Gender Situation in Belarus: State-level imitation and public activism

Uladzislaŭ Ivanoŭ


Gender equality in Belarus was paid little or no attention, since the government was busy finding ways to withstand massive sanctions. Gender programs and civil society development, including its gender segment, were minimized or suspended in conditions of intimidation and large-scale purges. State violence made it impossible to promulgate the five-year National Plan for Gender Equality at the end of 2020. Overall, the government’s actions aimed at preventing domestic violence have done more harm than good.

Unviability of the National Gender Equality Action Plan for 2021–2025

According to official data, in 2021, Belarus put in motion the new National Gender Equality Action Plan for the period of the next five years as part of cooperation with the UN in the field of social and gender development. In particular, the Plan provides for designing an institutional mechanism for gender equality; gender-oriented health care; measures to prevent domestic violence and human trafficking; informational and educational support for gender equality advocacy.1

Official reports and descriptions of the Plan under consideration showed a positive trend in 2021. The article published in Zviazda newspaper on March 4, 2022 created an impression that “gender equality had been achieved, and women were increasingly fulfilling themselves”. The increase in the number of women in the parliament from 30% to 35%, women’s active involvement in the public life through the Belarusian Union of Women, which numbers around 140,000 members, and resolution of the women’s unemployment problem were listed among the achievements.2

However, reports made by Belarusian human rights defenders, journalists and witnesses of violence, as well as by the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus Anaïs Marin provide a completely different picture regarding a decline in women’s role in decision-making; violence and rape during mass protests; the woman’s face of the COVID-19 pandemic; vulnerability of Belarusian women and men to the virus; growth of domestic violence in the context of the pandemic; elimination of organizations and civil society associations engaged in gender equality advocacy, and economic impoverishment of the population, especially women.3

The work with independent experts and local communities is another important step in assessing the effectiveness of state gender policy. The Belarusian authorities stated in the 2021–2025 National Plan their commitment to cooperate with Gender Perspectives and other civil society organizations. However, the office of Gender Perspectives was searched in summer 2021, and the Supreme Court liquidated the organization in the autumn.

The elimination of key independent civil society actors involved in the Gender Equality Plan underscores the largely declarative and simulative policy of the government in many areas, including gender-related ones. The regime demonstrates its lack of understanding or sensitivity to the gender agenda, and that it simply uses this topic to raise funds from the UN and other international organizations without addressing actual problems or pursuing real gender shifts. This is one of the reasons why Belarus is not always included in gender reports and ratings. Or, when being rated with respect to the gender index, Belarus does not provide information on some indicators (for example, statistics on domestic violence, the proportion of women in the top- and middle-level management, etc.).4

Domestic violence at the state level

On December 21, 2021, the Belarusian House of Representatives passed in the first reading the bill on amendments to the laws on offense prevention basics, on weapons, on social services, and on the procedure and conditions for preventive institutionalization on medical and occupational grounds. Officially, the purpose is “to enhance the effectiveness of the prevention of domestic violence and protection from this negative phenomenon.”5

However, the proposed changes only indirectly relate to domestic violence, as they only partially cover the prevention of crime in general. There is still no separate law on domestic violence in Belarus, although some aspects have been worked on for a while. Alexander Lukashenko intervened in the process back in 2018, and stopped all work between the state and civil society, calling the domestic violence issue “nonsense imported from the West.”

On the positive side, the amendments expand the range of persons against whom violence would qualify as domestic violence, as well as prohibit abusers from acquiring weapons. But, in the absence of a separate law to prevent domestic violence, and, especially, amid the elimination of civil society organizations that had been dealing with the matter (La Strada and Gender Perspectives), all these changes remain minor and purely cosmetic. In fact, the year 2021 saw violence against Belarusians, which may be regarded as domestic violence at the state level.

The woman’s face of civil society

Women’s activism during the mass protests and in civil society in general in 2020–2021, especially the escalation of street actions showed women’s dissatisfaction with the narrow public field that the state has long offered to them. The phenomenon of women in white or white-red-white clothes was a reaction to rigged elections, state violence, and the tightly regulated official invitation from the authorities to cooperate, but only in the projects beneficial for the state, especially when international organizations require the engagement of non-state actors.

Today’s protests echo those of the past years, decades, or, according to researcher Nelly Bekus6, of 1989, the year of many unrealized national-democratic aspirations of Belarusians, including those related to gender issues. Although Belarusian protests of the women dressed in white or, more precisely, white-red-white, are a rather new phenomenon for the country and the region. They fit into the global practice of new social gender movements known as movements of solidarity or emotion.7

The main feature of the white-clothed protests of Belarusian women is a combination of national, pro-democratic and gendered messages, which is well illustrated visually: the women’s marches started out white, but quickly became white-red-white. Comments made by participants in the marches also capture not only the gender, but also the nation-wise orientation of the action. Also, under the influence of the change of the regime from dictatorship to junta, the evolution of local women’s protests, which take place exclusively in the capital, became peculiar.

However, the gender dimension of Belarusian protest demonstrates the strengthening of the gender-oriented political grassroots call of the day, i. e. a more radical way in the authoritarian environment, and this call often remained theoretical, and therefore, was simply not understood by many inside the country.

The liquidation of a large part of NGOs in 2021 also comprised a significant gender aspect, since, in fact, many civil society entities (not necessarily focused on gender issues) conducted gender monitoring and pursued gender policy based on gender-specific feedback. Flash-mobs of women dressed in white and the images of Belarusian women in and out of prisons (Nina Baginskaya, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova, Natalia Hersche, Anna Severinets, Julia Chernyavskaya and many others) remained the symbols of protest in 2021.


The general situation in Belarus in 2021 can be described as critical and catastrophic both on the levels of the state and civil society. The 2021–2025 Gender Equality Plan remains purely declarative and unrealizable in conditions of an uncontrollable increase in the regime’s rigidity, international sanctions and the elimination of the majority of civil society institutions. In 2021, Belarus did not carry out any real gender policy. On the contrary, the government responded to international sanctions by destroying its domestic partners and civil society organizations in charge of gender-sensitive matters and expert inputs.

The deterioration of the gender situation in the country manifests itself on the economic and socio-demographic levels, although a precise measurement remains impossible in the absence of reliable data. The crisis in the region and in Belarus in particular has a woman’s face.8 There are no statistics on deaths from COVID-19, including deaths of elderly women. There is also the acute problem of domestic violence,9 which is exacerbated amid general political violence and the absence of legislation on the prevention of violence, and the problem of impoverishment of the population, especially of women, as they are the first to face unemployment, layoffs and unequal pay challenges.

However, there are positive signals in the generally discouraging environment. The comparative perspective of the analysis of women’s white-attired movements in Belarus with similar movements in other authoritarian states (Cuba, Argentina) suggests the continued existence and functioning of Belarusian women’s protests, because, for example, Cuban ladies in white have faced similar brutality, crackdown, arrests and even killings. Some optimism is inspired by the fact that the Cuban women in white achieved the release of hundreds of political dissidents after years of protests.