USAID is Gendering Belarus PoliticsUSAID is an independent agency of the United States federal government that takes care of administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance. It is one the largest official aid agencies in the world, controlling a large share of U.S. foreign assistance programs. USAID operates in more than 100 countries all around the world. One of them is Belarus, where USAID — which represents the second-largest actor after the E.U. — is effectively gendering its politics. USAID has indeed been able to transform the current business and social landscapes for Belarusian women.

Gender Politics in Belarus

In 2017, Belarus ranked 26 out of 144 in the Global Gender Gap Index. However, differences start to show when looking at detail. Women outnumber men at tertiary education enrollment. But despite being more likely to achieve white-collar positions, women are not as likely as men to receive managerial power. Only 17% of female white-collar employees rise through the ranks against a stark 41% for men. Women also lack executive power in politics. Although they hold around 30% of parliament seats, their presence in the executive branch is scarce. In addition, gender wage gaps have been increasing in recent years. This is due to the country’s employment residing namely in public sectors such as education, where pay is lower.

Belarus is a country where STEM start-ups and corporations are usually presented as a field for men to develop their careers. Belarus has profited from USAID support to Belarusian women. By sponsoring teams that consist of at least 30% women, the U.S. support program is bringing forth a cultural shift in the entrepreneurial mentality of Belarusians.

USAID is Gendering Belarus Politics

USAID is gendering Belarus politics by increasing the relative bargaining power of women in society. A clear example of this promotion commitment is USAID’s Community Connections Exchange Program, through which Belarusians have the opportunity to travel to the U.S. to undergo short-term exchanges. During this stage, they learn about innovative practices, youth business promotion and female empowerment. Women made up more than half of 2017’s edition of the program, enlarging the ranks of the more than 400 women that had already enjoyed these lessons and leadership skill-building tools. Not only that, but another instance of leading by example would be the U.S.’s personal compromise to constitute offices in Belarus. At least one staff member n the office must be female. This is regardless of whether their tasks involve directing diplomatic meetings, developing the private sector or dealing with administrative matters.

USAID’s Action

The U.S. commitment to improving the living conditions in Belarus extends well beyond jobs. It is also focusing on the way that politics are carried out in the country. The U.S. Department of State’s Human Rights Report has criticized the increasing neglect by Belarusian authorities to protect human rights as fundamental as the freedom of speech or press. However, to encourage positive promotion and not negative condemnation, the Embassy also assists the growing independent media and NGO community. It is offering public exchanges and bringing American experts to the country to offer insight into democratic initiatives and reforms.

Along those lines, American and Belarusian counterparts in law enforcement and international development agreed to collaborate; this is particularly through American support schemes for the education of Belarusian officials to enable the law to be upheld and create strong legal infrastructures. The advancement of human rights entails a clear compromise toward the inclusion of women in society, especially in a country where legislation is “gender blind.” While discrimination is formally prohibited, this does not stop employers to view women as undesirable based on their maternity benefits and earlier retirement age (55 for women and 60 for men).

USAID gendering Belarusian politics also means USAID is pushing for human rights to become a fundamental principle guiding legislative activity. Independent media, expert advice and reforms help create a more inclusive society. In addition, it is important to implement legislation that is gender aware, rather than gender blind.

Moving Forward

Women’s participation in politics has been one of the main issues at stake in Belarus. USAID has helped promote civilian expansion and participation in political and economic decision-making. It has helped encourage opening up society and allowing for reform.

With markets opening, women have taken it as a sign that it is time for politics to follow the economic trail. The continued support offered by U.S. institutions to promote the role of women in the labor market may also enable them to increase their bargaining power in politics. Alongside the U.S. focus on protecting and projecting democratic reform and the rule of law in the country, there comes peaceful reform in a country that is making strides toward gender equality.

– Álvaro Salgado
Photo:Flickr

Women’s Rights in Belarus
Belarus is a landlocked Eastern European country that Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia border. Women’s rights in Belarus have a complicated role in society. As of July 2020, Belarus reported a population of 9.4 million, over half of which were females. The 2017 estimated median age for Belarusian women is 43.1, with most falling into the 25-54 age range. The average life expectancy for Belarusian women is 74 years old.

Belarusian law has protected women since the late 16th century, and Belarus continues to celebrate its contributions to society each year on March 8 on International Women’s Day. The nation has signed onto all international documents of gender equality and has been a party to the UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women since 1981.

Yet gender roles in Belarus remain staunchly traditional, largely due to the country’s historically patriarchal culture. This article will provide an overview of women’s rights in Belarus, including their history, current state and areas for improvement.

History of Women’s Movements

Belarus has a rich history of women’s activism. Activists have been fighting for women’s rights in Belarus for over a century. The first women’s advocacy group, the United Belarusian Women’s Committee, formed at the beginning of the 20th century, promoting national revival via the advancement of women’s rights. Several organizations followed its lead, eventually leading to the first women’s political party, Nadzieja, in 1994.

The 1990s were the peak of the women’s movement, however. Though the Belarusian women’s network, an organization connecting women’s rights groups, formed in 2007, it has achieved minimal success; this is largely due to the movement’s struggle to find commonality in their goals and methods of advocacy. As of 2017, women’s organizations compose less than 1.5% of all NGOs in Belarus.

A Different Kind of Movement

The women’s movement is largely non-feminist. Though Belarusian women’s groups are largely unsuccessful due to their disorganization, it is important to note that these organizations generally do not focus on the advancement of women’s social and political rights. Belarusians instead emphasize women’s unique role as mothers, housekeepers and wives; they seek to protect and honor women in these traditional roles. As a result, most of these organizations have the prevention of violence against women as a top priority.

Tacciana Karatkievič, Belarus’s first female presidential candidate, is emblematic of these cultural values. Even as a public political figure, she adopted a ‘motherly’ persona rather than promoting gender equality.

In Business and Politics

Women remain underrepresented in business and politics.  A significant wage gap remains between the sexes. In 2016, the average salary of Belarusian women was 25% lower than men, and women only occupied 23% of high academic positions. In the 2017 rating of the best business people in Belarus, only seven out of 200 were women. Women are similarly a minority in politics, where, although about 30% of parliament members are female, there are little to no female chairpersons, administrators and deputies. This underrepresentation has consequences: according to an Internet survey of 1,519 women, 90% face discrimination at the workplace. Very few organizations are working to rectify these issues, however.

Women led the 2020 protests. Belarus made international headlines in 2020 for its massive protests against the contested reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko, which many believe was rigged. Women have a leading role in the movement, speaking out against Lukashenko’s past comments about women, which many consider sexist. These activists, distinctive in white dresses at rallies and demonstrations, also have voiced frustration about the constant harassment Belarusian women are subject to.

The Road Ahead

NGOs are fighting for change. Although fragmented, numerous NGOs exist that are advocating for women’s rights in Belarus. For example, the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) Belarus works to create new jobs in sustainable development and green energy specifically for women so that they are equally represented in the workforce. TUNDP Belarus earned the UNDP Equality Bronze Seal in 2015 for its successful strides toward greater gender equality. One successful UNDP initiative is its establishment of a system for collecting sex-disaggregated data to monitor and reduce HIV prevalence.

The Karat Coalition for Gender Equality began in February 2014 and has been working to have Belarusian law explicitly ensure women’s human rights. Karat has laid the groundwork for more comprehensive laws protecting women. It is currently working on a Belarusian draft law on gender equality, which it has received positive feedback on from the Belarusian government. This is a promising step that indicates greater equality in the law in the near future.

The Center for the Promotion of Women’s Rights—Her Rights is another Belarusian NGO that provides free and confidential help for women who experience gender-based violence and discrimination, especially domestic violence. The group helps at least 20 women each month escape unsafe homes and work environments.

The results of Belarus’s current social unrest are yet to emerge. But there is reason to believe that women’s rights in Belarus may finally begin to become a priority. The successful ventures of small, citizen-led groups indicate that the fight for Belarusian gender equality, though slow-moving, is leading to societal change.

Abby Tarwater
Photo: Flickr