When the role of women in Belarusian society is discussed, the talks are often contentious. While some are convinced that everything is fine with women's rights, others believe that Belarus is only at the start of its journey towards gender equality, and that women are still subject to certain pre-conceptions and expectations regarding their lives and careers.
In this article, we profile several women who are breaking down gender stereotypes and thriving in both their personal lives and their chosen industries, with support from EU-funded projects and programmes.
Alexandra Chichikova on changing perceptions of disability
Alexandra Chichikova became known to the whole country overnight when, in October 2017, she won the Miss Wheelchair World competition. Her case inspired Belarusian society and drew attention to the problems of people with disabilities.
“I decided to participate in the contest spontaneously,” Alexandra recalls. “This is not a beauty contest, as we usually think. This contest is an opportunity to break down stereotypes about girls in wheelchairs. The participants are able to believe in themselves; the contest gives them the strength to develop and understand that they are in no way inferior to girls who are not in wheelchairs.”
When preparing for the competition, Alexandra gathered a strong team around her including “Miss Globe – 2017” Svetlana Kuznetsova, designer Ekaterina Tsikota and others. “When I published a post on Facebook saying that I was in the finals and going to Warsaw, a lot of people started to respond and help.”
The EU-funded MOST project, which is aimed at the expansion of contacts with EU countries, supported the team by funding the trip to Warsaw. This assistance proved invaluable. "I felt that I wasn’t alone and that people around me wanted to help,” Alexandra remembers.
Alexandra has been promoting active lifestyles for people with disabilities since 2016. “After the contest, I get a lot of attention from the media and other organisations. But if you want something changed in your life, then it all depends on you and the direction you are heading in. I try to change my life in a positive way every day."
Margarita Lazarenkova on the development of the creative industries in Belarus
Margarita Lazarenkova is fully engaged in the development of the creative industries in Belarus. She began by establishing the creative space Balki, and now conducts motivational ‘Creative Mornings’ while developing her NGO Creative Belarus.
Creative Belarus was established in response to a growing worldwide trend, with similar organisations appearing in Estonia, Georgia and Scotland. “It is very inspiring for me when I see the results they have achieved in their countries,” Margarita says. “They speak about creative industries at state level there. Ministries of Culture cooperate with Ministries of Economy. Smart youth are engaged in the process, and more of them are staying at home rather than leaving their countries. We would like to do something similar in Belarus."
The EU-Eastern Partnership Culture and Creativity programme that ended in January 2018, supported and promoted creative industries across Europe. Margarita participated in the programme as a local expert within the “Creative cities and regions” part.
“That was crazy cool!” she enthuses. “Especially the experience of working in an international team of experts. I now understand how to convey information about our country in the right way.”
For Margarita, one of the main benefits of the creative industries is the variety. "The first day I can be a designer, the second a copywriter and the third a website developer. Every day of my life I choose a new profession.”
For the first two years my parents kept asking me when I was going to find a job,” she shares. “Now I share articles in the media with them so that they understand what I do.”
Ludmila Antonauskaya on a small company from Belarus competing with international giants
Ludmila Antonauskaya is a perfect example of someone who is defying the stereotype that women and business cannot go together. She runs several companies, is one of the TOP 100 successful businesspeople in Belarus (No. 65 on the list, but she is the first one among women on that list) and has raised two children.
Her main business – a holding company called Polimaster – is among the world leaders in the field of equipment for monitoring and controlling radiation. Its competition includes billion-dollar corporations, but Ludmila’s company is more than holding on its own. The secret of her approach is simple.
“I am motivated by a sense of responsibility and my own willpower,” she says. “I feel responsible for all my employees and I have created working conditions that enable creative self-fulfilment. I love the mission of Polimaster – to improve people’s health and save lives.”
The EU, together with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), has also contributed to the success of Ludmila's company. The company took part in an EU-funded programme that supports small business and through the programme she was able to develop a long-term business plan, as well as attract an additional investment equal to $1.2 million.
“Together with the consultant we developed the company's mission, vision and long-term plan,” Ludmila shares. “This two-year project turned out to be quite rich and complex, but it gave us a sense of purpose and helped us to form a clear vision of our goals.”
The programme also contributed to an increase in both the company’s turnover (15%) and number of employees (50%).
Ludmila believes that if it were not for cultural stereotypes in society, there would be more women in business in Belarus. “Women carry a big social burden. If a woman wants to realise her full potential, she often has to live two lives: one in which she is the preserver of the hearth and a mother, and one where is doing business or creating something.”
“Sooner or later, a lot of women have to choose what they want to focus on,” she adds. “If our culture was closer to countries like Sweden and Norway, then I believe that women would be more self-fulfilled. They have the education and skills!”
Anastasia Yanchevskaya on promoting cycling across the country
Anastasia Yanchevskaya manages the Minsk Cycling Community – the largest and most influential community of cyclists in the country. Now the organisation, along with the Centre for Environmental Solutions, is working on a large project to develop urban cycling in Belarus, funded by the EU.
Thanks to the project, the actions of Anastasia and her colleagues are no longer just restricted to Minsk; they are now working with regional communities too. They organise educational events, camps and conferences. They also help to draft concepts for the development of regional centres for cycling and invite international experts to the country.
“We used to be activists working on our own, but now we have a big team of nine people,” Anastasia says. “We are learning how to establish and manage effective communication and partnerships.”
The scale of the work is larger than Anastasia is used to, but it is also inspiring. “I like that the project has created an informal network of cycling initiatives in Belarus. We have learned that we are not the only people worried about the cycling movement in the country – there are already 50 like-minded people out there. It is very cool to get the feedback and see how people's eyes light up."
As well as encouraging more people to cycle in general, Anastasia is particularly eager to get more Belarusian women in the saddle. “In Belarus today, it is estimated that only 10% of cyclists are women,” she explains. “I think this is an indicator of poor infrastructure. In Western Europe, where standards of safety are higher and the infrastructure stronger, the number of male and female cyclists is almost identical.”
Thanks to the efforts of organisations like the Minsk Cycling Community, the situation is gradually changing: “A couple of years ago it was even worse,” Anastasia concludes. “When I first got on a bike, in Minsk there were 2 women out of 300 cyclists.”
Evgeniya Dubeshhuk on a youth exchange that changes lives
Evgeniya Dubeshhuk works as a translator in a small publishing house and is also the head of one of the oldest youth organisations in the country: Fialta. Fialta has been operating for 23 years, and its main goal is to help young people develop their critical thinking, broaden their horizons and take an active role in society.
An organisation with such experience has a unique atmosphere. “We have generations of people here who do volunteer work for the benefit of shared values,” Evgeniya says. “I am able to consult those people at any time, to ask how it all started and how it was before.
Before becoming the director of Fialta, Evgeniya participated in the European Voluntary Service programme, part of Erasmus+. “This experience made me realise that the little things that may seem insignificant at the time can actually lead to something bigger, something that you did not expect,” she says. “I got to know myself better, especially in critical situations. I was able to make more accurate judgements about myself, and become more effective in terms of relationships with family, friends and colleagues. The experience also helped me to become more tolerant and open to compromise.”
Once her time with the programme had ended, Evgeniya returned to Belarus with a new motivation. This energy contributed to her taking on her new position within Fialta. “I did not expect to be elected as the director,” she says. “It's nice to know that people trust you and believe that you can change the organisation for the better.”