UARU
The Women Behind The Belarus Uprising
20 August, 2020
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Women hold flowers in their hands as they stand outside the Komarovsky market in Minsk, Belarus to protest police violence. August 12, 2020 hromadske

Tens of thousands of people have been taking to the streets since Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in a widely contested election earlier this month. But it’s women that have been at the helm of a campaign to unseat the authoritarian ruler since he forced his opponents out of the race. 

Backstory

A former director at a collective farm, Lukashenko was elected as president in 1994, in what has been widely acknowledged as his only real electoral victory. Since taking power, Belarus has largely remained tethered to its Soviet past. Minsk has remained firm allies with Moscow, although the relationship between Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin is not a smooth one. 

The landlocked nation of 9.5 million has maintained a strong patriarchal ideology, where women are seen as home makers and child bearers. Human rights groups say while women do hold senior positions within the presidential administration, these appointments are often tokenistic. 

Discrimination against women in employment is forbidden by law but exists in the workplace. 

According to World Bank, women are 2.5 times less likely to be given a managerial position than men and are paid significantly less holding the same jobs. 

The Female Trio Who Took On A Dictator 

When Lukashenko launched a crackdown on his political rivals, it sparked an unprecedented backlash, led by three women. Sviatlana Cichanouskaja and Veronika Tsepkalo entered the picture when their husbands were barred from running in the August 9 election. 

Cichanouskaja’s husband was later arrested along with another candidate, banker Viktar Babaryka. His campaign manager Maria Kolesnikova teamed up with the two women to take on ‘Europe’s last dictator’ in an extraordinary campaign that has imbued the country and instilled hope for democratic change. 

Patriarchal attitudes run deep in the former Soviet country but Belarus quickly embraced the trio. Cichanouskaja, who stood as the opposition candidate, has been dubbed the country’s “Joan of Arc”. 

In response to rise of the female opposition, Lukashenko’s regime launched a misogynistic smear campaign against the political activists, which included harassment as well as threats of sexual violence and social services seizing their children. 

Women gather at Komarovsky market in Minsk to protest violence at rallies, August 12, 2020.

In the southeastern city of Gomel, one activist collecting signatures for Cichanouskaja, was brought to a police station and threatened with rape, Amnesty International reported.

Lukashenko famously told a national broadcaster that a woman who was elected president “would collapse, poor thing.” 

But these smear efforts failed to dampen the growing support movement for Cichanouskaja’s leadership bid across the country. 

Cichanouskaja’s election program touched on corruption and Lukashenko’s poor response to the Covid-19 pandemic. But first and foremost it centered around making elections in Belarus free and fair, something the country hasn’t seen in decades. 

Experts say Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994, has rigged his way to nearly all five previous presidential terms. Only this month, the tactic backfired. When the-65-year-old announced that he won 80% of the vote on August 9 - a figure that has been denounced as statistically impossible by observers at home and abroad - protests broke out across the country, demanding that the autocrat relinquish his 26-year-old hold on the nation. 

Detentions, Torture and Defiance

Thousands of people have been detained, beaten and tortured by riot police on the orders of the embattled leader. At least two people have died at the hands of police with hundreds more wounded and dozens missing. 

Women hold flowers in their hands as they stand outside the Komarovsky market in Minsk to protest police violence. August 12, 2020

Cichanouskaja and Tsepkalo have both been forced to flee the country since but support for them has continued to swell on the ground. 

Last week, hundreds of women dressed in white formed living chains in Minsk in protest against riot police violence at the rallies. 

Hromadske was on the ground with them as they stood in long and largely silent lines.  

Among them was Yana, who says she came out for the demonstration because she could no longer sit and watch what was happening on the streets of the city. More than a thousand people had been detained in Belarus the night before.

“I'm here because I care. What’s happening now is hurting me - what’s happening to both men and women. Lawlessness, arbitrariness. We're all coming out here for the same thing. We want people in our country to be respected,” said one woman at the demonstration.

Women gather at Komarovsky market in Minsk to protest violence at rallies. August 12, 2020

"We believe! We can! We will win!" chanted the protesters. Passers-by raised their hands in support, forming the sign for "victory". Hand gestures for victory, a clenched fist and heart shape have become symbolic of the opposition campaign.

Police tried to disperse the rally but their threats were drowned out by the sound of car horns honking in support of the women. The women offered police roses, but the officers pushed the flowers aside. 

Protesters dispersed for a while, breaking the white chain. Some of the women put their hands behind their heads, as people do when they are detained. Catherine was among them. She says she came out today because now was the time for women.

The women put their hands behind their heads at a rally against violence in Minsk, August 12, 2020

“I know that many of my friends were taken to jail,” she said. “I don't know where they are now. Nobody answers. If the men were taken, then we will be with the women here.”

The column of women in white dresses is constantly changing. When one leaves, another comes to take her place.

Valeria, another woman taking part in the rally, says Belarus is a good country that needs a change in government. 

“The country can prosper and we can live a normal life. We don’t have this at the moment, we are deceived and used as slaves,” she says, before also putting her hands behind her head.

Women gather at Komarovsky market in Minsk to protest violence at rallies. August 12, 2020

‘Ready To Lead The Nation’

The protests have largely been leaderless, with Kolesnikova the only one of the three women to remain in Belarus. Over the weekend, she called on police and state workers to join the protests, The Guardian reported. 

Scenes of military personnel and police throwing their uniforms into the trash have flooded social media in recent days. Cichanouskaja’s team have publicly backed those leaving the service, stating they will be able to serve in the “new, free Belarus.” 

From Lithuania, the former teacher announced via video this week that she was ready to lead Belarus. 

“You voted for me and I haven’t forgotten this… We all want out of the endless cycle that’s trapped us for the past 26 years,” she said in the six-minute video.

“I’m ready to take responsibility and act as national leader during this period so the country can calm down and begin a normal rhythm, and so we can release all political prisoners and prepare the legislative framework and necessary conditions to organize new presidential elections — real, fair, and transparent elections that will be accepted unequivocally by the world community.” 

READ MORE: Protests in Belarus Following Presidential “Election”: Photos of Resistance

/With materials from Hromadske. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.