The womanly face of change in Belarus

Alison Cameron got in touch with BEARR recently to offer her services as a volunteer, renewing contacts going back decades.  She has been involved with Belarus for most of that time.

This year is the 30th anniversary of my involvement with Belarus, a link that has weathered storms both political and personal including my life-changing experience of post-traumatic stress disorder – a consequence of my work there.  

Winds of change are blowing in Belarus once again. I will not focus here on protests, arrests and repression but rather, on what I see as a positive in the current period of political upheaval – the change in how women are perceived in Belarusian society, and how they see themselves.  

“The Future of Belarus is Female”: a participant at the women’s march of solidarity with Belarus, which took place in London, October 2020

Thirty years ago, I was struck by how women were beginning to take the lead in finding solutions for their own issues. It was only four years after Chernobyl. They were forming self-help groups such as the Mothers of Children with Cancer and Mothers of Disabled Children. 

The more I got to know the resilient and highly able people of Belarus, the more I became concerned about some well-meaning initiatives that portrayed the people of Belarus as victims of Chernobyl. I had some misgivings regarding the holidays arranged by charities for ‘Children of Chernobyl’ for example. Those with the money and therefore the power, seemed to have the right to make decisions regarding what was best for the recipients, who felt obliged to demonstrate their gratitude and were unable to express any reservations they might have had. 

I am committed to the power of enabling young people to meet across cultural and geographical divides but felt this should be as equals, not as victims.  

Thanks to a chance encounter on a plane in the early 1990s between a haematologist from Aberdeen and the then Chair of the BEARR Trust Lady Gillian (Jill) Braithwaite, I discovered in BEARR a group of like-minded people who shared my belief that the key to the future for the newly independent states of the former USSR lay in unlocking the considerable human capital that existed within the population. I am glad that BEARR has remained engaged with organisations that promote better health and social welfare in Belarus, and has supported pioneering women such as Anna Garchakova, Director of the Belarus Children’s Hospice in Minsk. 

Alison (right) in suffragette garb at the women’s march of solidarity with Belarus,
October 2020

I attended an international women’s conference in Belarus in the early 1990s. It was a joyful, inspiring and uniquely Belarusian experience. They got the idea of holding a women’s conference from us, then they created their own version rather than a carbon copy of ours, with a uniquely Belarusian character.  There is such power in the room when “experts” stand back. 

From my experiences over the decades, I knew women would play a key role in any societal change in Belarus. Some of this has happened almost by default, due to the patriarchal nature of Belarusian society and prevailing assumption that women are unsuited to politics.  

Initially in post-Soviet society, women were generally seen in supporting roles.  Over time, however, this has been changing. Women are increasingly establishing themselves as activists in their own right and are mobilising, not only in political protest, but also around women’s issues such as inequality and domestic violence, and challenging patriarchal stereotypes.  

“All we need is Law”. Participants at the women’s march of solidarity with Belarus in London, October 2020

As for me, thirty years on from my first visit to Belarus, I find myself once again at the centre of change within the country. I am involved with a group of Belarusian women who have combined forces to establish a Belarus Women’s Foundation. We are collecting the stories of those women who have experienced persecution and repression as a consequence of their political views. Some have apologised for their “unremarkable” stories. They have become inured to trauma. They need to be seen and heard. In the short term, they need emergency assistance, and in the longer term, help to build the women’s social movement emerging out of the unrest, develop capacity, and ensure a lasting role for women as key influencers in a new Belarus.  

This movement must be resilient enough to transcend this period of uncertainty. There are uncertain times ahead but out of chaos I firmly believe there comes opportunity.  This is indeed a revolution, a revolution with a female face with “its own colours, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings. Its own words. There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.” (The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexievich 2017) 

I am proud to be part of it. 

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