What Are Gender Rights and Opportunities in Belarus?

Participants of an educational seminar "Gender Rights and Opportunities", which was held in Minsk by The Swedish Institute, the Association of European Businesses and the Belarusian State University, were presented with alarming public survey results. Even though gender development index data indicator places Belarus on a leadership position among other CIS countries, the existing difference in pay for equal work between men and women is 25%, while every third women experiences physical abuse inflicted by men and every sixth women encounters sexual abuse.

Gender (latin genus 'kind, class') is a social construct that defines a person's behaviour in the society and the way this behaviour is perceived by the person's environment.


What are the issues faced by men and women today, and how is the National Action Plan to Ensure Gender Equality for 2011-2015, which was adopted three years ago, being implemented?

Difference in Pay

According to Iryna Alkhouka, Belarusian expert and Chair of the International public association "Gender Perspectives", despite the provisions of the Article 14 of the existing Labour Code of the Republic of Belarus, which prohibits any discrimination in labour relations, gender inequality in the labour market between men and women is still present. Belarusian women are more likely than men to agree to a low-paying job, and employers are rarely happy when women take maternity leave.

Even though the legal right for equal remuneration for equal work is established, the average salary of a Belarusian woman is currently at 80% of the average salary of a Belarusian man. As a rule, this discrepancy is manifested in the way bonuses are distributed. 

Belarus has an official list of jobs where using women's labour is against the law. This includes jobs associated with hazardous industries, increased physical activity or ones that are dangerous to health. Medical professionals consider these jobs to be hazardous for members of both sexes. As Iryna Alkhouka notes, men do not have any "resistance genes" to, say, hazardous emissions. Often dangerous conditions of labour contribute to shorter life expectancy in men. According to the National Statistics Committee, men on average currently live for 67.1 years, which is 10.5 years less than women. In Iryna Alkhouka’s opinion, society often imposes stereotypical behaviour patterns on men: they are less likely to seek psychological help and share their problems because the prevailing mindset tells them they can’t "be weak", so they are generally much less likely to go to the doctor – or they do so when the disease has already progressed to later stages, which greatly reduces their chances of successful recovery. Belarusian men are statistically 6 times more likely to commit suicide than women.

Unlike men, for many women entering the job market has a direct link to motherhood: married men usually do not get asked by their employers whether they have children. Women are much less financially secure than men, while the number of women employed in Belarusian labour market exceed the number of men: they constitute 54%.

According to Sergey Goncharov, who represents the Belarusian division of British American Tobacco international company, transnational business is more loyal to promoting gender equality initiatives. For example, 38% of senior positions in the Belarusian office of the company are taken by women. Women also constitute 18% of all sales department workers, which is higher than in the company's Russian and Ukrainian offices.

Sergey Goncharov, Head of Human Resources in British American Tobacco Trading Company: The share of women in our company's Belarusian branch is big. What sets Belarus apart from other companies is the representation of women in trade marketing: they work as sales representatives, merchandisers. There are a lot of them. Normally such departments would have less than 10% of women, while in Belarus it is 18%.

This international company actively supports women on maternity leave: financial support together with bonuses can be as high as 75% of their salary. This year, British American Tobacco is also planning to launch their first international coaching program for male and female employees on child care leave. This measure is aimed at ensuring that they maintain their level of qualifications. The company encourages special benefits for working parents and provides finances when a family needs to relocate if one of the spouses is transferred to a foreign or a regional office.

Adopting international experience, several years ago Belarus made a commitment to increase the status of women by ratifying a number of international documents. These include the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which makes achieving gender equality by 2015 a prerequisite for 192 UN Member States. Based on this convention, three years ago Belarusian government adopted a National Action Plan to Ensure Gender Equality for 2011-2015.

Reaching for the target "gender indicators", Belarus has entered the top 27 countries with more prominent women's participation in decision-making. Today 32% of deputies in the Belarusian parliament are female. According to this indicator, Belarus is not far off from such countries as Sweden or Iceland. Women are also well represented in business: they create and manage a quarter of all companies, and 63% of individual entrepreneurs in Belarus are women as well. 

In terms of the Global Gender Gap Index 2014 Belarus is now 32nd out of 142 in economic participation, placed behind Latvia and Moldova. However, does an average Belarusian woman have a truly good standing in her family?

Domestic Violence Issues

Last years Belarus ranked second in the number of divorce cases (with Russia taking the first place), which, according to BSU Professor Ekaterina Antipova who was present at the event, raises some serious concerns about the current "troubling" state of the family institution in Belarus.

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) currently implements international technical assistance projects to prevent domestic violence and achieve gender equality in Belarus. This organisation set up the first Belarusian hotline for victims of domestic violence and is currently lobbying for a separate bill to combat domestic violence, in accordance with the international practice.

According to Olga Lukashkova, Manager of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) projects on domestic violence prevention and ensuring gender equality, last year Belarusian legislation was analysed for gender sensitivity. Experts confirmed that it is gender neutral with no contradictory norms. But there is the question of creating specific mechanisms to ensure men and women have equal opportunities.

Olga Lukashkova, UNFPA Project Manager: As for the legislation on combatting domestic violence, at the moment we do not have a separate law, which is globally considered to be good practice. Mechanisms for interagency cooperation are being developed, and in the future United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is going to support the government’s efforts to develop and adopt such a law.

Interagency cooperation between the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Education and other state structures to combat domestic violence has already begun.

The United Nations Population Fund plans to introduce Belarus to a new component early next year: a special project targeted at men who demonstrate aggression in the family. UNFPA currently supports the establishment of "crisis rooms" for victims of domestic abuse in territorial centers for social services. First projects have already been successfully launched and running in Brest and Kobrin with support from local authorities and the Belarusian Orthodox Church.

Also, earlier this week a Regional Conference on Strengthening National Mechanisms for Protection of Children from Neglect, Violence, Abuse, and Exploitation was organised by the Belarusian government and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). As UNICEF representatives noted, Belarus ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The fact that the government pays attention to these issues gives hope for a general advancement of rights of children and women in the region.

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