Women in Belarus:

from pillar of Lukashenko's regime to fierce opponents

August 2020. Women have come to play a prominent role in the unprecedented wave of protests sweeping across Belarus. We have witnessed the opposition campaign led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, and the large solidarity chains formed by women of all generations on the street to contest the election results.

However, until recently women used to massively support Lukashenko's regime. How come, and what changed? I am sharing with you some answers I found mainly in an interesting article published in Russian language on the Riga-based news platform Meduza on August 15, accompanied with some reflections based on my experience in the so-called post-Soviet region.

Why did women support Lukashenko's regime?


As in other Slavic countries in the region, women are significantly older than men, due to a longer life expectancy. As a rule, this aged group often tended to support the government in place and to hold conservative values.

Under-represented in the private sector

For women it appears to be much more difficult to work in the private sector and to develop their own business. Confronted with gender-based discrimination, women are less trusted to achieve financial targets and have difficulties in getting credits. These limitations, which I would call ‘armoured glass ceiling', may have led women to turn rather to government support. The article unfortunately does not expand on this point.

How does gender discrimination look like in Belarus?

Inequality on the labour market

In addition to challenges faced in the private sector, women experience severe structural salary gaps. They usually obtain less paid positions, and when they get jobs with more responsibilities, they get paid less for the same position as men. My guess is that obstacles to equal opportunities are more engrained in Belarusian society than in neighbouring countries Russia and Ukraine.

Paternalism in politics

Women have claimed more representation and participation in power over the past years. This did not prevent Lukashenko from repeatedly declaring that a woman was not fit for his job. He did not spare scornful words about opposition candidate Tatyana Korotkevich, who won votes (how many is unclear) at the 2015 presidential elections. This summer, the same typical paternalistic tone applied to Svetlana Tikhonovskaya: 'she will collapse, poor thing'.

What made them turn into fierce opponents?

From support for male opposition candidates in prison to a national movement

The opposition in these elections was clearly an ‘uprising inspired and led by women’, as The Guardian aptly put. ‘Our female faces became a signal for all women – and for the men too – that every person should take responsibility’. What started as support to emprisoned male opposition candidates (founder of Hi-Tech park Valery Tsepkalo and blogger Tikhonovsky) and other ones who fled, grew into a national movement for fair new elections.

Safety first

Over the years, at least three episodes prompted women to contest the regime. These show a clear priority put on values related to safety.

First of all, women were very outspoken against the construction of a nuclear power plant by Rosatom, and explicitly favored instead safety by any means. Their fierce reaction has to be understood as Belarus was impacted more dramatically than any other country by the Chernobyl catastrophe, which took place at a few kilometres south of its border with Ukraine.

Secondly, in the last half year, Covid-denier Lukashenko’s disastrous response to the pandemy and open ignoring of safety issues provoked the ire of many, as did his advice to cure the virus with sauna and vodka.

Arguably, the last remains of trust women had in the regime were blown last week when the peaceful protests were repressed with brutal violence.

What has amazed me was that crowds refrained from violence even in the physical absence of one leader leading the protest movement since Tikhanovskaya’s eviction of the country and the forced dismantling of her team. Instead, we saw how effective self-organisation endeavours based on local networks in cities and neighbourhoods have been to conduct largely peaceful, and increasingly large demonstrations.

Women’s rights and issues old and new

However, I would like to add that the women-initiated movement did not come out of the blue. In the last years, there were about thirty registered Belarusian civil society organisations devoted to women’s rights and women issues. Complementing them, recent initiatives have appeared to address gender discrimination, domestic violence and other issues directly impacting on women in new ways. One of them is the solidarity chains of women dressed in white or holding flowers and white balloons as a sign of peaceful protest against the official election results.


How will female leadership look like in the post-Lukashenko era? In the coming transition period, Nobel-prize winning Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich will unlikely want to contribute with an intellectually and politically leading role inspired for instance by Vaclav Havel, as the Russian platform Ekho Moskvy suggested. But why take a male role model, you might wisely ask. To my knowledge, female politicians who might be inspiring figures in the region do not abound, and Yulia Timoshenko, business woman and former prime minister of neighbouring Ukraine, hardly qualifies for this role. If we look wider, Jacinda Ardern surely does. However, dismantling Lukashenko’s neo-Soviet legacy has context-specific challenges. It will be up to Belarusian women to craft their own roles as to keep the country’s population involved, redraw together with men fair decision-making processes and push forward policies, on gender equality in particular.

Hopefully we will witness and support the rise of a diversity of female voices and leadership styles. The most prominent figures so far have been Svetlana Tikhonovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, who have relentlessly called for action, solidarity and non-violence. While I am typing these concluding words, in a latest message on Youtube, Svetlana Tikhonovskaya, displaying calm and regained determination, has announced her readiness to act as a national leader.

Galvanising citizens: a historic breakthrough

In my past work to support democratisation processes in the region, I have experienced Belarusian civil society professionals as very dedicated and at the same time understandably cautious to operate within a highly repressive environment. Belarus was also facing since decades a huge problem of galvanising its citizens into engaging for change. This is precisely what women have achieved with these presidential elections. Initiating and conducting in solidarity with the male population through new forms of mobilisation has led to a historic breakthrough. As Lukashenko’s regime is gradually toppling down under the nation-wide protest, we wish women in Belarusian politics to pursue their courageous march to firmly establish their position at the decision-making table!

Image credits:

Julia Khvoshch – picture Minsk protests August 2020

Svetlana Turchenik – picture Minsk pre-election meeting July 2020

Altona Zhitnaya – artwork Long live Belarus

Leave a reaction