet not always balanced growth of women education specialists. Serious measures need to be taken in order to attract men to education, above all as teachers, tutors and social workers.
Men are currently dominant in educational management where, as in other areas, conditions to ensure free and equal professional competition between men and women have not been fully established. As the level of responsibility increases, so the proportion of women decreases. Thus, women make up 81.2% of teachers but only half that proportion (42.1%) are headteachers of general secondary schools.
The physical and psychological effects of overwork are a serious social problem for women teachers. They come about as a result of two converging tendencies. On the one hand, many are working overtime to add to the family budget, and on the other hand they are making up for staff shortages. This problem is especially deeply felt in schools in the areas affected by the Chernobyl disaster.
A teacher’s working-week is 22-27 hours of teaching plus 13-18 additional hours of other work. This makes an average workload of 35-45 hours a week. Overwork, both professionally and at home, leads to ‘burn-out’ — a sapping of spiritual and physical strength which inevitably affects efficiency at work, psychological well-being, and relations in the home. Sociological surveys show that only 20% of women teachers are satisfied with their lives, over 70% cannot spend time or money on their health or the way they look, almost all are over-tired at the end of the working week, and over 80% find they cannot fully recuperate over the weekend.
Women working in rural schools are in an especially difficult position. Significant overwork at home and at school, dissatisfaction with living and working conditions, isolation from scientific and cultural centres, and poor quality educational materials are only a few of the social problems faced by women teachers in these areas.
The Republic of Belarus has adopted a package of measures intended to develop education and tuition by the year 2000. Implementing these measures will increase women’s chances of receiving good quality education, raise the prestige of education, and improve the lot of women working in the field.
4.1 Women and politics
4.2 Women in executive power organisations
4.3 Overcoming obstacles
The contradiction between women’s growing input into social progress and their stubbornly persistent socio-economic and political inequality with men is most evident in government and the civil service. It would be true to say that there are practically no women in the higher echelons of power in the republic, and therefore that they do not play their full role in making decisions of key significance for the development of society and future generations. At the same time, the objective prerequisites for women’s equal participation in this area are evident — women have a high level of education and professionalism, and there are no legal restrictions on women’s involvement in politics or the civil service. One might have been expected that the post-perestroika reforms; the active role played by women in social and political movements; society’s growing understanding of the need for women to play an equal role in decision-making and the distribution of authority; and inspiring examples from a series of Northern European countries would change the situation for the better. Unfortunately, this has not yet happened.
Women are especially isolated from decision-making in the legislature and politics.
4.1 Women and politics
Up until the beginning of the 1990s, the proportion of women in the legislature was determined by a quota system in which candidates for election were chosen according to their sex, age, profession, and other criteria. Party and national leaders of various levels and ranks had places reserved for them in the Supreme Soviet, and their deputy’s mandate was in addition to their positions as leaders. In order to provide a counterbalance, it was necessary to introduce representation for the workers and peasants, and this was the niche that the nominated women occupied. They were predominantly representatives of professions traditionally practised by women, such as weavers, milkmaids and, more rarely, doctors and teachers. Women were rarely re-elected, which allowed for rotation in the body of deputies.
The masculine nature of totalitarianism did not stop at male dominance at all levels of decision-making in the government and civil service, but also extended to setting priorities such as military superiority, determining objectives such as the creation of a military-industrial system, and choosing ways and means e.g. rule by force and administrative command.
In this way, the USSR’s solution to the question of women’s role in society was no more than a sociological smokescreen which hid the true sources of power. It also created a false concept of the essence and content of civil rights, and distorted the very idea of the emancipation of women. People have become accustomed to thinking that the problem is being dealt with ‘high-up’ and that the state will take care of every last person like a parent. Consequently, they have developed a psychology of dependency and political passivity, which is why there was and still is no social protest about the low status of women in politics.
Evidence of this are the results of the first relatively free elections in Belarus in 1989 and 1990. The abolition of the quota system meant that only 3% (13) of the deputies of the 12th Supreme Soviet were women, and the proportion of women in local authorities also fell dramatically. These results were accentuated by the fact that the initial transformation of the Belarusian economic, social and political systems took place at a time when women were still unable to clearly articulate or identify their interests. Belarus has never had a strong, independent women’s movement because no kinds of social movements have never been traditional, paternalistic stereotypes are dominant, and women from various social movements have been unable to come up with a common plan of action.
Nevertheless, there was a change in the position of women at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s. By the time of the elections to the 13th Supreme Soviet (1995-96) there had been a radical change in the political landscape, with the formation of a pluralistic range of parties. 34 political parties of various orientations were registered, ranging from liberal-conservatives, national democrats and Christian democrats, to social democrats and communists. Most of the women were from parties which stood for socialist and social-democratic values, e.g. the Party of Communists of Belarus (PCB) and the women’s party Nadzeya, which means "hope". Women were widely represented (up to 50% of the membership) in the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), which stood on a national-democratic platform. In total, women account for between 20% and 50% of the membership of political parties.
The representation of women in higher party organs is, however, out of proportion with the number of party members, and fluctuates between 2% and 15%. The greatest gap between party membership and representation among the leadership is inside the BPF with figures of 50% and 2% respectively, and the smallest gap can be found in the United Civil Party with 15% and 12%. These figures confirm the opinion that women have no significant influence on decision-making in party politics.
Further research showed that, apart from Nadzeya, none of the parties had a special programme for promoting women up through the power structure, nor did they have any established quotas for the representation of women among the party leadership.
During the election campaign, the various parties put forward about 100 women as candidates, which was equal to between 1% and 10% of their total numbers of candidates, not taking into account Nadzeya. The greatest numbers of women candidates were put forward by Nadzeya (34), the PCB (30) and the BPF (19).
It is no coincidence that women participated actively in the election campaign and achieved their first political successes, with almost 30% of women candidates going through to the second round.
By this time, the process of forming an independent women’s movement was gathering pace. Around twenty non-governmental women’s organisations appeared, a number of which set their sights on women into politics. The most significant of these were the Women’s Christian-Democrat Movement and the women’s party Nadzeya, founded in 1994 under the aegis of the Federation of Trade Unions.
Nadzeya supports the economic right of workers to "build a democratic, socially-just and law-governed state directed towards the all-round development of women’s skills and creative potential, the legal protection of the interests of mothers and children, and the formation of basic family values". According to sociological surveys, Nadzeya had a fairly high level of support just before the 1995-96 elections, although this could be seen more as a psychological than a political phenomenon. In a society where political pluralism is only just beginning to take root and the majority of the population cannot distinguish between the various ideological subtleties of the new parties, the message of the women’s party was the easiest to understand and identify.
During the election campaign, the electorate expected a lot from the women candidates. Many were attracted by the women’s strong morality, their consistent stance on social issues, and their non-aggressive style of campaigning.
By choosing the unconventional role of being independent politicians, the women candidates showed great inner strength as they put themselves forward not only as professionals and social leaders, but also as the representatives of a social group which is suffering discrimination.
All the above, however, did not lead to any real outcome in the election results. Only nine women became deputies of the 13th Supreme Soviet. One of them was appointed deputy chairperson of the Permanent Commission on the Budget, Taxation, Banking and Finance, and another was made secretary to the Permanent Commission on International Affairs. Although they made up over half of the electorate, women were denied the chance of giving a political voice to their interests in parliament.
After the November 1996 referendum and the amendments made to the existing constitution, the Supreme Soviet was renamed the National Assembly and divided into two houses. There are currently only five women deputies in the House of Representatives, representing 4.5% of the total. 19 women were elected from regional areas or appointed to the Republican Council by the president (making up 30.1% of the total membership), one of whom became the deputy chairperson of the Council. This came about because the president was in fact working on a quota system. The women elected to the Republican Council come from the following categories : three from regional and urban councils, seven representatives of high level management, five representing the fields of education and health, three from the social security system, and one who chairs the board of a private bank. The tendency for the proportion of women in a Senate (or in Belarus, the Council) to be higher than the proportion of those directly elected to the House of Representatives is in accordance with general world-wide experience. The way in which women candidates are viewed at the next election will to a great extent depend on how these women perform, whether or not they can make their voices heard, and whether they can put forward their own independent political and social projects.
A new type of woman politician has been emerging in spite of the anti-democratic processes. During the period of crisis which was accompanied by constant transformations in the power structure, an ‘open’ kind of woman politician appeared on the political stage. Their road to political power was not through an administrative career or by supporting those above them in the political hierarchy, but by means of public action, i.e. involvement in mass meetings, election campaigns, and public discussions.
However, their stay on the political Mount Olympus of the Supreme Soviet was short-lived, and did not allow them to achieve their full potential. In the current situation, the new kind of women politicians are continuing with their political activities mainly as members of opposition parties and independent women’s organisations.
The process of making women conscious of their own specific interests is slow to take place because it has been obscured by severe economic problems.
A survey of forty Belarusian women politicians from various political parties was carried out during a round table meeting on Women and Politics in February 1997. It showed that above all they were concerned with the deterioration of the economy and the collapse of the social sector. In equal second place came two problems - the possibility of Belarus losing its sovereignty, and concern over the intensification of the authoritarian regime and violations of citizens’ rights and liberties. The next problems which concerned Belarusian democratic women politicians were the weakness of the political opposition, and its lack of a strategy or joint actions. Concern about the position of women and the underestimation of their role and input into social development were only fifth in order of preference. Crime and violence went almost without mention on the list of problems which affect women, and the critical environmental situation the threat it poses to the health of the nation were ignored entirely.
The women polled complained about their lack of spare time, the financial and organisational weakness of party organisations, the way men stick together, and the low level of political awareness among politicians themselves, not to mention the population in general.
In addition, the majority of women asked stated that one of the obstacles in the way of their political progress was sexual stereotyping. The public still associates politics and political activity with a masculine battle for power.
Women’s own concept of their role in politics was created against a background of a lack of conceptual research or investigation centred on women’s role in decision-making. Belarusian political studies have shown an amazing level of indifference to burning issues like changing the position of women as a result of changes to the political structure; the specifics of women’s voting habits; the representation of women in various political institutions; women’s style of leadership; and the influence of the mass media in stereotyping women politicians.
The extent to which women are involved in government and the civil service reflects their position in society. Statistics show an insufficient demand for this socio-demographic group.
Executive power in the republic is implemented by the government. The Council of Ministers is the central organ of state government. At the present moment, it is made up of the Prime Minister, his five deputies, 27 ministers and 16 chairs of State Committees, the head of the Presidential Administration, the chair of the State Monitoring Service, and the chair of the board of the National Bank (see Graph 4.2.1). Unfortunately, the Belarusian government is entirely made up of men, with the exception of one woman - the minister for social security. The situation among the staff of the Council of Ministers is not much better. Although women make up 29.4% of the total number of staff, only one of them has the position of deputy to a government official.
The situation is rather different in the ministries. An analysis of women’s employment inside them allows us to talk of increased women’s participation in the development and implementation of government policy. At present, there are over 50% of women in 17 out of the 27 ministries. In the rest, except for the forces (the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Defence), the proportions of women are between 30% and 50%. The most women can be found in the Ministry of Statistics and Analysis with women making up 90% of its workers, then the Ministries of Justice (73.1%), Trade (71.3%), Finance (68.9%), Social Security (60%), and the Ministry of Fuel and Energy (60%).
As of December 1, 1996, two ministerial posts were held by women, those of Social Welfare and of Health (a short while later the health minister joined the Republican Council, in which she headed the commission on social issues).
Not only ministers take important decisions. They are prepared and approved by deputy ministers, the heads of administration and departments, and leading specialists. At present there are nine women deputy ministers employed in the following ministries: Architecture and Construction, Foreign Affairs, Industry, Communications and Computer Science, Social Welfare, Statistics and Analysis, Fuel and Energy, Labour, and Justice. The list shows that women are not just represented in social sector ministries, as was traditionally the case at this level.
The past five years have seen a noticeable rise in the number of women working as leading specialists and heads of ministerial administrations and departments. This situation was largely caused by the drain of men from government organisations because of the relatively low wages, the reduction in the prestige of working in the state sector, and the corresponding expansion of opportunities for success in the private sector. Whatever the causes, the increased number of women employed in key positions in the executive is very important and timely. It is evidence of a new stage of development when quantitative changes will then allow a qualitative change – letting women have more influence in governmental decision-making. As measures intended to soften the effects of the transition period, such as poverty and unemployment, become increasingly important, taking women’s opinions into account becomes more useful than ever. This is because women’s opinions can help to make the reforms more humane. Experience in other countries has shown that by expanding the participation of women in this type of decision-making leads to qualitative differences in the nature and essence of the decisions taken. The decisions become more socially orientated and pay more attention to the social repercussions for both men and women.
The area in which women in the republic have been least able to realise their potential is diplomacy. As of December 1, 1996 women made up only 19.3% of foreign office employees at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Only one woman has represented the republic as an ambassador on the world stage (she was later appointed to the position of deputy minister), three have been councillors, and two vice-consuls. Among those with a diplomatic rank, one is an extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador of the first class (5.5%); three are advisors of the second class (12%); one is a first secretary of the first class; two are second secretaries (8%); three are third secretaries (12.5%); and ten are attachees (31.2%).
Women are reasonably widely represented in the judiciary. Thus, as of December 1, 1996, there were 278 women judges (46.2%). This is also confirmed by an analysis of the statistical data on the employment of women in the Supreme Court. As of January 1, 1990, 31 women were working there (52.5%), but as of December 1, 1996, there were already 61 (58.7%). In 1990, three women were members of the Supreme Soviet (13.6%). In 1997, nine women were made members by presidential decree (20%).
Checks on the constitutionality of state legislation are carried out by the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Belarus. It is made up of 12 judges who are highly qualified legal experts that usually have an academic title. At the present time (April 1997), there are five women judges in the Constitutional Court.
There are even more women in the professions of barrister and solicitor. There are 790 women barristers in the republic (60.8%), 710 of whom are members of the barristers’ collegium. The chair of the Belarusian Bar Association is also a woman. Among solicitors, there are 747 women (96.8%), including 526 state solicitors and the rest with licenses to practice as private lawyers (see Box 4.2.1).
Although the stereotyped woman politician is changing for the better in the minds of the general public, one cannot fail to see the obstacles which are slowing women’s entry into the power hierarchy. Most of all, they are caused by cooperative male solidarity. Strange as it may seem, the unfavourable position of the woman leader is perpetuated not only through men’s efforts, but also by many women. Women’s opportunities are often restricted before they have left their house. Everyday problems, a mass of domestic duties, and caring for children all reduce their chances of a career. Forced to make the best of what is given to them, rather than being able to have a free choice, women often turn down attractive offers of promotion.
Time and effort are needed on the part of society and women themselves in order to overcome paternalistic prejudices and create proper conditions for the redistribution of social roles. We must use the quota system so as to expand women’s presence in power bodies, a fact rightly pointed out by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
World experience shows that the adoption of special temporary measures does not destroy democratic principles, but serves to level out men and women’s starting points as a step towards true equality. The selection, nevertheless, should be carried our not as a formality on the basis of a person’s abilities on paper or personal loyalty, but based on competence, the ability to take independent decisions, and knowing how to defend an opinion and the interests of the electorate.
The quota system is not a permanent principle in a democratic society — it is more like paying off old debts. When polled, women politicians were in favour of being given a fixed number of seats in the higher echelons of the political parties.
Since the amount of female participation in government is an important criterion for gauging whether real equality has been achieved between the sexes, several steps have been taken in this area at governmental level. Thus the National Action Plan for the improvement of the situation of women by the year 2000 (which was adopted in June 1996) envisages the regular collection and analysis of information on this question in order to monitor and evaluate the progress of increased women’s involvement in decision-making. It also envisages the formation of a staff reserve for promotion which would comprise a better balance of the sexes. The section covering the increasing of opportunities for women to participate in decision-making in governmental bodies was also included in the national programme called The Women of the Republic of Belarus. In essence, these documents have already begun to be put into practice. As a result, the principle of increasing women’s participation in governmental bodies guided the promotion of women into the Republican Council of the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court.
In the future, changes to the structure of society during the development of a market economy would help to let women have more influence in decision-making, and also increase the number of government officials. The conditions for this were created by the pre-perestroika, historically driven socio-economic prioritisation of material production (industry, construction, and transport) which definitely had an effect on employment policy. As a rule, professional careers going right up to the highest echelons of power were made by men with technical qualifications and experience of work in factories from these sectors. The transition to a market economy brings with it an increase in the social importance of areas like economics, including banking, auditing, marketing and so on, and jurisprudence — fields in which there is a particularly high level of women’s employment. This gives hope that the number of women chosen as candidates for promotion will increase. The increased activity of the women’s movement will also help in this respect.
As world experience has shown, the introduction of a larger number of women into the power organisations and political leadership leads to a masculine type of politics (rule by force) instead of priorities of non-aggression, patience, agreement and mutual understanding. Modern life opens up the true value of feminine characteristics. Increasing the number of women in key positions creates positive changes in the structure, habits and moral climate of society, and reinforces a civilised way of relating to each other.
The growth of women’s self-consciousness is happening at the same time as changes in the traditional concepts of power, politics and leadership (see Box 4.3.1). People are beginning to understand that matters which concern the whole of society cannot be entrusted to men alone, and that by bringing women into the making of important decisions, we can avoid power-politics and develop a more noble, more democratic power structure. Leadership as the ability to cooperate and work in a partnership and be receptive to the voice of change are the advantages and strengths of increased numbers of women in power.
5.1 The family in transitional society
5.2 Dysfunctional families
5.3 Prospects for solving the crisis of the family
5.4 Social support for families with children
Social problems are reflected in family problems. Families are affected by a great variety of different social processes. One of the factors which determines the state of the family is the position of women in society. The change in the social status of women after the October revolution had a positive effect as it weakened women’s financial dependency on the head of the family, and men were no longer the only breadwinner. However, both women and their families had to face the consequences for their economic and social independence.
According to the 1989 census, there were 2.8 million families in Belarus with 57% of them having children who are less than 18 years old. Among families with children under 18, more than half had ‘limited themselves’ to having only one child. The norm is a nationally and socially homogeneous nuclear family with one or two children. Most families are complete with both parents (87.5%). The average size of the family is 3.2 people with urban families being slightly larger than rural ones (3.3 and 3.0 respectively) which is connected with the demographic structure of rural dwellers. This can be shown in more detail using the example of the Mogilyov region (see Box 5.1).
Most Belarusian women get married between the ages of 20 and 27 (on average, at 21.7). Married women are usually one or two years younger than their husbands. The reason for getting married at a very young age is often pregnancy, which makes such marriages prone to instability. Coupled with this, the proportion of women getting married at a young age in the republic is increasing, while at the same time it is decreasing in most European countries. This phenomenon deserves careful attention and study.
Among women with a higher education, there is a tendency to get married later in life, and they put off having a child until the financial conditions are right. The factors motivating people to get married are also indicative. Young men and women of Belarus put love and the desire to have children above other considerations. More than half of them are utterly convinced that only someone with a family can be regarded as having a well-rounded and solid character. All the more often nowadays, however, there is a pragmatic approach to choosing a partner.
For a long time the Soviet state declared that men and women were equal and that social concerns were more important than personal ones. The juxtaposition of family and state interests was reflected in mass propaganda and art where ‘leading’ people ‘shone at work’, and the rest were ‘mired in everyday problems’. In those days, a notorious reproach for a woman was that she didn’t work anywhere, and just sat at home with her baby. In this way, there was a targeted destruction of the traditional foundations of family life. All of this undoubtedly devalued the family values of love, marital happiness and parental duty, further isolated parents from their children, and promoted dependency.
How is the role of modern families changing in this transitional or, as the press calls it ‘crisis’, period in our society?
The difficulties the family faces in fulfilling its functions are complicated by the radical stratification of society; the decreasing social mobility of the majority of citizens; the absence of a legislative base which would adequately and effectively regulate social relations; the break-up of conventional values, including those of marriage and family; and uncertainty in parents as to which personal qualities they should develop in their children to help them achieve success in life.
It is true that a person values his or her family in its own right. It is also true that problems bind its members together. But this is only true to a certain degree. If lack of money turns into poverty then disintegration begins.
Families can ward off the effects of the deteriorating economic situation for a long time, but only while the price of labour is higher than subsistence level. At present the state, which is still the main employer, does not pay high enough wages for a worker to be able to support a family. Moreover, in many cases, the worker is not even in a position to support him or herself, since the consumer budget based on a range of expenses does not correspond to a person’s real physical and social needs. A life which is no more than bare subsistence robs a person of his or her social requirements, which is the reason for many families falling apart. In this process, the main destabilising factors are not family problems but external circumstances.
Today’s family cannot help to make people law-abiding as nihilism has become a characteristic feature of society, and lawless, antisocial behaviour has become one of the only ways to get on in society. When it comes to the question of ‘to be or not to be’, the desire to stay alive always triumphs. Unfortunately, the re-socialisation of older generations has had negative and lawless results.
When evaluating the areas of marriage and family, it can be said that many functions of the family have been distorted, and many have atrophied in favour of other activities. Nowadays, the economic functions of the family have undergone most change, and material interests come before those which unite family members.
The productive and financial element of Belarusian family life is going through great changes. Instead of saving their capital and prospering, the majority of Belarusian families are becoming impoverished and are eating into both their own capital and that of previous generations. This is characteristic for all categories of families of different social classes, apart from the families of major businesspeople, highly paid civil servants, or those with large social benefits. These kinds of people are few and far between in the republic, however.
It also should be noted that some (although not many) families have now appeared in Belarus who are involved in small-scale production, commerce, or are opening their own businesses which, of course, brings spouses together as any joint activity would. There are more and more families where the husband or, more often, the wife, loses his or her job and becomes totally dependent on the other, and is usually forced to stick to domestic duties. A small number of ‘nouveau Belarusian’ families has also appeared. One of the spouses, usually the husband, acquires a significant amount of money, generally through commerce. In so doing, they become the major breadwinner in the family and gain the authority arising from it. In return for material comforts, the wife of such a businessman often has to devote herself to him and the home. She is expected to be a housewife, mother and lover, and not to try and find fulfilment outside the home. Women have different attitudes to this – some are quite happy with it, while others are dissatisfied.
At present, almost 40% of the population of Belarus is in or on the brink of poverty. Around 7% of the population is in permanent poverty and a significant proportion of families fall temporarily (for 1-3 months) below the poverty line. The number of poor families has increased to 20 times the 1990 figure. In 1996, the incomes of 80% of the population were below the poverty line. The main categories of families likely to fall into poverty are families with three or more children, single-parent families, unemployed families, and families bringing up a child with physical or mental disabilities. Research shows that a deterioration in the financial status of a family has an unquestionably negative effect on relations within the family.
The breakdown of the population’s consumer spending is changing, influenced by general economic factors and the reduction of incomes in real terms. The bulk of income goes on food. In 1990, a family spent 29% of its income on food, and in 1996 the figure was 58.1%. Poor families suffered most of all. The poorest 10% of families spent more than two-thirds of their income on food, while the richest 10% spent less than half of their income on food.
Although families are spending a larger proportion of their income on food, the nutritional value of the food they buy is falling. Observations have noted that unbalanced diets are more common. The official evaluation of a consumer’s daily needs does not coincide with their physical requirements. People are eating more fats and carbohydrates and fewer proteins and vitamins. This situation is especially dangerous for the health of children and pregnant women.
Young families are in the most difficult position. This is because the period of adjustment to family life comes at the same time as the couples are getting an education and having a child. More often than not, this difficult period is made all the more complicated by low income levels, unemployment and poor living conditions. According to research done by the Institute of Sociology of the Belarusian National Academy of Science, two thirds of young people polled in 1996 were dissatisfied with their wages, and half were dissatisfied with their material conditions. In 1993, more than half of young families lived with their parents, one third in student hostels, a small proportion in rented flats, and only 3% owned their own house or flat. In the republic as a whole, there are currently over 58,000 families who do not have their own accommodation, 139,000 families are living in student hostels and 7,500 in extremely dangerous housing conditions.
Women in Belarus today still have to carry the double burden of home and work which they used to carry before. Housework is not distributed equally in most families. The time spent on housework, which has shot up recently, is unaccounted for and unpaid.
According to surveys, around 80% of the total amount of work done around the house is done by women. The level of mechanisation around the home is extremely low. Many families today cannot buy new domestic goods, and are also not in a position to repair ones they purchased previously. Women’s workload around the house has risen so steeply because they have practically stopped using laundrettes, dry cleaners’, clothes repair shops, and so on. Their workload is also added to by the time spent working, usually manually, on allotments, kitchen-gardens, and gardens attached to their dachas which have become the only source of fruit and vegetables for many families. It is indicative that incomes from personal gardening and dacha plots have doubled in the last five years.
The intensity of labour at home and at work denies the majority of Belarusian women any real relaxation. Hard work means that rural women age before their time. At the moment, urban women are no less heavily burdened. During the week they work at the factory or office and deal with everyday problems; at the weekend they leave the town for the dacha in over-crowded public transport and work on their allotments, taking the whole burden of gardening on themselves. Many of them do not have time or money to spend on the theatre or books and magazines, and cannot devote time to their children. Family conversations are limited to survival issues such as where to earn money, where to save money, or where to buy things more cheaply. The slide into poverty leads to reduced self-respect. For women this includes a declining interest in their appearance and no desire to look after themselves (see Box 5.1.1).
People first began to talk about the falling birth rate in Belarus when, in 1993, the death rate exceeded the birth rate. At present, the typical family with two children is still common, but more and more families are having just one child. It is atypical and unpopular to have three or more children. The question facing us is not so much one of increasing the population of Belarus as much as one of saving its gene pool. More than 18 000 children of up to 16 years old have physical or mental disabilities, 1 in 4 children is recommended not to start school from the age of six on the grounds of poor health, and only 20% of children leave school fully healthy.
Many scientists are of the opinion that the falling number of children in families is caused both by a change in people’s systems of values (where family values are in competition with external ones) and by material problems like ecology and the health of married couples. The UNDP in Belarus commissioned the Public Opinion sociological research agency to carry out a survey of a representative national sample in October 1996. The results showed that over the past two or three years more than 30% of families in which the couples are of reproductive age had decided not to have a first or second child because of financial difficulties. The reproductive function of the family is kept apart from the sexual function today, with the latter becoming independent and more important. Young women are more and more often looking for equal sexual partnerships, but the general level of sexual awareness is quite low and intimate relationships are fraught with dangerous consequences for Belarusian women. Belarus has one of the highest abortion rates in the world (see Box 5.1.2).
The Belarusian family’s function of bringing up children has been significantly distorted. Statistics confirm that parental responsibility for bringing up children is, to put it mildly, insufficient. In 1996, parents had 3,600 children taken away from them, including the denial of parental rights in some cases. "Social orphans" implies children abandoned while their parents are still alive, and they are becoming a significant social problem. In 1996, there were 18 200 orphans left without parental care in the republic (there were 11,200 such children in 1990). Around 90% of these children are "social orphans". The numbers of parents indulging in anti-social behaviour (alcoholism, drug abuse and so on) have risen, as have the cases of especially dangerous violence against children.
Research and life experience show that it is mainly mothers who bring up children. Motherhood is an older social institution than the family, but nowadays there is more and more talk about a crisis in motherhood. This is caused above all by excessive worries about where to get the family’s ‘daily bread’ as a result of which the mother is forced to play a more and more active part in searching for ways to earn money. In 1992, women made up only one fifth of those working in cooperatives, small businesses and limited companies. In 1996, they already made up one third. The number of Belarusian women who have taken an active role in the market economy by buying and selling goods bought abroad is significantly higher than official statistics show. As a result, children are left without the necessary care for several days every two or three months.
Parents’ bad experiences are transferred to their children. Young girls get used to the idea that a woman’s duty is to be hard at work in the kitchen and that her greatest quality is patience. They are also conditioned to the idea that a man’s place is away from home (either literally or psychologically). Influenced by the roles their fathers play in the family and society, sons grow up to be infantile, passive, and consumerist, with a lack of desire or ability to work (see Box 5.2.1).
The conditions for socialising children are getting worse as the potential for schools to play a part in the process of bringing them up grows weaker, and high-quality free, organised recreation is increasingly difficult to find. Parents’ own lower levels of education, anti-social behaviour in some of them, and mothers’ psycho-sociological feeling of being trodden upon is causing an increase in neglect and reducing the amount of attention paid to education and the development of the next generation. Thus both the physical and spiritual health of the nation are under threat.
Lack of social success increases conflicts within the family and frequently leads to its destruction. In 1990, there were an average 9.7 marriages and 3.4 divorces for every 1000 members of the population. In 1996, there were 6.2 marriages and 4.2 divorces for every 1000 members of the population. Similar trends can be seen in many countries around the world. But the very fact that in 1996 there were 63,677 marriages and 43,089 divorces in the republic does not allow us to comfort ourselves with these kind of analogies. Moral and psychological problems are the most common causes of divorce. They include the loss of ‘sparkle’ in the relationship; psychological incompatibility; drunkenness or alcoholism of one of the couple (usually the husband) and cruelty towards the other members of the family which is associated with them; infidelity; and an unequal distribution of household duties. Women who do not want to put up with their situation are usually the ones to initiate divorce proceedings. The consequences of divorce are, however, more problematic for women than for men. This is because of the deeper psychological trauma they suffer and also because, as a rule, the children from an annulled marriage stay with their mother and she is forced to take responsibility for the whole family.
Divorcees often remarry. Men get remarried more frequently, often to women who are younger than their ex-wives. The results of a survey of a representative sample carried out by the Public Opinion sociological research agency in 1994 showed that 8.5% of all existing couples were in second marriages, and 0.6% had been married three or more times. Women usually remarry more rarely due to the fact that they keep the children from their first marriage. It is not easy to find a man who is willing to be both a new husband and a father to children from the first marriage at the same time. For this reason, many divorced women devote themselves entirely to their children and deny themselves a private life. In addition to this, the failure of their first marriage kills off their desire to have another attempt.
Divorce is not the only cause of single-parent families. They can arise due to the death of one of the couple (there are more widows than widowers) and as a result of births outside marriage, the number of which is growing. In 1990, 8.5% of children were born to mothers outside a registered marriage. This figure was 14.9% in 1996. At present, single mothers are bringing up more than 50,000 children in Belarus. Sociological research shows that parents’ unsuccessful experience in their personal lives makes marriage seem less attractive to their children (see Table 5.2.1).
In spite of everything, the family is the main haven of safety for most people, a place for self-assertion and emotional security. About 70% of Belarusians (according to a 1994 study by the Public Opinion sociological research agency) think that it is impossible to achieve personal happiness outside a family.
49.0% of women and 47.0% of men get psychological comfort from their family. The majority of spouses are satisfied with their relationships in the family, although women feel this way more rarely than men (63.0% and 74.0% respectively). Half of those surveyed (according to surveys in 1994 and 1996) consider their family to be successful. More than a third feel they offer some attachment and partial care.
The Chernobyl disaster caused serious problems for many families. Extreme situations can either bring people together or force them apart. At first, Chernobyl increased the divorce statistics, making families fall apart if they were unstable or in conflict. The rest were united in the face of such a danger. These families went through a period of re-evaluation and decided on their priorities in life for themselves. 89% of women living in areas contaminated with radionuclides consider themselves to be good mothers and are convinced that they have succeeded in bringing up good children. For those who moved out of the area, the corresponding figure is 74%, and 50% for those who did not suffer directly from the Chernobyl disaster.
In a family situation, a person feels like an individual and a part of the family as a whole. However, it cannot be stated that the family is an irreplaceable source of emotional satisfaction for everybody. In reality, the situation is much more complicated.
There are three main groups of women in society whose social focuses are the family, work, and a combination of family and professional roles. At present, those women who direct their energies towards self-fulfilment in just one area are in the most advantageous position. They have a greater chance of getting what they want, and consequently more reasons for feeling satisfaction and socio-psychological comfort. However, the majority of women in Belarus wish to combine their domestic and professional lives, which puts them in a much more complicated situation. Hardly any women have the strength to successfully cope with such a large workload, and this leads to psychological dissatisfaction and stressful situations.
The new situation in which the family has found itself creates a need to develop a new ideology for family policy. This new ideology should take the following factors into account: many functions are changing in Belarusian families during the transition period, and the family is evolving and appearing in new forms. All of this is reasonable, since people are trying to adapt to the new conditions in order to attain the greatest possible satisfaction.
The variety of family models and processes which are taking place in society dictate the need to adhere to the following principles in the relationship between the state and the family:
· respect for the sovereignty of the family and no interference;
· respect for the sovereignty of the individual, which makes it unacceptable to preserve the distribution of roles in the family artificially and maintain irrelevant or outmoded behavioural stereotypes for men, women and children;
· reliance on the family’s own strength. The sovereignty of the family is incompatible with a paternalistic attitude from society or even more so from the state. The state must create a dependency culture in families. It should create conditions for the family to take the vast majority of the responsibility for its future. A successful family should be the result of efforts on the part of its members. It is necessary to make the greatest possible number of families depend on social hand-outs as little as possible;
· social security for individual categories of families that find themselves in difficult situations (e.g. children with physical or mental disabilities, having many children, etc.) when they need financial, psychological or legal support;
· increased free choice in vital matters concerning the whole family and its individual members. Depending on their needs and wishes, a woman should have the opportunity to prioritise her family or professional life or combine the two;
· differentiation, which implies taking into account the actual situation and regional specifics of a family’s life;
Pessimists say that the family is falling apart, while realists say that it is taking on new forms. There is truth in both these statements as families are so different. They react to changes in society in their own way, and are adapting to the changing socio-economic conditions.
The situation of families, women and children has dramatically worsened during the process of political and economic reform in society. The reforms have affected the majority of families, reduced their ability to economically provide for those family members unable to work, had negative effects on consumption (particularly food), and prevented their cultural and educational needs from being satisfied, and been detrimental to the health of children and adult family members.
Against the background of ever-increasing complexities in family life, those hardest hit have been families with numerous children, single-parent families, and families with one or more members with physical or mental disabilities. New categories of families needing social support have also appeared including evacuees, refugees, and the unemployed.
At present, Belarusian legislation states that the period during which a family needs material, psychological and legal support when bringing up and looking after children lasts until the children reach 18 years of age. Social security is specially significant for women during pregnancy and childbirth, and when they are looking after children up to three years old.
This approach was distilled in the law governing state benefits for families bringing up children, which came into force on January 1, 1993. It designates benefits for pregnancy and childbirth, and one-off payments for the birth of a child; for mothers going for consultation when less than 12 weeks pregnant; for the upkeep of a child until the age of three; for children aged between three and 16 (or up to 18 years old for students not receiving a grant); for the upkeep of a sick child; for the upkeep of a child up to 16 years old with physical or mental disabilities; and for children under 16 years old infected with an immuno-deficiency virus or suffering from AIDS.
Benefit payments for pregnancy and childbirth are allocated as follows: working women receive 100% of their average wage, but no less than two minimum wages; women students not working receive a sum equal to their grant but no less than two minimum wages; women registered as unemployed receive a sum equal to their unemployment benefit, but not less than two minimum wages.
The benefit payment for looking after a child up until age three is currently 120% of the minimum wage. This benefit is paid from the day maternity leave is granted (or from the day of the child’s birth for unemployed women) until the child reaches three years of age. Coupled with this, people on this type of leave (men as well as women) can get part time work or work at home without losing their benefit.
The sizes of benefit payments available to families looking after children over three years old vary between three different groups: from three to six years old the benefit is 50% of the minimum wage; from six to thirteen years old, it is 60%, and from thirteen to sixteen years old — 70%. Eligibility to receive benefits for children over three years old depends on the upper limit of total family income.
The increasing tendency for families to fall apart often results in men and women finding ways to earn money and to look after their children alone, and increases the chances of single-parent families dropping below the poverty line. For this reason, single mothers and divorced men or women not receiving alimony payments from their ex-spouse are given an additional monthly benefit payment for each child worth 25% of the benefit set for a child of the relevant age.
The presence of children with physical or mental disabilities in a family has a major effect on its financial situation. In addition to increased family spending due to extra feeding, constant treatment, and additional care which such children require in some cases, there is an increased probability of one of the parents leaving his or her job. Taking this into account, families bringing up a child with physical or mental disabilities are paid a 50% extra benefit, regardless of the total family income. Unemployed parents who do not receive a pension, who are of working age, and who look after a child with physical or mental disabilities of up to 16 years old receive a benefit equal to the minimum wage. In addition to this, children with physical or mental disabilities receive free medicines on prescription, the right to free travel on all forms of urban and suburban transport excluding taxis (those living in rural areas receive the additional right to free travel on intercity buses within their local administrative area), and a 50% reduction on internal air, rail, river and road transport between October 1 to May 15 and on one other occasion during the rest of the year.
Children from families with three or more children, and low-income families whose total income per capita does not exceed 50% of the minimum wage at the time of application have the right to receive free dairy products and other children’s foods until they reach the age of two. This year, the Ministry of Social Welfare began to take steps to change the way this benefit was allocated, since the criteria for determining the low income required for entitlement turned out to be too low. However, resolving this problem was postponed to a later date due to a lack of financial resources.
Various tax concessions are also available to provide state financial support for families covered by the law governing the collection of income tax from citizens. This law sets an income tax exemption for earnings equal to one monthly minimum wage for each dependent or child under 18 (this implies wages and other financial rewards received from a person’s main place of work, service or study). This level of exemption rises to two minimum wages per child for those bringing up three or more children under 18 years old.
Unfortunately, it must be stated that at such a difficult time, state support for families (mostly provided in accordance with the law governing state benefits for families bringing up children) has fallen sharply along with their reduced opportunities to provide for themselves.
Since the law came into force in 1993, the number of children over three years old eligible to receive benefits fell from 47.4% to 25.5% in the first half of 1996. In addition, the value of the benefit the parents receive has fallen in real terms. This is caused by families’ eligibility thresholds for benefits and the actual size of the benefits being linked to the minimum wage. Numerous increases in the latter do not compensate for inflationary losses, and the minimum wage is constantly falling in relation to the minimum consumer budget. When the law was adopted, the minimum wage represented 57.8% of the minimum consumer budget, but was only 9.6% in April 1996. Because of this, the time has now come for a revision of current legislation. The Ministry of Social Welfare has prepared a draft law to amend and supplement the law governing state benefits for families bringing up children. The core difference between the suggested draft and the current law is the suggestion that the size of state benefits and the income threshold below which families have the right to receive those benefits will be set not in accordance with the minimum wage, but with the minimum consumer budget for four people. If it is adopted, the sizes of the benefit payments will rise as will the number of people eligible.
Seeing that this law was not yet adopted, the Belarusian president signed a directive governing the provision of material aid to families with numerous children. According to this directive, families with three or more children were given 500,000 roubles for each child attending school. This aid was received by 96,500 families, including 226,500 school children. In addition to this, the president signed an edict governing increased benefit payments for families bringing up children. In accordance with this, from October 1, 1996, monthly child benefit payments were increased by 50%, the one-off payment on the birth of a child rose from three to ten minimum wages, and the incentive payment to women registering for consultation in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy (which is set as half of the benefit payment for births) were raised accordingly. The benefit payments for looking after children with physical or mental disabilities were also raised from 100,000 to 300,000 roubles.
Besides increased female poverty, the situation of women in the period of transition is worsening due to : them being overloaded both at work and at home; the growth of unemployment among women; the insignificant representation of women in the government and the civil service, especially in the upper echelons; the lowering of health and longevity indicators; the growth of the infant and maternal mortality rates; the growth in antisocial behaviour and violence in society, and so on.
All these problems have been carefully analysed, the results of which were reflected in the national report on The Situation of Women in the Republic of Belarus dedicated to the Beijing conference and the national report entitled Children and Women of Belarus – Today and Tomorrow.
In order to solve these problems and taking into account the duties it undertook at the international conference on the situation of women, the Belarusian government prepared a national plan of action to improve the situation of women, which it ratified in June 1996. The main points of the plan were later developed and specified in the national programme entitled Women of the Republic of Belarus which was adopted in August 1996. The plan is to be executed by the year 2000 and comprises four parts, the fulfilment of which will to some degree minimise the greatest problems facing women in the transition period. The first part defines measures directed at improving the situation of women on the job market and measures to reduce unemployment among women. The second part covers increasing women’s participation in decision-making and their work in the government and civil service. Part Three deals with the defence of motherhood and childhood and strengthening the family, including an increase in the financial support for socially vulnerable families, while the fourth part points towards solving women’s socio-psychological problems and the way they are adapting to the new socio-economic conditions. In accordance with the national plan and programme, many ministries and local authorities are developing the measures required to fulfil them.
One of the measures aimed at creating conditions beneficial for bringing up children is the presidential decree granting one day’s leave a week, paid at the daily average rate to mothers bringing up three or more children, single mothers, and widows and divorced women with two or more children.
An amendment has already been prepared for changes to the Labour Code to expand the above-mentioned concession to give one free day a week to working mothers who are bringing up a child with physical or mental disabilities. Under the current law, they only have the right to one day off per month.
According to the programme for the socio-economic development of the Republic of Belarus by the year 2000, it is envisaged that in 1997 a draft law governing the foundations of state policy on families and the national programme entitled Families and Children in the Republic of Belarus.
It is extremely difficult to implement social policy, including that which relates to women, families and children in a transitional economy. On one hand, the financial capacities of the state for defending vulnerable social groups have been greatly reduced. On the other hand, the need for such assistance has grown. These circumstances coupled with the democratisation of society are leading to society understanding that the implementation of social policy is no longer the prerogative of the state alone. Non-governmental groups such as the church, social groups, political parties, charities and so on should get involved in making the plans a reality. Although there is no national strategy for the state and non-governmental organisations to work together, there are more and more examples of successful partnership between them. An expansion of this partnership in the future will allow a wide section of society and extra resources to be brought into the process of implementing social policy, and their efforts to be sensibly re-targeted.
6.1 Violence as a social problem
6.2 Violence in the family
6.3 Sexual violence
6.4 The causes of violence
6.5 Measures in the battle against violence
6.1 Violence as a social problem
Women have suffered from violence for centuries. It causes a whole range of social, legal, psychological and medical problems, but in essence it is always the same. Violence against women is a breach of the unalienable human right to the inviolability of the body and personality.
Violent acts against women do not just include murder, bodily harm of varying degrees of severity, rape, including marital rape, and sexual harassment at work and at educational establishments, but also any rudeness, insult or threat. The level of violence in our society is reaching dangerous proportions (see Table 6.1.1).
Statistics cannot show the full picture of this worrying phenomenon. Frequently, violations of the physical and spiritual health of women remain out of the public eye, especially when they occur within the family. Absolute figures, however, are not as important as general trends. Statistics clearly show that the growth rate for women suffering crimes outstrips that of men (see Table 6.1.2).
It would be wrong not to pay attention to one special form of violence — violence against oneself. The number of suicides is currently rising (see Table 6.1.3). There can be many reasons for this tragic step, but it is always connected with an intense feeling of loneliness, a feeling of being unwanted, and the absence of help from those around (see Box 6.1.1).
The estimated number of suicides per 100,000 people in 1976 was 17.6, in 1994 it was 30.4, and in 1996 - 31.7. For the sake of comparison, this figure was 20 in Germany, in the USA - 13, in England - 9 and in Italy - 8.
In October 1996 in Belarus, the Public Opinion sociological research agency was commissioned by the UNDP to carry out a sample survey on the subjective and objective aspects of personal safety. The results showed that 42% of men and 25% of women had been beaten up at least once in their lives. This ratio changes, however, when it is a question of repeated, systematic physical violence — this had been suffered by 2% of women and 0.5% of men.
The moral degradation of society and the increase in crime has created an atmosphere of fear. It is characteristic that women feel much more vulnerable than men, and are forced to live under the burden of real or imaginary threats (see Graph 6.1.1).
6.2 Violence in the family
The are no general statistics on violence in the family in Belarus, but the problem can nevertheless be analysed objectively. First of all, the statistical records of the Ministry of Internal Affairs contain a group of crimes which are categorised as being caused by jealousy, arguments and other everyday problems. Studying these allows cases of violence in the family to be brought to light. Secondly, the state of family relations are studied by sociological agencies. These sources allow one to evaluate the degree of danger which women are subject to within their own homes, and to establish the reasons for this alarming phenomenon.
It is generally considered that violence within the family is limited to dysfunctional families, the families of alcoholics, and poor families. Research, however, shows that violence is not always connected with drunkenness or poverty by far. Psychological violence is very widespread in family relations: rudeness in 48% of families, mutual denigration in 14% of families, and physical violence in the form of beating in 6% of families. Rudeness in relationships is considered normal family interaction by the majority of men and women. The number of families where the husband treats the wife harshly (beats her, threatens her, drives her out of the house, and so on) is 3.5 times greater than the number of families where the wife treats the husband harshly. Women are the ones who are subjected to the most physical violence from their spouses (29.0% of women and only 3.0% of men).
The consequences for the victims of violence in the family can include death, physical injury, psychological distress which is sometimes irreversible, suicide, and loss of self-respect. Constant rudeness can provoke women into retaliatory violence towards their husbands or partners, but on the whole this is in the interests of self-defence. The situation is now changing, however, and women are resorting to violence more often.
It must be noted that statistics only show the tip of the iceberg. Violence in the family remains to a large degree outside the legal system and away from public attention for many reasons. Among them are women’s desire to preserve their family, the inter-dependence of offenders and victims, the desire not to bring the authorities into family conflicts, the desire not to ‘wash dirty linen in public’, and also the difficulty of relating certain acts of violence to criminal acts. In the eyes of society, violence is still a family affair. Belarusian folklore still retains proverbs like ‘No beatings means there’s no love’ and ‘You always hurt the ones you love’. This stereotype means a dull existence for many women and an endless round of sophisticated bullying and beating. Due to the republic’s current housing system, divorce hardly ever means an end to the bullying, because divorced couples are often forced to live in the same flat, under the same roof.
For victims, the first and most important contact point with the legal defence system is the militia. In practice, however, information only goes one way between the victims and the militia. The victim must present all the necessary information to the militia while the latter have no obligations to inform the victim. Family conflicts are one of the most common reasons for the militia being called, but the role of the militia in dealing with complaints of violence in the family is traditionally one of limited intervention. The offender is, as a rule, only detained on grounds such as drunkenness, resisting a militiaman, or hooliganism. The reasons for this approach are that the militia fail to understand that the victim has suffered psychological distress. They believe that a woman who has been a victim of violence in the family only wants to stop the current incident, and does not want to initiate legal proceedings.
In tandem with this there are factors which prevent current or potential victims from approaching the militia. These include the well-founded supposition of victims that the offender will not be arrested, a lack of faith in the legal system, fear that the investigation will be degrading, and a desire not to make their secret into public property. Moreover, there is a need to look into violence in the family not just as a medical and social problem beyond state control, but also as a socially significant and relevant problem which must be addressed without delay.
6.3 Sexual violence
There is an increase in the number of women who have become the victims of sexual violence : sexually motivated murders, enforced prostitution, sexual harassment at work, trade in ‘live goods’, etc. Only rape and attempted rape, however, are represented in statistical records. Despite the fall in the number of crimes officially registered in this category from 538 in 1993 to 484 in 1996, and the number of crimes against minors dropping from 268 (or 49.8% of the total number) to 209 (or 43.2% of the total number), this tendency does not give much cause for optimism as specialists believe that the number of rapes and related crimes is five to ten times more than is shown in the official statistics (see Box 6.3.1).
The victims do not always report what has happened, and there are two main reasons for hiding it. The first is psychological (subjective), since rape is a serious trauma with life-long consequences for women and the way they relate to those around them. Medical or instructional courses are being organised for women, and clubs and associations are being set up. The second reasons are objective, namely the lack of experience or specialised services to provide the necessary support, coupled with the situation in the courts, which are unable to defend women.
As the 1996 sociological survey showed, women experience rape most often in their early adulthood (46.0%) and youth (29.0%), but it also happens in maturity (17.0%) and in childhood (1.2%). Half the victims were subjected to rape more than once, and it turned into a deep psychological trauma for 1 in 4 women. In Belarus, violence against women in intimate relationships is part of everyday life, and is not recognised as being a serious social problem. Moreover, there are various taboos is this area which are shored up by traditional feelings of shame, guilt and fear of being found out, especially in small towns and villages. Most terrible of all is that in each of the six regions of the republic every year, there are five or six cases of fathers raping their daughters.
Sexual violence can occur when the victim’s dependence or defencelessness is used to force intimate contact. More and more often, girls and young women can only get jobs depending on whether or not they agree to provide various sexual services. If a person forces a woman who is materially or professionally dependent on them into sexual contact so as to satisfy perverted sexual desires, they are liable to criminal punishment by the criminal law code of the Republic of Belarus (Article 116). However, in the past two years there have been no cases of legal proceedings resulting from this article.
There is an ambiguous attitude in our society regarding the use of sex as a tool for gaining other things, i.e. voluntary rape. Both men and women (women more than men) consider it admissible to use sex in order to obtain benefits. However, women are more likely to feel it is inadmissible for women to enter into sexual contact with mercenary aims than men (67.0% and 45.0% respectively). There is clearly a double morality here, most of all in men.
A new and as yet unstudied type of violence against women is the trade in women for prostitution. Meanwhile the use of women in international ‘live goods’ trading networks for prostitution has become one of the areas in which organised crime has been directing its efforts. Whereas previously, the majority of women sold on the sexual services market came from developing countries of Asia and Africa, nowadays the majority of them come from former socialist countries, CIS countries, and the Baltic states. The trade in women has become one of the most widespread forms of illegal immigration into the countries of Western Europe. In many cases, women who arrive or have been brought over from their home countries are sold to brothel owners. Their documents are taken away from them, they are often locked up and subject to physical violence if they try to escape. As a rule, they live in isolation and do not know the local language. In addition to this, their position as illegal immigrants prevents them from turning to the authorities.
The demand for cheap labour in Western Europe for doing housework and performing services can also lead to harsh treatment of women immigrants, and physical violence and enforced prostitution are not uncommon.
It is not the home countries of potential and actual victims that have shown the greatest alarm regarding this problem, but the countries of Western Europe. Many of them have recently carried out investigations, held conferences and seminars, and set up organisations to help such women. One of these organisations is La Strada in Poland. The fact that it has been in existence for the past 18 months is evidence that people in former socialist bloc countries are beginning to understand the seriousness of the problem of the trade in women. Some steps in the same direction are also being taken in two more of Belarus’ neighbouring countries - Lithuania and Ukraine.
6.4 The causes of violence
There are many causes of violence. They take shape as a combination of socio-cultural, psychological. economic and other factors, none of which can be blamed for causing the violence on their own.
One of the most complicated and important causes of violence is a the general level of cultural development of a society.
On the question of sexual violence, many psychologists researching rape consider it to be a problem not only of sex but also of power.
Violence against women is one manifestation of the historically unequal power ratio between men and women in the family and in society, which have led to male domination and discrimination against women. In this situation, however, it is not only the women who suffer. Men suffer no less, most of all from the masculine stereotypes imposed on them. This has been furthered by a tidal wave of films and books in which the nature of true manhood is identified with murderers, rapists and aggression (see Box 6.4.1).
If a man is humane then he feels that he does not correspond to the image created by the media. Unfortunately, Belarus has recently begun to be filled with not the best sort of mass culture. Scenes of violence against women, in particular portraying rape or sexual enslavement, the use of women or young girls as objects for fulfilling sexual craving, and pornography are factors which promote the growth of violence and have negative effects on the spiritual life of society and relations between the sexes. A myth is being instilled that man is by nature active and aggressive, and that woman is passive and compassionate. But do men really discriminate against women? More and more often, investigations come to the conclusion that this is not the case. Both sexes are discriminated against and manipulated by the patriarchal society which impedes humanising processes.
One part of social culture is the traditions for socialising the younger generation. Our children are often brought up using old-fashioned methods which is also a sign of the patriarchal nature of life marked by unwavering subservience of the young to their elders. According to the results of an investigation carried out by the Public Opinion sociological research agency in 1996, 68.0% of men and 55.0% of women in modern Belarusian society were brought up with some kind of punishment. Those who were punished most often in childhood were those who now consider themselves to have been disobedient children. The roughest punishment — beating — was experienced by 31.0% of girls and 40.0% of boys. A repressive style is also characteristic in modern families. 66.0% of fathers and 71.0% of mothers punish their children in one way or another. As a rule, those who punish their children are those who were themselves punished in their time. Fathers are rougher : 21.0% of men and 17.0% of women hit or beat their children, a punishment most often received by boys. It is quite logical that, having suffered from a young age, people are unconcerned by various forms of violence in adulthood. Moreover, it has become the norm and a part of everyday life for one section of society. The majority, however, still take violence very much to heart.
Social upheavals are one cause of violence in society. The results of a survey carried out in 1994 by the Public Opinion sociological research agency show that around 70.0% of adults in Belarus have noticed a tendency for people to be more aggressive in the past few years. The republic’s citizens think that the main reasons for this tendency are economic problems, a lowering of the standard of living, people becoming poorer, price rises, the delays in wage payments, and growing unemployment. The history of civilisation shows us that great changes in society are accompanied by growing aggression, and Belarus is no exception. The eternally patient, peaceful and kind people are nowadays often aggressive and cruel, especially when their socio-economic status is catastrophically declining.
Almost as important are the socio-psychological causes : unrealistic hopes, the loss of former social guidelines, a lack of faith in the future, and social instability. The crisis in which our society finds itself is leading to a growth in the number of problematic situations. This forces people to take new and unusual decisions, which is in itself uncomfortable and often stressful. According to sociologists, more than 60.0% of Belarusians felt overwrought or noticed nervous exhaustion in themselves in 1994. Some psychologists state, not without foundation, that modern violence is, in the vast majority of cases, a kind of neurotic protest by individuals against various stressful factors which are weighing down on them, and against social conditions that they find it difficult to adapt to. By using violence, strong people can quickly attain their desired goal.
A significant part of the population uses alcohol as a means of escape from difficult situations. As a rule, drunkenness and rough behaviour accompany and complement each other.
One of the reasons leading to violence is society’s tolerance. The results of the same 1996 survey show that women are not at all tolerant when it comes to violence. They are more often against violence in the home than men. The majority of women (68.0%) and 50.0% of men consider violence at home to be inadmissible. There are half as many women who consider the use of violence at home to be admissible as there are men (14.0% and 26.0% respectively). These men and women often believe in physical force when bringing up children.
Men also permit the use of physical force against women (1 in 4, or 1 in 5 men, and 22.0% with no particular opinion). It is worth noting that 12% of Belarusian women also consider it permissible for a man to use physical violence against her in certain situations. This opinion is not affected by age or marital status, but by the level of education. Women with a higher education have a greater sense of their own worth and a stronger negative attitude towards violence against themselves.
Consequently, the problem of violence is a very relevant one for Belarus. The kinds of violence perpetrated against women are more varied, more frequent and more sophisticated than those used against men. The results of widespread violence against women are not just a deterioration in health, a reduction in vitality, and psychological distress but also the fact that women’s desires remain unfulfilled. Violence in the family denies women the chance to be happy in their personal lives. Violence at work and sexual harassment often force women to leave their profession. In addition, the current state of society means that women who have suffered violence are denied the chance to save themselves from becoming victims except with great difficulty.
6.5 Measures in the battle against violence
The declaration signed in Beijing in 1995 confirmed the determination of the governments of the UN countries to prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women and girls. By signing the Beijing declaration, Belarus took responsibility for unearthing and solving problems connected with violence. The plan of action for the elimination of violence should be suffused with ideas of equality, partnership between men and women, and respect for each other’s own worth and the value of others. Getting rid of violence means that: a) the state must condemn violence and reject any justifications on the grounds of customs, traditions and motives; b) the use of violence must be rejected and the necessary attention be paid to preventing and investigating acts of violence, whether they were committed by an individual or the state; c) that measures must be taken to protect women who have suffered violence, and provide them with access to a fair and effective legal defence, including the payment of compensation to victims and the costs of recovering their health; d) relevant organisations must be set up so that women and girls can report acts of violence committed against them in a confidential atmosphere with no fear of punishment or retaliation, and can file charges against those who have committed acts of violence against them; e) sufficient funds must be allocated to implement measures aimed at eradicating violence.
Women’s non-governmental organisations and the media can now help the public to understand the problem of violence and to put it in the centre-stage.
The most important aspect of the battle with violence against women is to solve the underlying socio-economic problems. This means raising people’s spiritual and material living standards, reducing tension in society, providing people with social and legal defence without sex discrimination, and creating a situation where any forms of violence are considered to be inadmissible. This will require efforts on the part of society as a whole in order to change the current situation. First of all, the legislation must be amended so that it conforms with world standards, public awareness about the legal system must be raised, crisis centres (refuges) for long-term help must be established, as well as emergency consultation points, telephone hotlines with qualified personnel, and a system for informing women of the kinds of help available to them (see Box 6.5.1). At present the UN Commission on crime prevention and criminal justice is in the final stages of developing an international document entitled Practical measures, strategies and activity in crime prevention and criminal justice with the aim of eliminating violence against women. If it is implemented, positive changes in the Belarusian situation can be expected.
7.1 Who looks after women’s health, and how?
7.2 Healthy mother, healthy child
7.3 Family planning — ways to solve the problem
7.4 Prevention is costly... but what about the diseases?
7.5 Female oncological illnesses
7.6 Women with physical disabilities: Who can help them to feel like women again?
The profound crisis which has stricken all aspects of life in the country, ranging from the economy to society and morality, means that the Belarusian health care service is now faced with some serious problems. Above all, the complexities of survival on the verge of destitution are having negative effects on women, who bear the heaviest burden of family and household tasks and are responsible for the future of their children. The unhealthy environment, unbalanced nutrition, lack of decent recreation, and emotional stress are causing increased oncological and cardio-vascular illness and anaemia in women. Similarly, pregnancy and childbirth are also fraught with risks.
The sex ratio of the Belarusian population has still not recovered since World War Two. One in four Belarusians died in the war, and the losses were particularly heavy among men. The last half-century has smoothed out this demographic disproportion, but not eliminated it completely. In 1996, women made up 53% of the population, with an average of 112.6 women to every 100 men (this figure was 113.3 in 1991). The current imbalance is gradually flattening out owing to more frequent male births — 107.6 boys per 100 girls were born in 1991, 108.4 in 1992, 109.7 in 1993, and 107.5 in 1995. Within the female age structure, 47.3% are women of child-bearing age, and 77.6% of these live in urban areas (see Table 7.1).
There are enough men for every woman of child-bearing age (the number of men and women aged 30-49 being almost equal), and even too few women of marriageable age (there are 103 men per 100 women under 30 years of age). There are 680,000 less men in the over 50 age group, which can mostly be explained by the difference in life expectancy (the gap was 10 years in 1996).
The death rate exceeded the birth rate for the first time in Belarusian history in 1993-94. This trend also carried on in the years which followed (Graph 7.2), and is now a threat to the continued existence of the nation. The major causes of death are cardio-vascular illness and malignant tumours. There is also an increase in the infant mortality rate which has seriously affected the average life expectancy (see Table 7.3).
Analysis of population reproduction indicators has confirmed that the Belarusian nation has begun to die out (depopulation). The total birth rate coefficient was 1.386 in 1995 (it should be no lower than 2.3-2.5 for normal reproduction), the gross coefficient was 0.668 (but should be 1.2-1.3), and the net coefficient was 0.653 (though it should remain over 1.0).
The current demographic situation means that looking after women’s health is one of the most important areas covered by social institutions in the community.
7.1 Who looks after women’s health, and how?
In accordance with international humanitarian laws, protecting mothers and children was defined as an area to be addressed by state policy.
Health care and various types of medical assistance were made available to women with the passing of the Belarusian law on health care in 1993. It states that medical check-ups of women’s health during pregnancy, medical and genetic consultation, and medical care for mothers and babies during childbirth may only be administered in state health care institutions.
The network of health care institutions provides sufficient medical assistance to meet the existing demand. There are 130 medical centres in the republic which can deal with childbirth (maternity hospitals, and maternity or gynaecology wards in city and district hospitals). By 1996, there were enough beds for 5,873 gynaecology patients and 6,764 obstetrics patients. Moreover, there are also more than 160 women’s consultation centres, and over 2,400 obstetric gynaecologists (4.43 per 10 000 women) and approximately 7000 obstetricians provide preventive medical and treatment services for women (see Table 7.1.1).
Doctors are trained to specialise as obstetric gynaecologists at one of the four medical institutes, and obstetrics is taught at 18 medical colleges. The Belarusian State Training Institute provides postgraduate training and retraining for specialists. The majority of scientific research into women’s health problems (particularly those of child-bearing age) is carried out by the National Institute for the Protection of Mothers and Children.
The worsening economic crisis and budgetary spending cuts have left their mark on the quality and availability of medical care. Only 3 trillion of the required 5.1 trillion roubles were provided in 1996 and, because of continued inflation, this was only enough to cover 50% of health care costs. The health service’s total debts for food, medicine and public utilities is approximately 350 billion roubles. Medical institutions and their patients are still experiencing shortages of medicine, diagnostic and treatment equipment, bandages, disinfectants, and other articles required for looking after patients.
45% of institutions out-patient and in-patients are located in converted premises, and the construction of purpose-built health care establishments has slowed drastically over the past five years.
Medical orderly and sanitary staff are predominantly women, but since medicine is currently being funded with what is "left over", the social status of doctors, nurses and obstetricians has recently been dropping.
At the moment, a concept is being worked out in order to develop the Belarusian health care system. It provides for the introduction of a medical services market, while retaining a social welfare system for the underprivileged.
Two programmes adopted by the Belarusian Supreme Soviet and financed from non-budgetary funds in 1991 made a significant contribution to improving women’s health. They were the National Programme for Preventing the Genetic Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster and the Protection for Mothers and Children Affected by the Aftermath of the Chernobyl Disaster programme.
Some presidential programmes have been introduced in order to provide state support for socially vulnerable people (see Box 7.1.1).
7.2 Healthy mother, healthy child
To guarantee a safe pregnancy it is important for pregnant women to approach their obstetric gynaecologists in time. However, mothers-to-be often put off going to see the doctor, a fact which has alarmed the medical profession. In 1991, all women registered at consultation centres before their 12th week of pregnancy who regularly visited their doctors and followed all the recommendations gained the right to benefit worth half the minimum wage. Nowadays, about 90% of pregnant women are having effective check-ups. They allow complications with the foetus to be avoided, illnesses can be treated in their early stages, and women can be sent to specialised maternity hospitals if necessary.
The National Programme for Preventing the Genetic Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster allowed the introduction of pre-natal screening for congenital defects and hereditary illnesses in foetuses. Women and newborn babies can receive medical and genetic care at the Belarusian Institute of Congenital and Hereditary Illness Research, or at one national and five regional genetic medical consultation centres. 2,430 pregnancies involving foetuses with congenital defects were discovered and terminated following pre-natal diagnostics in 1991-96.
In cases of infertility or abnormally long pregnancies, consultations and treatment for women and couples are available at marriage and family advice centres. A Belarusian/American Artificial Fertilisation Centre has been operating in the republic since 1995, and 119 children have been born using this method.
Belarusian legislation grants working women maternity leave of 126 days from their 30th week of pregnancy, and women resident in areas with radioactive contamination of 1 Ci/km2 may go on leave for 146 days after week 27. This amount of leave is provided no matter how many days are used before the birth. If complications should occur during a pregnancy or birth of two or more children, the period of leave is increased from 140 to 160 days accordingly (see Box 7.2.1).
Economic hardships, political instability, not knowing what tomorrow will bring, and the detrimental environmental situation have led to a drop in the birth rate during recent years (see Table 7.2.1).
The birth rate went down unevenly among women of different age groups (see Table 7.2.2). There was hardly any change at all in the birth rate for young ages, which proves the importance of providing adolescents with correct sex education, and shows how irresponsible young people are towards motherhood and fatherhood at these ages. There is also a marked trend for couples to have no more than one child, which is directly related to the socio-economic situation.
On average, a 10% increase in illnesses among pregnant women has been recorded in all regions of Belarus except the city of Minsk. The most common of these are anaemia (27.5%), thyroid gland disorders (15.2%) and diseases of the genito-urinary system (10.5%) (Graph 7.2.3). The highest proportion of illnesses among pregnant women was 76.2% in the Minsk region. A comparative analysis has shown that cardio-vascular illnesses are more common in women from the Minsk and Grodno regions (11.9%), and anaemia is more frequent in the Mogilyov region.
The proportion of normal births has also gone down by as much as 30% in parallel to increased illness among pregnant women. The lowest figure of 18% was recorded in Minsk (see Box 7.2.2). Weak or ill women often experience complications with their pregnancies, and a positive outcome mostly depends on the training and skill of the medical personnel involved (see Tables 7.2.3 and 7.2.4).
Lately, there has been a tendency for the maternal mortality coefficient to decrease in Belarus, reaching 17.7 per 100,000 births, which is the lowest figure in CIS member countries. The main reasons for maternal mortality include diseases unrelated to pregnancy (e.g. cardio-vascular illness, gastro-enteritis or anaemia).
As with pregnant women, illnesses in newborn babies are also on the increase. There were over 178 cases per 1000 babies born in 1996. Between 1991 and 1995, the infant mortality rate went up from 12.1% to 13.3%. The Ministry of Health has implemented measures to safeguard reproductive health and provide assistance on time for newborn babies and infants. This caused the 1996 infant mortality rate (12.4%) to stabilise, and there was even a slight reduction.
According to the Ministry of Health’s institute of congenital and hereditary illness research, intra-uterine development defects have been discovered much more frequently in Belarus following the Chernobyl accident. Children living in areas constantly exposed to minor doses of radiation demonstrate retarded development of secondary sexual signs — one year later in girls, and 1.5 years in boys. Specialists feel that these changes are linked not only to the effects of radiation, but also to incorrect nutrition, hypervitaminosis, the chemically-contaminated environment, increased alcoholism among people of reproductive age, and a lack of selenium in the soil (see Box 7.2.3).
Currently, a number of projects are being implemented in an attempt to improve the health of women and children, including a joint Belarusian/Swiss programme to create a network of perinatal centres, and a Belarusian/Canadian project to introduce the principles for successful breast-feeding to maternity hospitals and children’s clinics. A large children’s oncohaematology centre is also due to be opened in 1997.
7.3 Family planning — ways to solve the problem
Family planning and regulation of the reproductive functions are cultural phenomena as well as a way to improve women’s and children’s health. Child-bearing age and the period up to the menopause account for 51% of the average female life expectancy. During that time, safe and reliable contraception is especially important as a means of preventing and treating numerous gynaecological illnesses. It is particularly vital to women at young and late reproductive ages, since they often experience complications in childbirth, and their maternal mortality rate is much higher. In Belarus, preventing pregnancy is considered to be exclusively the concern of women themselves, which results in a high percentage of voluntarily interrupted pregnancies.
Abortions are regulated by legislation in the Republic of Belarus. They are permitted on request up to the 12th week of pregnancy. Abortion is only allowed between the 13th and 26th weeks of pregnancy if the woman’s health is under threat, the foetus is found to have congenital development defects, or in special cases (e.g. underage mothers, rape, etc.). All matters of unwanted pregnancy prevention are dealt with by obstetric gynaecologists and obstetricians.
Despite a constant increase in the use of contraception, the number of abortions is still rather high. No less than 8% of women of child-bearing age resort to abortion annually and, what is more, 74% of abortions in 1995 were performed on women of the most active child-bearing age (between 20 and 34). 5% of women in the 15-19 year old age group had an abortion in 1995, as did 18% aged 20-24, 19% aged 25-29, and 12% aged 30-34. The amount of pregnancies which ended in the birth of a live child was two to three times less than the number of abortions (see Table 7.3.1).
It is a well-known fact that multiple miscarriages, sterility, and chronic sexual inflammations can be caused by abortions carried out at a young age or by interrupting a first pregnancy. Abortion during adolescence is a major problem. 375 adolescents under 15 had abortions in 1995, 96% of which were interrupting a first pregnancy, and 72% were performed by curettage, the most traumatic method. Special attention should be paid to the 15-19 year old age group so as to prevent perinatal losses. In 1995, 5% of this age group had had an abortion, and 52% of them were performed by the curettage method. 54% of the abortions interrupted a first pregnancy.
One of the most significant causes of widespread abortions is the cost and availability of contraceptives. At present, oral contraceptives and condoms are imported from abroad and are not very affordable to young people due to their high price. However, a number of industrial enterprises were distributing them free of charge up until 1990 on doctors’ recommendations. Among their reasons for not using contraceptives, women mentioned their fear of side effects, having no time to consult their doctor, and objections from their husbands.
Belarus is receiving a great deal of assistance with family planning matters from the European bureau of the World Health Organisation. In the last three years, the issues of protecting reproductive health and family planning were also covered by several women’s movements and non-governmental organisations, such as the Christian Children’s Fund.
7.4 Prevention is costly... but what about the diseases?
Sexually-transmitted diseases also have negative effects on the reproductive health of women. They cause chronic inflammations and often lead to miscarriages, sterility, and serious pains in the pelvic region.
The amount of syphilis infections went up from 5.1 cases per 100,000 people in 1991 to 210.9 in 1996. 250 cases of syphilis were recorded in 1991, but this figure had risen to 21,616 in 1996. The first cases of syphilis in children and adolescents were discovered in 1991, and this age group now accounts for 17.8% of the total number of people infected. In 1995, there were 143.4 cases of syphilis per 100,000 women (whereas it was 4.83 in 1991). The number of women aged under 30 suffering from syphilis is higher than for men of the same age group, as can be seen from Table 7.4.1.
Gonorrhoea infections also increased from 70.3 cases per 100,000 people in 1991 to 125.3 in 1995. 7,183 cases were registered in 1991, but in 1995, there were already 12,883 cases, including 12% among children and adolescents under 17 years of age. There are slightly less women with gonorrhoea than men, except for the 18-19 year old age group (see Table 7.4.1). In 1996, the amount of people suffering from gonorrhoea went down to 103.6 cases per 100,000 people (with 10,621 cases recorded).
286, or 25% of all registered HIV cases were women. The age structure of the HIV infections is as follows: 0-14 years – 12 cases (including 5 girls), 15-19 years – 250 cases (including 81 women), 20-24 years – 506 cases (including 132 women), and 25-29 years – 194 cases (including 53 women). Out of the total number of cases, the 15-19 year olds make up 22%, 20-24 year olds – 46.4%, and 25-29 year olds – 21.8%. The main causes of infection are heterosexual intercourse and drug use (see Box 7.4.1).
At the moment, the Ministries of Health and Education are working together to develop programmes and publish health education materials for schoolchildren, students and teachers. These will include sections on sex education, contraception, safe sex, sexually-transmitted diseases, and AIDS prevention.
7.5 Female oncological illnesses
All types of oncological illnesses pose a major threat to the life and health of women. Between 1986 and 1995, the number of such cases went up by 23.1% (and 32.9% in men). In 1995, 14,700 women were diagnosed as having malignant illnesses.
The most frequent women’s oncological illnesses are breast tumours (17.5%), stomach tumours (11.5%) and skin tumours (11.5%), followed by malignant tumours of the uterus (6.3%) and large intestine (5.5%) (see Table 7.5.1). The increase in cases of malignant illnesses is mainly due to the larger numbers of middle-aged and older patients. More women aged 35-49 have begun to suffer from thyroid cancer.
These changes in the amount and type of malignant tumours can be seen both as a consequence of demographic processes and as the result of numerous negative environmental factors, particularly the effects of radiation.
The percentage of early-stage oncological cases is rising annually (see Tables 7.5.2 and 7.5.3). In 1995, illnesses in their early stages were detected in 57.7% of patients during preventative checkups, including 80.8% cases of cancer of the womb and 79.1% of cervical cancer.
The use of comprehensive treatment methods has allowed an increase in the life expectancy of patients with oncological illnesses affecting various parts of the body. A high proportion of patients have been treated for five or more years for cervical cancer (75.8%), lip cancer (71.8%), cancer of the womb (62.1%), and ovarian cancer (56%).
Deaths due to malignant tumours are the second highest natural losses for the population of Belarus, and this trend is growing (see Table 7.5.4). Between 1991 and 1995, it increased among men to reach 13.6%, and 9.1% in women. The main locations for fatal tumours are still the alimentary canal and lungs.
7.6 Women with physical disabilities: Who can help them to feel like women again?
Along with illnesses and deaths, disability is another social health indicator. By early 1996, 52.3% of women registered disabled (for the first time) were from towns and cities, and 47% from rural areas.
Compared to 1993, there has been an increase in women of child-bearing age who have been declared disabled. These include a high percentage of Grade I and II disabled (54%). 11% of women are disabled for life, and 11.3% have been disabled since birth. Disability at child-bearing age takes its toll on the birth rate, children’s welfare, and their chances of survival. It also requires much more from hospital staff, and is detrimental to starting families and family stability.
When developing and implementing measures to reduce and prevent women’s disability in Belarus, it is essential to consider the specifics of their classification.
The most common reasons for complete or partial inability to work are tumours (24.5%), circulatory illnesses (15%), and illnesses of the nervous system and sense organs (13%). These are followed by psychiatric disorders (11%) and bone and muscular illnesses (11%). The lowest proportion of illnesses leading to female disability are endocrine illnesses (5%) and traumas (5%).
Between 1991 and 1996, 77% of women were registered disabled following hypertonic illness (30% of them were of working age), and 52.4% after ischemic heart conditions.
The predominance of disabled women in older age groups (2.6 : 1 as compared to men) can be explained by the considerable difference in life expectancy (74.3 and 62.9 years respectively).
This situation requires new kinds of approaches to both medical and social rehabilitation. The issues of resocialising and reintegrating older disabled women depend on the work done at regional social service centres and residential homes. The main methods for rehabilitating elderly disabled people are public cultural events, occupational therapy, providing access to infrastructure, a wider range of contacts, plus labour-saving technology. The development of the social services is being considerably hampered by financial difficulties and the absence of trained personnel. At present, the range of locally-manufactured equipment for disabled women is limited and does not meet their requirements.
When women become disabled, their life stereotypes alter significantly, their financial situation and family relations grow worse, and they are forced to give up their usual leisure activities. A great number of women have difficulties in finding work when they have been disabled for over two years, and so their motivation to work is also reduced. The financial well-being of disabled women could be improved by introducing legislation and programmes to strengthen their legal rights to employment and to create opportunities for retraining.
Public opinion polls have shown that single disabled women are more suspicious of people and less inclined to communicate, even though they need to do so even more than before. Consequently, psychological assistance should be included in social rehabilitation programmes for disabled women (see Graph 7.6.1).
Physical education and sport are some of the most effective methods of social rehabilitation for disabled people in all countries. However, the number of disabled women in Belarus who are involved in this type of events is only very minimal. Some of the reasons preventing disabled women from being involved in physical education and sport are the lack of such traditions, negative public opinion, the need for special sports equipment, the lack of specialists, and the absence of state physical education and sport programmes for the disabled.
8.1 The multi-faceted nature of the women’s movement
8.2 The women’s movement and the state
8.3 International contacts
8.4 Searching for a strategy
The appearance of an independent women’s movement is a social phenomenon which arises from the structural transformation which is being experienced by the countries of Eastern Europe, including the new post-communist states. Post-communist society in Belarus is engaged in a difficult search for an idea which would unite the nation and would provide a model for further development. The women’s movement is part of the process of making sense of the new reality and creating a civil society.
Time is dictating new approaches to how we understand the role of women in society. In the modern world, the degree to which a country is considered civilised is defined by the situation of women in society. The way in which their rights are treated, the degree to which women participate in answering the most important political problems, in governing the country, the level of scientific investigation and political implementation of equal rights and equal opportunities for members of the population.
Belarusian women are still only to a small degree incorporated into the social and political processes which make up civil society. Nevertheless, a variety of women’s groups which recognise the necessity of civil participation in social and political life have already sprung up and together they have set a ‘women’s agenda’ as a protest against inequality.
Belarus has signed many international documents which concern the situation of women, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The government of a country is responsible for fulfilling its duties not only to the UN and other international organisations but above all the women in that country. The search for a strategy for changing the situation of women and fulfilling the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination is complicated for women’s non-governmental organisations by the fact that the majority of the country’s population does not recognise that women are being discriminated against. The formation of an equal rights policy and the liquidation of sexual inequality is a long process that involves politics and culture and needs to be expressed in the mass media.
The independent women’s movement came to being at the same time as the general democratisation and liberalisation of the socialist system. The first non-governmental women’s movements first made their presence known in heated debates about the future of the country. The majority were firmly pro-democratic from the very beginning. A protest against discrimination against women sooner or later leads to the need to fight for civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights for the whole of society. Women cannot achieve equality in an unequal country.
The breakdown of old economic and political structures gave rise to a whole range of specific problems connected with the period of transition. The old social security system breaking down and new trends in work as a result of the formation of an ‘uncivilised’ market economy affected women primarily. The economy being restructured, for example, greatly expanded free-choice but also induced a surge in the level of unemployment among women.
Creating women’s social groups and movements was complicated and difficult. This was mainly because there was no obvious historical tradition for the women’s movement to build on. The link with the pre-revolutionary experience of women’s charitable and educational activity had been lost and in the Soviet period, independent initiatives of any kind were practically impossible.
In addition to this, the new women’s organisation were immediately faced with the need to overcome stereotypes which are still very much alive. Most of all, these were that women’s problems had to be solved by the women themselves, including those concerning the provision of equal rights at work, the sharing of housework, violence against women, the participation of women in all levels of decision-making and so on.
Public opinion has also formed the view that women are one socio-demographic group, meaning that their interests can be represented by one organisation that monopolises the solving of women’s issues. Society, however, including its female part, is structured and differentiated. The interests of different categories of women can be not only different but also totally opposing. For tactical reasons (lobbying draft laws etc.), it would be possible to form an effective coalition but attempts to achieve this in Belarus have so far been unsuccessful.
Apart from overcoming these and similar prejudices, the women’s movement came up against different difficulties from the moment of its creation. One of the main problems is the self-definition of the women’s movement, specifically, the search for answers to conceptual questions. Why is it necessary to have a separate women’s movement? What should be stressed — the similarities or the differences between men and women? These and other questions demanded not only philosophical discussion but also real, concrete answers. If you take the position that women’s specific physical characteristics dictate a different kind of social behaviour for them, then women should be given special rights and privileges not offered to men. Looking at women as people with mental capabilities equal to men’s, you are led to demand equal rights and a scrupulous observance of such an equality. Every women’s movement needed to define itself within the frame of this eternal question.
The difficulties in forming the movements were exacerbated by the lack of information at that time about the traditions, problems and victories of the democratic women’s movement abroad. The dominant point of view in the USSR until the end of the 1980s was that feminism was a bourgeois frippery. Information about modern women’s movements were, as a rule, limited to reports about women’s fight for disarmament. With the falling of the iron curtain, it became clear that the women’s movement at the end of the 20th century had long ago left the limits of tradition feminism and was a powerful social and political force. Moreover, the majority of women and women’s organisations in Belarus at the beginning of the 1990s did not know about the existence of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women or about the Nairobi Future Strategies and Global Measures, carried out by the UN.
As a result of such an information vacuum at the early stages of its existence, the majority of women’s associations did not have a clear idea about the nature of gender inequality and its accordance with other kinds of social and economic inequality or about approaches to solving women’s problems. This led to an independent and, unfortunately, not always productive search for solutions by trial and error. The mistakes of the first women’s non-governmental women’s organisations (NGO) forced them to think about the need for a professional approach to the matter, based on the scientific analysis of gender issues and taking international experience into account.
8.1 The multi-faceted nature of the women’s movement
Alongside what was the only women’s organisation (the Belarusian Committee of Soviet Women which was transformed into the Union of Belarusian Women in 1991), other independent women’s organisations which did not exist before, have since been founded.
The first women’s groups developed out of the general democratic movement which was at that time represented by the Belarusian Popular Front. Under the auspices of this movement, which was founded at the beginning of the 1990s in mass ten thousand strong demonstrations, the most pressing economic and political problems were raised, including the problems resulting from the Chernobyl disaster which were especially of concern to women. At the same time, thanks to glasnost the death of an emergency service soldier in peace time became known. The first women’s organisational committee was made up of women from a national-democrat-style organisation, the mothers of dead servicemen along with those who were concerned by the situation of women, the environment and the spiritual health of the nation. From this women’s group, several independent women’s groups were formed. Among them were the Women’s League and the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. Later, when the democratic movement began to acquire a different political tone, the first socio-political organisation was formed — the Women’s Christian Democratic Movement.
Between 1993 and 1996, other women’s organisations were also registered at the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Belarus, for instance the St. Yefrosinya of Polotsk Belarusian Women’s Fund and the Belarusian association The Environment and I. Independent women’s organisations are appearing in regional and large industrialised cities such as Ulyana in Vitebsk and Ragneda in Soligorsk.
Currently there are around twenty different women’s organisations, groups and movements (see Graph 8.1.1).
Out of the seven hundred non-government organisations, women’s organisations make up no more than 3%. There are, however, women’s groups which are working actively as members of social organisations which are carrying out their own humanitarian initiatives, self-help projects and studies. Such groups are, for instance the Women’s Ecumenical Group which is a member of the International Association of Humanitarian Partnership and the women’s volunteer programme Coming Together.
The first women’s organisations were founded in the capital where the scientific, technical and artistic intelligentsia are concentrated and where there is a greater access to information. The wide participation in conferences and in working in funds expanded the opportunities to study the positive experience of women’s initiatives abroad. Nowadays we can also talk of a geographical expansion of the women’s movement. Women’s organisations develop projects, hold seminars and environmental demonstrations, carry out a variety of investigative and cultural programmes, work with women from rural communities, look after single old people and plan the creation of food reprocessing enterprises (see Box 8.1.1).
The women’s organisations of Belarus came to being in different ways. Some grew out of previously existing pre-perestroika structures, others were formed on the basis of a trade union, others as analogies of certain international organisations and still others as the result of independent democratic initiatives.
The Belarusian Union of Women (BUW) was founded on the base of the Belarusian Council of Women. This mass organisation has preserved a strong centralised structure and a wide-reaching network of regional sections which are well known in their areas. Moreover, in the majority of towns and regions, the regional sections of the BUW are sometimes the only active women’s structures. The BUW gives consultations and material aid to needy women, poor families and organises the Compassion demonstration.
The BUW’s programmes for the development and organisation of courses to retrain unemployed women have a social significance. As well as this, the BUW also leads various initiatives of both local and nation-wide significance. As a result of the initiative of the Belarusian Union of Women, a presidential decree dated October 14, 1996 established a national festival — Mothers’ Day. The BUW has consolidated its position by signing up to the right to be the co-ordinating body with many social organisations, including women’s organisations (see Box 8.1.2).
The women’s political party Nadzeya was founded in 1994 on the basis of trade union organisations. The party declares its main goal to be "to implement social and economic reforms aimed at creating acceptable conditions for the life and work of women" and also "to build a democratic, social, lawful state directed towards the all-round opening up of women’s potential and abilities, towards the legal defence of the interests of mothers and children and towards the formation of the moral foundations of the family". It has as its main priority the incorporation of women into politics (see Box 8.1.3).
The Belarusian Organisation of Working Women was founded and continues to work as a part of the new trade union movement. It currently has as members 4 urban and 19 grass-roots organisations. It sees its task as working with women in industrial enterprises who are often poorly educated and live in the provinces (see Box 8.1.4).
The organisations Ragneda and Soligorchanka, both founded in 1996 under the auspices of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union, also consider their main priority to be the defence of the rights of working and unemployed women.
The Belarusian Association of Young Christian Women was founded as an analogue to an international organisation and sees itself as a grass roots organisation of the Worldwide Association of Young Christian Women. Its main goal is to raise the prestige of women, especially young ones, in Belarusian society. The organisation bases its work on the principles of Christian morality, compassion and mutual aid. The foundation of the Belarusian Association of University Women is also connected with the traditions of the international women’s movement. The organisation considers one of its tasks to be to develop gender studies, to introduce it into the higher education establishments of Belarus and to implement educational projects for social and state structures.
Various non-governmental organisations, acting on regional and nationwide bases, appeared as a result of independent democratic initiatives and as a form of social protest against inequality. One of the first, the Women’s Christian-Democrat Movement (WCDM), made itself known in 1992. It is a member of the Eastern European Christian Democratic Union and works with democratically oriented political parties and organisations in Belarus. The movement’s main aims are the defence of women’s rights, the democratisation of society and its spiritual re-birth. The work of the WCDM is very notable for the various conferences and seminars that it holds (see Box 8.1.5).
Independent democratic initiative is the basis for the foundation and activity of a whole range of cultural-educational organisations which are targeted towards information exchange on gender studies, holding joint discussions and implementing practical steps for the re-birth and spreading of spiritual culture. The most famous of these is the St. Yefrosinya of Polotsk Belarusian Women’s Fund. Its main mission is to bring about a spiritual renaissance in society which it sees in terms of a return to traditional values. The fund’s most significant demonstration is the annual marking of the day of Saint Yefrosinya of Polotsk which could be seen as a emergence of a national tradition. In December 1996, a national history department was founded as part of the fund and a scientific conference dedicated to famous Belarusian women of the beginning of the century was held. This department made possibly the first attempt to revive the history of women in the context of the history of the nation.
The Women’s Discussion Club and the Lady Leader Club assist in raising women’s awareness, developing their leadership potential and establishing links between women’s organisations in the republic and other countries.
The unique and successfully active women’s environmental organisation is the Belarusian women’s association The Environment and I (OSiYa). The organisation carries out scientific investigations, organises seminars, conferences, demonstrations for the protection of the environment, and maintains contact with women’s environmental organisations abroad.
The current women’s organisations in Belarus are very varied. The majority of them are self-development groups founded on the basis of their dissatisfaction with the situation of women. In their early stages of development, the new women’s organisations, as a rule, dealt with a wide spectrum of issues. This, of course, meant that their spheres of activity were often the same. The stage is, however, very important in itself — women have realised how much they have in common and become convinced that the limitation and under-evaluation of women does not happen by chance but is a regrettable fact of life (see Box 8.1.6).
It is extremely likely that, in the future, all the women’s organisations will determine their priorities for action. However, whatever these priorities may be, all women’s non-governmental organisations will by their very nature have a focus on human rights, defending the ideas and principles of equality of the sexes.
8.2 The women’s movement and the state
It is now possible to state that women’s non-governmental organisations have found their niche in the socio-political landscape of Belarus and that they are making a noticeable contribution to the progress towards forming a civil society. This puts on the agenda the question of their mutual relations with various political institutions, including their relationship to the state (see Box 8.2.1).
In Belarus, there is no established mechanism for the state and the ‘third sector’ to work together. There is no experience in Belarus of the government giving tax concessions or grants on a competitive basis for the implementation of civil projects. Many of the recently established women’s organisations are forced either to be burdened with high rent for a place to work or to get by without one. The authorities prefer to act within the framework of the familiar concept of social protectionism. Some women’s organisations base their activities on this protective, paternalistic ideology, getting concessions and various kinds of aid. Thus, with the help of the executive power, the Republican Centre for the Social Support of Women of the Belarusian Union of Women was opened.
Alongside this, the increased activity of the many social movements is leading to an increasing public understanding that the implementation of social policy is no longer the sole prerogative of the state. Non-governmental organisations, the church, social groups, political parties, charities and others must all be involved in the process. Recently there have been more frequent examples of successful partnership between governmental and non-governmental organisations.
The strengthening of partnership between the government and NGOs is being pushed forward not only by the above but also by international organisations and the resolutions of international conferences. UN documents stress that NGOs are an important part of a national mechanism for improving the situation of women. The Beijing Platform for Action calls for all concerned "to promote and establish co-operative relationships with relevant branches of government, centres for women’s studies and research, academic and educational institutions, the private sector, the media, non-governmental organisations, especially women’s organisations, and all other actors in civil society" (Report of the Fourth International Conference on the Situation of Women).
At the same time, irrespective of how the mutual relations between individual women’s organisations and the official authorities turn out, it is clear that the future of the women’s movement will to a large degree depend on the state rethinking the fundamental points of its social policy.
8.3 International contacts
It would be impossible for the independent Belarusian women’s movement to develop without active contact with foreign partners. A knowledge of international documents, world experience of the implementation of equal rights and opportunities policies, the history of the world women’s movement and the methodology of gender analysis are all necessary for women’s organisations to form their own strategies.
Information about events in the women’s movement abroad is slowly filtering through into Belarus. Representatives of non-governmental women’s groups are taking part in the work of international conferences and seminars. Moreover, the initiators in establishing contact with Belarusian NGOs are mainly international structures or foreign women’s organisations (see Box 8.3.1). The independent NGOs of Belarus are establishing partnerships with the new women’s organisations of CIS countries, the Baltic states and the West and are also independently initiating the implementation of international events in their own country. The most representative in this context was the international congress Woman - Family - Society which was held by the Women’s Christian Democratic Movement in 1994. Women parliamentarians, the leaders of women’s national and international organisations from twenty countries of the world discussed various aspects of the life and work of women.
The Fourth World Conference on the Situation of Women acted as a powerful stimulus for the expansion of international contacts. Developmental conferences and seminars were held in preparation for it and apart from the official delegation, representatives of NGOs participated in the UNDP event The Beijing Express and in the Forum for Non-Governmental Organisations. For the first time, Belarusian women took part in discussions on international documents which determine the most effective plans of action on the road to overcoming discrimination.
A number of events were held after the Beijing conference which were dedicated to popularising the ideas of the Beijing platform. The most significant of these was the regional conference The Beijing Strategies - The Belarusian Perspective which was held by the Centre for Gender-Related Information and Politics in conjunction with the Women’s Christian Democratic Movement and other NGOs in November 1995. The preparation and implementation of such seminars as Increased Female Poverty, Women and Violence and Women and the Mass Media in 1996-1997 provided the opportunity for the situation in Belarus to be studied in the context of the Beijing Platform for Action and to discuss the suggestions for solving the problems which still exist. The foreign experts who participated in them acquainted the leaders of the NGOs with their concrete experience and with methods for resolving issues associated with the situation of women. Knowing the strategies of the Beijing Platform allows the leaders of the women’s movement to use it as a guide for action and as an important tool for defending women’s rights.
The round table talks Integration and Contacts: The International Women’s Movement and NGOs in Belarus (Minsk 1996), held on the initiative of the Representative Office of the UN in the Republic of Belarus and the Women’s Christian Democratic Movement and International Educational Centre, had a special significance for the expansion of regional and international partnership. The representatives of diplomatic missions, of international organisations accredited in Belarus and all the women’s non-governmental organisations in the republic were invited to take part in its work. The main idea of the conference was very well put by Ms. Annette Lawson, the representative of the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations of Great Britain: "We women who are participating in the women’s movement are all different. We must, however, work out a unified women’s point of view on future development, on what we can do, so that women can use their rights and fight for them."
A survey carried out among the participants of the round table talks showed that 14 out of 23 of the representatives of Belarusian NGO’s present had foreign partners or participate in international programmes and 11 are member of international structures. It must be admitted, however, that this partnership is not always equal and the international structures are often viewed exclusively as donors.
The NGO representatives pointed to insufficient information on international women’s programmes and events and to the lack of funds for maintaining contacts and for accessing the electronic information network (see Box 8.3.1).
There are not many representative offices of international organisations and funds which can provide support in Belarus but their work has a noticeable effect and is very useful. The UN Office in Belarus also provides support for women’s movements.
The most significant example of this support is the Women in the Development Process project. Its implementation began in May 1995 with the International Conference The Social Status of Men and Women: Problems and Future Developments in which nine countries from the CIS and outside it took part. During the conference the following themes were discussed: the problems associated with integrating women into the market economy, ways of increasing the representation of women in the structures of power and expanding their participation in politics, the problems of introducing a new kind of relationship between men and women in the family and health problems in the light of depopulation, the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster and the general lowering of the standard of living of the population. The recommendations worked out during lengthy discussions were relayed to the republic’s government.
The second stage of this project was the creation of the Centre of Gender-Related Information and Policy (CGIP) as part of the department of family and gender problems of the Ministry of Social Security. The choice of location for founding the centre and implementing the project was determined by two factors. Firstly, the Ministry of Social Security was the ministry most closely connected with solving women’s and family problems. Secondly, its leadership displayed a direct interest in the implementation of the project. The focuses of the centre’s activity were announced as the following: to analyse of the situation of women in the republic; to play an active role in the development and implementation of a gender policy; to develop proposals for improving the statistical records; to work on raising public awareness of gender issues by carrying out educational seminars and publicising statistical, analytical and other information on gender studies at national and international level. To increase its chances of success in dealing with its tasks, at the very beginning of its activities the Centre formed its own Council of Experts from academic specialists in the field of gender studies, workers in the key social sector ministries, representatives of women’s NGOs and journalists.
Before the Beijing conference, the workers at the centre prepared a national report on the situation of women in the Republic of Belarus which evaluated the current situation of women on a national level, analysed the progress achieved after the Nairobi conference and mapped out its future activity. In addition to this, the centre prepared a brochure for the conference called The Women of Belarus: Facts and Figures.
The implementation of the project Women in the Development Process actively continued in 1996. At the beginning of the year, an educational seminar The content, issues and prospects for a gender-based approach to solving the problems of families, women and children was held in Minsk for officials from ministries and local executive authorities, representatives of NGOs and the media. Similar seminars were later held in Brest, Gomel and Mogilyov.
In accordance with the recommendations of the Beijing conference, the CGIP officials developed and agreed on a national plan of action to improve the situation of women by the year 2000 with all the relevant government bodies which was ratified by the government on June 6, 1996. The main points of the plan were later deepened and concretised in the republican programme The Women of the Republic of Belarus which was also approved by the government of the republic and is currently being implemented at a local and central level.
In 1996, CGIP became an umbrella organisation as branches were founded in Mogilyov and Minsk.
An independent and significant part of the work of the centre is the publication of information bulletins on: various aspects of the situation of women in Belarus; the activity of the government and NGOs in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; participants in the women’s movement (organisations and individuals on both national and international levels) and events concerning gender studies (seminars, conferences, programmes, visits etc.).
In 1996, the Christian Children’s Fund with CGIP and UNDP laid the foundations for a project to create a Women’s Health Centre (WHC). The WHC publicises healthy lifestyles, holds talks and discussions on family planning, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, child care and other topics. Attached to the centre is a library containing books about questions of women’s and children’s health. One of the areas of the centre’s work is the support of the creative projects of social organisations which are promoting women’s and children’s health.
The Belarusian Soros Foundation provides great financial and organisational help to the initiatives of many of the women’s NGOs in the republic. From the middle of 1996, the ‘Women’s Programme’ took a fully-fledged place among the priority activities of this social organisation. In its first stages, financial support from the Soros Foundation was received by projects from the WCDM for a cycle of seminars Beijing Strategies — The Belarusian Perspective, from The St. Yefrosinya of Polotsk Belarusian Women’s Fund for the international congress The Defence of Women’s Rights in Post Totalitarian Society and from the women’s non-state institute Envila for the international academic and applied conference Education and the Realisation of the Role of Women.
Thanks to the financial and organisational support of the Belarusian Soros Foundation and the Polish Stefan Batory Foundation, representatives of Belarusian women’s non-governmental organisations were able to go to Poland under the auspices of the East-East programme. During their visit, the women established useful contacts, discussed possibilities for partnership between the two countries and within the whole Eastern European region.
The US embassy information service (USIS) and other diplomatic missions have begun provide consultations and information to women’s NGOs. With their support, some women’s organisations have begun partnerships via the Internet, which has expanded their possibilities for information exchange.
Maintaining and developing international contacts is vitally important for the Belarusian women’s movement. At present, women’s organisations and groups are still in the process of identifying their aims and searching for ways to achieve them. This is the stage where an active and committed dialogue including foreign partners is an indispensable condition for them to work effectively.
8.4 Searching for a strategy
The Belarusian women’s movement is currently entering a new phase of development. The hardest part, founding and officially registering groups and movements, is over. Women’s organisations have made their presence known in the socio-political life of Belarus. Their future development will be directly dependent on finding an effective strategy.
The future of the women’s movement will depend directly on it being built energetically and systematically on the principles of free-will, democracy and personal involvement. It is worth noting that the inability to overcome organisational difficulties led to the recent collapse of many women’s groups like the Women’s League and the Belarusian Charitable Women’s Foundation Faith, Hope and Love. The process of self-realisation is to this day still fraught with difficulties. Above all, these difficulties concern women’s groups’ lack of legal knowledge, organisational experience, finances, and often simply not having the time to hold meetings. There are also psychological barriers. Belarusian women sometimes lack self-respect and confidence in their own skills.
Overcoming these and other obstacles can have positive effects not just for the women’s movement but for society as a whole, because when women are developing their own organisations, they are developing themselves, and thus developing society as a whole. In this sense they can be called active subjects in public life and politics — by their very existence they demonstrate the values of democracy and human rights.
From the point of view of priority tasks, it is now equally important that the women’s movement define itself. The women’s movement must decide which of the enormous mass of economic, social, political and everyday problems would, if solved, have a decisive positive effect on the situation of women in Belarus.
Faced with the current difficulties, the values of independence and emancipation are mainly of theoretical interest to women and are not yet receiving a wide response. Women more often connect their participation in the social movement with the hope of a practical improvement in their financial situation. For this reason, a significant proportion of women’s NGOs are targeting practical social support for deprived sections of society. It remains to be hoped that in the very near future, the women’s movement will come to the realisation that personal problems can and should be resolved in the context of general ones — the eradication of discrimination and the achievement of real equality.
The organisation and self-definition of the women’s movement is impossible without solidarity. This does not, of course, mean the establishment of a single organisation that would have a monopoly on representing women’s interests. The modern women’s movement is pluralistic. It is divided by both ideology and varying degrees of loyalty to the authorities. This kind of pluralism is quite normal for any society and even more so for one in transition. There are, however, a whole range of issues around which women’s organisations, movement and groups of various orientations can and should unite in order to find solutions. The first, as yet few attempts at concerted action have been made. Thus, before the 1995 elections to the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus, the socio-political bloc Women of Belarus was formed with the aim of coordinating actions within the women’s movement
The success of the women’s movement will to a large degree depend on how well women’s organisations will be able to integrate and defend the interests of a wide range of women’s groups; to influence the formation of government policy and determine their strategy for dealing with the authorities, political parties and non-governmental organisations. It will also depend on how they will be able to help thousands of women to avoid unemployment, to find a worthy position in the new economic system, and to achieve not promises but real sexual equality in terms of rights and opportunities.
9.1 Media democratisation: the gender aspect
9.2 Staff training
9.3 Women and a career in journalism
9.4 Women’s periodicals
9.5 Women’s problems in Belarusian socio-political publications
9.1 Media democratisation: the gender aspect
The task of the media is not only to accumulate information on what is happening in life, but also to let society keep up with development trends. The press is very similar to film in the way it records economic booms and recessions, the zigzagging and manoeuvring of "major-league" politics, and the ups and downs of social opinion. It evolves at the same pace as we do, changing us in the process. Society begins to take on a different form and, as a result, different types of printed media emerge. The mirror of the Belarusian press reflects our life and ourselves, as well as our past, present and future.
Information and culture have endured more radical changes during the course of the last seven years than any other side of life. This is the result of two processes meeting head to head. The first was the appearance of numerous non-state publications that introduced forms of mass communication the like of which had never been seen before. They ranged from newspapers for the elite to volunteers’ journals, and from mass-appeal publications to the serious, professional and high-quality press. These new publications gave a variety of points of view (even in one and the same newspaper), new topics, a lively approach, and different languages. In the past, the very idea of mixing several languages in one newspaper was unthinkable, but now this type of publication is predominant (see Table 9.1.1). In turn, by attracting more investors, many publications which used to toe the official line have gained the opportunity to hire editorial staff and other independent media control bodies (see Table 9.1.2), and now present real life issues in much more detail. The media’s readership has also changed as far as its priorities, values and expectations are concerned.
Upgrading and transforming the media is a highly complex and paradoxical process. New stereotypes have emerged to replace the older ones, but are perhaps just as harmful. The hyper-objective style of writing did not last for long. After they had filled their pages with different topics, new publications were unable to come up with any new forms, and remained prisoners of their didactic and paternalist ideas. The Belarusian press had been inspired by the wind of change, and was searching to develop further.
The number of new publications has gone up by over seven times. During the Soviet period, 120 local and national papers and magazines were published in the republic, but by the end of 1995, there were already 897 titles available. That new wave also began to fade, however, so in 1996 the number of publications was down to 827 (579 newspapers, 202 magazines, and 46 bulletins) and the unofficial electronic press had ceased to exist.
The worsening economic crisis is having an impact on the media. The population’s real income is going down from year to year along with their ability to pay. Newspaper publishing and broadcasting are becoming constantly more expensive (newsprint, printing services, and airtime). The country’s unsolved economic problems are having a direct effect on the development of the independent media, meaning that nearly half of all publications are on the verge of bankruptcy.
The mass media are being destabilised by state policies. Newspapers, magazines and studios receive subsidies if they present the official point of view, and are accorded beneficial service rates and rents. They also have the state distribution and broadcast networks at their disposition. Meanwhile, the independent press is printed last of all and at extremely high rates.
A desire to control information is characteristic of any authorities but, naturally, this makes independent journalists wish to defend the pluralism of ideas, as well as maintaining and extending the competitive environment. The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) was set up in 1996, and was intended to provide legal and moral support for the non-state media; develop contacts and cooperation with the European and world press; organise training courses, seminars and conferences; and create a social security fund for colleagues who lost their jobs due to political repression. The president of the BAJ is the well-known radio journalist Zhanna Litvina.
In a democracy, political control is replaced by legitimate regulation. Freedom of speech was guaranteed by articles of the Belarusian law governing the press and other mass media, passed in 1995. The Belarusian State Press Committee prepared a draft law which made provision for equal market conditions for all media, irrespective of their ownership or political involvement. It also guaranteed the confidentiality of all sources of information used by journalists, and prohibited any administrative interference with newspaper editorial staff. These provisions were supported by the participants of a workshop on The Media in a Democratic Society held in Minsk in October 1996, including experts from the Council of Europe and representatives of state and non-state media. There were also women among those taking part in the workshop, such as the editors-in-chief of some Belarusian private independent publications which cover legal rights defence issues. The media can only function effectively as part of a law-governed state undergoing political and economic reforms, and if all sectors of society have the opportunity to be involved in these processes.
An analysis of the gender situation in the Belarusian communications field was presented at an international seminar on Women and the Media which took place in Minsk in February 1997. The assessment contained in the Beijing Platform published to round up the 4th World Conference on the Situation of Women is also completely applicable to the situation in Belarus. It states that "There are now more women working in the field of communications, but only some of them have reached decision-making level, or are members of boards and bodies which can influence media policy" (4th World Conference on the Situation of Women, Beijing, China, 1995, p116).
There are very few women employed in bodies which regulate and control media activity. Statistics show that they have almost no right to vote when devising and making decisions which concern their professional and creative status. 63% of Belarusian Radio and Television Company employees are women, and 62% of the Belarusian State Press Committee, however as soon as one consults their management statistics, it is a very different story (see Graph 9.1.1 and Graph 9.1.2). There is an identical situation inside state institutions which regulate the media, for instance the Belarusian National Assembly (Republican Council and House of Representatives), Cabinet of Ministers, Constitutional Court, and the Belarusian National Bank Board (see Graph 4.2.1). The same trend can be observed within the Ministry of Culture and various newspaper offices (see Graph 9.1.3).
9.2 Staff training
At present, the Belarusian State University is the only higher educational establishment which trains professional journalists. Until recently, it was a small department with an annual entry of between 30 to 40 day students, half of which were usually women.
Up until the time of perestroika, the university was able to completely satisfy the national demand for journalists. This situation changed, however, when hundreds of new publications appeared in the 1990s, and the department’s intake went up sharply. In 1996, four times more people than in 1992 had started specialising as journalists. At the same time, the gender balance altered slightly in the department — there was a noticeable increase in female students at the external faculty, whereas there were fewer among day students.
43.7% of the department’s professors, tutors and research staff are women. However, there are almost no highly-qualified women at all among its employees. This is a general trend in all fields of management that the higher the positions, the fewer women there are occupying them (see Graph 9.2.1). The main reason for this is the lack of attention being paid to women’s issues. Consequently, there were no gender-related topics on the list of dissertations and theses for the 1996-97 academic year.
No provision has been made to provide a retraining system at the department of journalism. This is having a bad effect on professional training for journalists in general, especially female journalists who are forced to take more time off work because of family matters (e.g. childbirth or looking after sick children). There is currently a serious need for retraining, since the aims and conditions for media operations are changing, and their potential for providing information is increasing. To a certain extent, this gap is being filled by foreign foundations, whose financial and organisational support is used to hold practical seminars for journalists featuring guest lecturers from abroad. Some Belarusian media employees have been on long (up to six months) or short (up to one month) placements in the West, but such cases are extremely rare, however. There are no quotas, and nothing is being organised to allow women journalists with young children to gain experience abroad (see Box 9.2.1). It would be worth considering the idea of organising summer camps, a point raised by participants of the Women and the Media seminar held in Minsk in February 1997. Mothers would then be able to improve their qualifications while their children were under the supervision of teachers.
In the 1990s, 22 foreign newspapers, television companies and radio stations opened offices for correspondents in Belarus. In 1995, these were mainly staffed by Belarusian journalists, including 27.5% of women. Western publications and news agencies subsequently retrained their employees.
In Autumn 1997, a joint project to retrain Belarusian journalists is to be implemented by the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Union of Journalists of Belarus, and Brandenburg University, Germany. Its aim will be to familiarise them with world standards for their profession, and the initiative has been supported by grants from a number of foreign foundations.
9.3 Women and a career in journalism
Democratisation in society is extending the opportunities for women to make a name for themselves in the media. At present, there are more than ten women working as editors-in-chief of newspapers, magazines and bulletins (see Box 9.3.1).
Women successfully in learnt how to be journalists, a field which was until recently entirely dominated by men (see Box 9.3.2). This is particularly true of political scientists. There are a good number of women political reviewers who came to journalism already aware of the need to break away from old stereotypes according to which verbosity was used to conceal an extremely low information content. Female journalists reviewing political events offer a wide spectrum of political views of modern Belarus. As a rule, their writing is distinctive and draws attention with their brilliant use of language, sense of humour, wide variety of metaphors, and ability to use characteristic details to good effect. At the same time they are also special due to their specific style of writing, the way they concentrate on a topic, and their clarity and readability.
The Belarusian printed press offers a real choice for the modern reader – there are papers from state organisations, various parties, non-governmental organisations, and companies. There are good quality ones, and popular ones for a wide audience or the elite, but there is a high price to pay for this kind of balance. Freedom of speech demands a courageous civil position and a high level of journalistic ethics.
The vital principle of democratic journalism is to serve the mighty Fact. Recently, Belarus has seen the appearance of its own school of economic journalism, and women have pride of place in it. Women economic reviewers have quite a wide range of professional interests. Some specialise in analysing processes in the banking sector, others excel themselves in their variety of topics, while still others prefer to work in the field of straight reporting. Together, they represent the new generation of newspapers which defend the principles of the free democratic press (see Box 9.3.3).
Democratic processes have not only reached the actual content of journalism, but have also affected the form it takes. In the first case, these effects were mostly positive, but in the latter they have been rather more destructive. In the past, journalists were generally only able to make a name for themselves because of their literary or artistic abilities, since they had to work within the confines of designated topics and opinions. All their energy was spent on the wording of the material, its artistic qualities, style, and scope of epithets. The opportunity to write about subjects which go beyond boundaries previously guarded by ideological censorship has given rise to a new situation. In their rush to find totally new scoops for the Belarusian press, journalists often forget about their writing style.
A combination of new and socially-significant subject matter, how deeply they study it, and how carefully they handle it helps journalists to gain a reputation in their trade. Unfortunately, it must be said that the topics covered by leading women journalists in the socio-political press only occasionally or by chance touch on the issues which are alarming the modern Belarusian women’s movement. These include: women’s relations to human rights, increased female poverty, careers, human dignity, self-fulfilment, access to modern technology, and involvement in decision-making. Since journalists do not focus their attention on women’s problems, the latter become optional, random and of little importance to the major socio-political press, and so they are usually forced out into special women’s publications.
9.4 Women’s periodicals
The range of women’s periodical publications has been extended and enriched. Up until the 1990s, just one magazine for women was published in Belarus — Rabotnitsa i Syalyanka (then renamed to Alesya). With perestroika, a fairly wide range of publications appeared which were aimed at women readers, but not all of them were able to withstand stiff competition. However, together, they represented an important event for the country, since every publication had found its own style and niche.
At first, serious, high-quality women’s newspapers and magazines managed to justify their existence (according to the world classification for printed media). The main example was the monthly Alesya. This Belarusian-language social, literary and arts magazine always has subscribers and is subsidised by the state (equal to 10% of its total expenditures in 1996). Other quality women’s press such as the newspaper Mila (later known as Mila Plyus) and Zhenskaya Gazeta (which became Sovremennitsa) were published with support from private sponsors or various foundations (particularly the Belarusian Soros Foundation and the Children of Chernobyl charity). All told, they survived for about four years (1992-95), but never became profitable. The idea of increasing the number of serious women’s publications is still alive, however, and in 1997 a newspaper entitled Zhenskaya Gazeta — Mezhdunarodnaya came onto the market for readers in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
There are numerous problems associated with publishing quality periodicals. "We do not want to limit women’s attention to methods for pickling cabbage or bringing up children," says Mariya Karpenko, editor-in-chief of Alesya. "Although most of our subjects are traditional, like the family, morals, social security for women, or bringing up children, we also keep up with the developments in the national women’s movement, and print cultural and educational material. We want women to feel like individuals, so we write about creative women and women who have written themselves into the history of their homeland and planet." Diagram 9.4.1 gives a general picture of the subject matter concerning women’s issues to be found in this kind of publication. It shows the results of a content analysis of all the articles in Alesya in 1996.
Another type of women’s publications is popular newspapers and magazines which target the widest possible readership. A reduction in style is characteristic for this kind of publication. Here, women’s problems are either reduced to the patriarchal standards of "children, kitchen and church" or the "Three S’s" model of sex, smalltalk and scandals. Haspadynya magazine and the papers Semeynyy Ochag and Sovet Da Lyubov’ fit into this category. Diagram 9.4.2 gives a content analysis of Haspadynya magazine for 1996, showing the common features of this type of publication.
It must be stressed that the popular women’s press is able to survive well without state or foundation support. They have fairly high circulations, but are experiencing problems due to the difficult economic situation.
A new type of elite women’s magazines is beginning to emerge. For example, Lady Prestige and Zolotaya Orkhideya. One could almost put Dzhuliya magazine into this category as well, which is aimed at adolescent ‘young ladies’. These magazines appeared with the formation of a class of ‘nouveau Belarusians’ who like expensive and prestigious publications which expose the life of high society salons, embassy receptions, and the artistic elite.
The electronic press is completely state-controlled in Belarus. Their extremely politicised broadcasting leaves very little airtime for women’s issues. By early 1996, two popular family programmes were on the air regularly, entitled Mezhdu Nami, Zhenshchinami ("Between Us Women") and Zerkalo ("Mirror"). However, the first of these programmes attempted to show a debate on the role of women in society, and was taken off the air as a result. There are only two radio programmes Syabrouka ("Friend") and Semya ("Family"). Taking Zerkalo’s example, they organise discussions about the home and teaching and intersperse them with music.
9.5 Women’s problems in Belarusian socio-political publications
It is extremely rare for socio-political publications to portray women as the objects (material about women and the focus of discussions) or subjects of communication (interviews with women giving their viewpoints, opinions and attitudes). In fact only fragments of women’s issues are dealt with sporadically in newspapers. An analysis was carried out on the year’s issues of seven newspapers for 1996 – Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta, Zvyazda, Imya, Narodnaya Gazeta, Respublika, Svobodnye Novosti Plyus and Chyrvonaya Zmena, which are published in Russian and Belarusian.
554 articles were selected from 1,284 editions of these publications of differing types and political bias. They were reviewed twice – firstly for topics concerning women and politics, economics, sport, culture, the media, historical reminiscences, problems of motherhood and childhood, fashion, women’s style, social security, relations between the sexes, and women and crime. The second check was for any mention of the status or profession of the women discussed in the articles. This analysis confirmed the following hypotheses.
Firstly, it was discovered that the subjects and objects of communication in the printed media are usually men. The probability of there being at least one article or note about general problems with some focus on women is under 50%. This means one can only expect that kind of article in every other edition of a paper. This figure is even lower for each separate publication. For instance, the chances of there being anything on women’s issues in Zvyazda is one article every five issues, and one article every three issues in Narodnaya Gazeta and Respublika. However, in Imya and Svobodnye Novosti Plyus, we can expect one article per issue (see Table 9.5.1). No matter if one carries out an attributive or a subject/content analysis, women’s topics occupy approximately one thirtieth of the space in all the aforementioned publications.
Secondly, women’s issues are not so much defined by life experience, but by the type of publication. Newspapers look for "their kind" of woman and ascribe "their" problems to her. As a publication improves in quality (i.e. its objectivity and ability to analyse), it loses its political motives. As a result, well-balanced, unbiased appraisals of life situations start to become more common, meaning no idealised cliches or ‘laying it on too thick’. Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta in particular has these features, and 89% of its articles on women’s issues are characteristically well-balanced and neutral.
Except for Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta, almost all the publications examined either preferred not to write about women at all, or at least to write positive things about them. Almost half the articles in each paper received a positive evaluation in our survey. The newspaper least inclined to write complimentary things about women was Zvyazda (34% of all articles). This trend is common in all publications, and demonstrates a paternalistic attitude to women, and an inability to discuss their true social and professional problems (see Graph 9.5.1).
So what do the media actually praise women for? The researchers remarked that women politicians are mostly described as having positive moral qualities, like serving social interests or maintaining moral and ethical standards. It is rare to see mention of their professional abilities such as competence, discipline, businesslike nature, and reasoned pragmatism. However, a wider range of attributes are applied to male politicians, such as organisational abilities, ambitions, career aspirations, and headstrong character.
Thirdly, material concerning women is usually published according to a set formula. One acquires a sort of hypothetical picture, not a real picture of women’s joys and sorrows, problems and worries. This can be seen from the large amount of Soviet-style slogans and appeals, such as "it is essential", "it would be good if", "there should be". Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta and Imya had the least amount of factual articles, and the most appeared in Zvyazda, Chyrvonaya Zmena and Svobodnye Novosti Plyus (see Graph 9.5.2).
Fourthly, in spite of their status or party bias, socio-political periodicals generally pay no attention to legal problems. Women do not receive the necessary amount of information about their rights to employment, social security, and preserving their dignity.
Fifthly, modern publications of various kinds have changed their choice of social stereotypes. Not at all long ago, newspapers were splattered with reports, personality profiles and photographs of common female labourers who now get a minimum of attention. The victory laurels go to representatives of the elite and women who have achieved significant success in their careers. It is their opinions and ideas that are being reproduced by the mass media (see Diagram 9.5.1)
Lastly, women’s issues are not dealt with either fully or impartially (see Box 9.5.1). Above all, this concerns women’s involvement in politics. 1996 was marked by the referendum, which made women’s organisations step up their activities. They ran international conferences, seminars, and round table meetings. However, these events did not receive the press coverage they deserved. Graph 9.5.3 shows that the subject of women and politics was mentioned in 10% of articles on women. There were just 50 articles in seven papers during the year, 24 of which were in Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta.
The sample of articles published on the theme of women and the economic situation (a total of 55 articles in seven papers) showed that journalists paid virtually no attention to the acute problem of women’s unemployment which causes phenomena such as increased female poverty.
The subject of women is not yet uppermost in the minds of journalists, just like human rights or culture and civilisation (not just the appearance of female subjects in various areas of life in society).
The results of this content analysis give a fairly accurate picture of the main tendencies for covering women’s issues in Belarusian socio-political publications. One can get a better idea by examining research into material on women leaders published by the newspapers Sovietskaya Byelorussia, Imya and Belaruskiy Rynok (done by the Independent Socio-Economic and Political Research Institute in 1996). Their journalists love to draw readers’ attention to the charm and family status of the women covered in the articles, whereas the image of male leaders is almost always restricted to their professional activities.
In this regard, advertising is also representative. Irrespective of their subject matter and quality, there are illustrated commercial advertisements in all newspapers and magazines without exception. Whether the consumer is being offered a vacuum cleaner or a microwave oven, there is always a photograph of a woman with a flashy smile next to the goods. Domestic appliances are advertised as if they were a gift to women, not an essential household item. This kind of advertising reiterates and strengthens stereotypes of women as housewives by reducing their range of tasks and obligations in life.
The Belarusian magazine Nessi is an exception to this case. In its advertisements, one might see a man next to gas stove or a washing machine. This democratic point of view does not lower the effectiveness of the advertising. On the contrary, it creates an atmosphere of equal rights which helps men and women to work together in a harmonic combination of their interests and tastes.
An analysis of newspapers and magazines allows one to come to a disconcerting conclusion. Namely, the gender problems which need to be solved in order to influence the process of social democratisation are not being covered by the Belarusian media. At the same time, intellectual circles are aware that it is essential to address these issues in the modern world. Developing the contacts between the international women’s movement and women in the media will help to change this situation for the better.
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