As promised in the previous report, in this paper we continue sharing some success stories of human rights activists and of their victories in the field of women’s rights in Belarus, as well as offer some general observations on what they tell us about camaraderie, international solidarity, fruitful strategies of human rights activism, and support networks in Belarus.
Tatiana Cherviakova (Vitebsk)
Tatiana is a widow whose son was taken away into an orphan’s home on the ground of her not having electricity at home (an electricity provider cut her off until she paid her debt) and having non-satisfactory living conditions (poor quality of refurbishment). Despite the actual access to the electricity, due to the help of neighbors, the child was taken away. Effectively the boy was taken away from home for his family debts as a hostage to ensure his mother will repay the debt. This despite Tatiana never refusing to pay; she only asked for an opportunity for payment by installments.
When the teenager was moved away from home, Tatiana had to leave the job (because the social services were not satisfied with the stability of the job she had), find a lower paid job, pay for her son’s stay in the children’s home, and pay the debt. This put her into a situation of severe poverty, to the point that she had to walk to the children’s home in order to see her son, because she simply had no money to pay for the public transportation. At the same time the social services refused her any help when she described her situation.
After media attention and some help from ‘Our House’, social services suddenly changed their minds about the living conditions in Tatiana’s flat and the boy was returned home just as suddenly as he was taken away. Tatiana’s son had to spend almost six months away from home.
Valentina Buslaeva (Zhilikhovo village)
Valentina is a resident of a small village of Zhilikhovo in Kopyl’sky raion, Minsk oblast’. She is also a mother of five. In 2017 the family was registered as ‘living in hazardous conditions’ and a serious threat was made to the family that the 3 minor children would be taken to the children’s home. Among the official reasons provided to the family were incomplete/ not perfect refurbishment of the house, wallpaper torn by kids in a couple of places, and the debt that the family had for public utilities.
It turned out that the debt was central; “Our House” activist managed to record a conversation with a representative of the guardianship service where she openly admitted that they saw it as a way to ensure that the woman pays on time. This type of pressure proved itself very efficient: despite disagreeing with the way the debt was calculated and instead of having an opportunity to resolve this issue with the communal services, Valentina had to pay to make sure children were not taken away.
Needless to say, such approach is corrupt, illegal, and immoral. With the active involvement of “Our House” and the presence of its activists on the ground, including escorting Valentina to meet with public officials, Valentina and her family were taken off the list of socially problematic families, securing her from random visits and manipulations. Most active in helping Valentina was Ruslan Guseinov, an activist of “Our House” who previously faced a similar situation and was assisted by “Our House”.
Ruslan Guseinov (Pinsk)
Ruslan is an activist who joined “Our House” after “Our House” team helped him to resolve his issues with guardianship services regarding the right to raise his daughter. After Ruslan’s divorce the girl was living with her mother and half-siblings. In 2016 there was an attempt to take the girl away to the children’s home. Ruslan tried to take custody of her, so that she could live with him; despite being an involved and caring father the guardianship services denied this right to him. There also were some indications that the actual problem was Ruslan’s activism. In the end Ruslan managed to prove that the decision of the guardianship services was not grounded and won the case.
Inna Sabiryanova (Minsk)
In 2017, after a year and a half of hard struggle, with lots of help and support from several activists of “Our House”, Inna Sabiryanova and her son were removed from the register of the socially hazardous families, and the risk of the boy being taken away was avoided.
Inna Sabiryanova came to Minsk from a province, obtained a degree and found a job. After several years of hard work she managed to raise money to buy her a room in an apartment. This property became an epicenter of a conflict between the local authorities and Inna: Inna was suggested and later pressured into selling it at an undervalued price, and Inna refused quite ferociously. The conflict escalated so much that the police, school administration, guardianship service were involved, and Inna’s employer who was pressured into firing her – all to make her more complaisant. One of the strategies was to put her family on the list of socially insecure families and threatened her with son’s removal from home.
Svetlana Palkhovskaya (Stolin)
A police officer psychologically and physically assaulted the 9-year-old son of Svetlana Polhovsky from Stolin, because he thought the boy was responsible for the injury of his son. Later the officer learned that his son injured himself and fearing to tell his father the truth invented the story about another boy pushing him. Sveltana’s son’s injuries and stress were so great that the boy had to be hospitalized. Despite the pressure on Svetlana, she was determined to punish the officer. After the intervention of “Our House” the police officer was fired, and the pressure on the mother for her complaints ceased. Moreover, by the court decision Svetlana was paid a compensation for her son’s damages. Svetlana was assisted and supported by several “Our House” activists, including Olesia Sadovskaya from Molodechno.
Olesia Sadovskaya (Molodechno)
Olesia’s story starts with her disagreement with police officers on their work duties. State officials punished Olesia for her indocility with detention, beating, torture, illegal placement in a psychiatric hospital – first for an examination and later for forced treatment – criminal case against her, and seizure of her daughter and her placement with an adoptive family.
Olesia is a single parent, when she was placed in a mental institution she was diagnosed with an illness listed in the List of conditions incompatible with parenthood. On the ground of these two factors (illness and single-motherhood) an agency of guardianship of the department of education filed a court case to terminate Olesia’s parental rights. It is worth saying that Olesia managed to prove later that her diagnosis was wrong through an independent expertise outside Belarus. After sixteen months of court hearings, official complaints, media campaign organised by ‘Our House’, and Olesia’s traveling the country and abroad for an independent expertise Olesia’s daughter returned home.
Elena Kashina (Orsha)
Elena is a lawyer by training and a dedicated foster parent to many children. She, together with some other women, was active in bringing up issues of the foster children, drawing attention to some violation of the rights of foster families in her town, and trying to improve the legislation regulating the situation of foster children. When the local authorities decided she was asking too many uncomfortable questions, the department of education, which officially hired her as a foster parent, tried to terminate her foster parent contract and manipulate the data to prove her unsuitability for this job. Her two foster sons were taken away from her and placed into an orphan-asylum. Later she managed to get the children back. The reasons for her persecution were articulated to her in an informal conversation as a direct result of her activism.
For several years now Elena helps other women and families whose children are in danger of being taken away, explaining them the legislation and procedures, helping them with filing complaints or writing statements of a claim.
Elena is now instrumental for many other women in their fight for their rights. For instance, she was most active in helping Natalia Mikhodyuk from Orsha.
Natalia Mikhodyuk (Orsha)
Natalia is a mother of three boys. Two older sons, twins, are, as they say, ‘difficult’ children and diagnosed with mental and physical disorders. When the two older sons were ten and the youngest boy was five years old the children were taken away from the family. That happened because Natalia was diagnosed with a light form of intellectual deficiency. Her IQ test was one point below the indicated ‘norm’.
The condition she was diagnosed with was the main reason the court supported the case against Natalia and took her children away. During the hearing a worry was expressed that she could not protect or take care for her children because of her intellectual incapability. This was a complete overlooking of the fact that it was her who cared for two children with serious disabilities for ten years.
Natalia tried to restore in her parental rights through the court. During the court hearings and consultations with the Juvenile Committee and guardianship services, another issue was indicated as an obstacle for the children being returned to their mother: Natalia’s unemployment. This was rather cynical, because Natalia’s job was to be the care-giver to her two oldest sons, who needed special care. Not only were the children taken away from the family, making her lose her job, Natalia was not allowed to continue to be their care-giver. There is no legal provision for parents with conditions listed in the List to continue providing care to their children, and because of Natalia’s official diagnose she could not be officially hired to be a care-giver to her sons with disabilities.
Elena Kashina helped Natalia to go through all the appealing procedures and to draw attention to this gap in the legislation. Last autumn Elena and Natalia change the history for women/ parents with disabilities and proved that Natalia can be a care-giver for her children. Now she can spend several hours every day with at least two of her children, take care for them, and have a livelihood.
We composed this list of victories not just to boost our self-confidence, celebrate the achievements, or simply acknowledge the work of those individuals towards women’s rights. Although this is all very important in our view, our purpose was rather to see what made those successes possible. Below is a brief account of strategies that, in our experience, were most successful and, hopefully, will ensure a positive change of the situation with the rights of active women in Belarus.
- Stand own ground and not give up
All those achievements were possible only when individuals decided not to comply with the state bodies/ representatives violating their rights. Once decisions to protect own rights or the rights of their children were made it was necessary to go until the end, withstanding pressure and repressions. It is not to say that everyone who did not give up won, but nobody who decided to comply with the state officials got their rights restored.
- Mutual support and solidarity between women
As it is evident from many cases described in the first and in the second parts of the report, the majority of the victories were made possible due to the help of other individuals who faced or were facing at the similar issues. Sometimes, women read about instances of violation of women’s rights in the media and reached for the ones in difficult situations, offering help or making the case more visible, especially if it was a local issue and the broader society was not aware of it. Support expressed itself in many various forms: advice and assistance with writing official requests, bills of complaint, or statements of a claim; phone calls and visits to provide words of encouragement and hope; sharing information; putting in touch with lawyers; informing about available help; bringing food to jail or sending support cards in case of detention, etc. We call it peer-to-peer support and this support often turned to co-operation.
Co-operation was another key factor of the success. Co-operation was happening on several levels: co-operation between women, between women and “Our House”, co-operation with various media and information platforms.
For collaboration between women support was still central but women also acted together, working alongside each other. One of the examples of such powerful co-operation was escorting each other to courts, meetings with civil servants, school officials, police officers, etc. Another example was planning actions to change the general situation or running joint meetings to acquire new knowledge and skills.
It also proved very productive to co-operate with various information platforms. This included not only various independent newspapers/ radio (local, regional, national), but also the new media, as well as various databases, such as chinovniki.info. Platform chinovniki.info is a database that has two main functions: a) it is an actual database where information about violations of the rights by particular state official is indicated and supported by relevant official documents and b) an education tool, where individuals can see how to write a bill of complaint/petition to sue and which official body to address them.
One of the observations we made during our work was that there was a number of individual women who acted as human rights defenders; they, more often than men, tended to work as individuals or collaborating in really small groups of friends without forming strong ties with human rights organisations. We offered them to co-operate with “Our House” rather than become its activists to strengthen their work without pressure of changing the format of activism they felt more comfortable with. A set of principles of such co-operation and expectations from both sides were composed together and constituted a Memorandum of Understanding.
- Presence: being there… literary
One of the most important and most often requested types of support is an escort in courts and mediation in communication with different state bodies. An individual is always weaker than a state institution; a person with even a little bit of power, given by his/her position in the state system, has more access to administrative resources and often feels entitled to make life-changing decisions regarding other people. Moreover, there is a serious increase in provocations by the state officials and in instances of police taking sides of the civil servants even when called by a citizen whose rights were violated. In this system a lay person often feels insecure, if not intimidated.
On top of this, interactions with the state representatives regarding disagreement on the lawfulness of some actions are emotionally charged and stressful. Someone who can stay out of the emotional turmoil of own distress may be an invaluable mediator in settling the conflict and make the sides hear each other and negotiate.
Having an escort of other human rights activists, friends, and supporters is also instrumental to prove there was no breach of law by the human rights activist if the conflict escalates and the law-enforcers are called in. In general, people feel more empowered to stand their ground and make their claim if they feel they are not alone – both physically in the court room or in the office of a civil servant and metaphorically in terms of moral support.
- Network building
Thus, following the ideas of support and co-operation, another powerful strategy was organising and developing peer-to-peer support groups and networks for women’s rights. Most of the times when women were gathered together in some facilitated manner they came up with various campaigns and activities on their own, forming new peer-to-peer groups and coalitions. Only in 2017 several groups were formed and started to work; they are animal rights activists, mothers for the rights of soldiers, women against political abuse of psychiatry – just to name a few.
Importantly, more men joined the cause and became part of these networks, making them stronger and more inclusive.
- International pressure and solidarity
In our experience, attention and expression of solidarity from the international community had one of the most prominent effects on individuals experiencing repression, public officials who perpetuated a violation of rights, and the state in general. People did not feel that they had to struggle alone and it is gave them energy to continue their human rights activism. Representatives felt being in the spotlight and that their actions are not going unnoticed; this pushed them towards more cautious and lawful behaviour. The state was more ready to notice a problem as systematic and work with it.
- Media coverage
Media coverage, similarly to the international attention, functioned as a booster for more transparency, accountability and legality when it came to the work of the public officials. Moreover, making stories of human rights violations public effectively provided a platform for ‘democratic audit’ and ‘popular control’, that is, to make the organisation and leadership consistent with the ideals and purposes of those who are served.
- Psychological support/ counselling
Being a human rights activist in Belarus is often a particularly draining experience. Withstanding state pressure, disrespectful treatment, media campaigns ruining reputation, psychological violence, threats to the family members, being called by the head of the state ‘the fifth column’, unjustly arrested, being seen as a bad mother/ woman for interfering with politics and being ‘conflictual’, living in fear of children to be taken away, being placed in mental health units, being in confrontation with the state representatives for years is not only an ordeal; it is a torture. Often women feel left alone; many have internal conflicts between their leadership aspirations and political ambitions and the normative femininity prioritizing motherhood and family over any public involvement. We observed depressions, burn-outs, borderline states, suicidal thoughts and struggles with dealing with own ‘otherness’. This is why in our work we provide counselling and (individual, group, family) psychological support to women. This need comes not from weaknesses, as it is often perceived in the Belarusian society, but from the inner strength of knowing own limits and needs. Although this should be done with particular care and caution: from our experience not all psychologists gender-sensitive, women-positive and non-patriarchal. Moreover, talking from our experience, there is a risk that a particular counsellor might be used by the state for creating additional pressure on a woman or to collect information. We elaborated several strategies to tackle this risk. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you would like to know more about them.
The report is prepared by: Olga Karatch, Evgenia Ivanova