ifa: Olga, the protests in Belarus started in summer 2020 as a reaction to the rigged election in your country. What is your impression of the current situation one year after the protests started?
Olga Karatch: Now that a year has passed since the beginning of the protests, we understand that what happened in 2020 was not the end, but only the beginning of our fight for our rights. The situation in Belarus has not stabilized to this moment: people still suffer from repressions, torture, and humiliation. The whole country is under a huge psychological trauma right now.
Unfortunately, the leaders of democratic forces made a lot of mistakes, that allowed Lukashenka to extend his power. We need to acknowledge that we were much closer to our victory in August 2020 than we are today. Nevertheless, we also see that the Belarusian society does not give up.
ifa: Women have not only been in the vanguard of the political opposition but also of the civil resistance. Why have they decided to take a stand?
Karatch: That is an interesting question! One could also ask why they have been asleep for so many years. Three years after Belarus' independence, Lukashenka came to power in 1994 in the first democratic elections ever held. For us, he was like a prince granting us freedom. Until recently, women have been Lukashenka's core electorate because they enjoyed generous social guarantees, such as three years of childcare leave. There was an unwritten social agreement between him and the women in the country, something like 'I'll feed you as long as you remain silent'. But they realised that his so-called social protection was a fraud. Seeing this, they also realised that they don't want this kind of 'prince' anymore, that they have to take control and decide how to have a better life for themselves.
'Women have changed their attitudes'
ifa: What led to the erosion of this social agreement?
Karatch: Women have always been in a kind of sandwich position between taking care of their children and their parents. They are tired of seeing Lukashenka solve the country's economic problems at the expense of their free, invisible labour. What is more, he curtailed some of the previous social guarantees, for example childcare has been reduced to only about 20 per cent of the average salary! Women's values and attitudes have changed, they are fed up with Lukashenka's misogynous political style and are demanding political divorce.
ifa: What are the biggest challenges to women's rights and gender equality in Belarus?
Karatch: There are so many! Domestic violence against women is still a huge problem. In 2018, Lukashenka rejected a draft bill criminalising domestic violence, describing it as nonsense taken from the West. Another challenge is institutionalised discrimination. Women are banned from 181 professions, including working as a lumberjack, blacksmith, miner or international truck driver. Women, especially those who are politically active, risk state violence. When they are detained, they are threatened with sexual assault, torture, or seizure of their children – and too many times they become victims of these crimes. According to Decree No. 18, the state is allowed to remove a child from the family when women 'perform their parental duties improperly'. But the law doesn't state any clear definition of what 'improper' means, which paves the way for the abuse of power.
The system built by Lukashenka is not fair.
ifa: In the aftermath of the protests, do you see a more permanent change in the role and status of women in Belarus?
Karatch: As many male democratic leaders of Belarus were imprisoned in 2020, there was practically no person capable of organizing the protests. So, women came out to mass marches, with a clear understanding that Lukashenka, who is constantly humiliating them and does not respect them, will deal with them sooner or later. A lot of Belarusian women have realised that the system built by Lukashenka is not fair, especially in regard to many social issues like child care, pensions or equal pay. Now the Belarusian society is ready to comprehend the ideas of feminism in a more serious way.
ifa: You founded the NGO 'Our House' in 2005. Its YouTube Channel has become quite popular since the beginning of the presidential campaign in April 2020. What is the reason for its popularity?
Karatch: We do not produce news but videos with topics and information that people are craving, like how to protest peacefully or how to survive persecution, to name a few. We share our experiences and important practical tips. We were also the first to address taboo topics, such as the torture inflicted under Stalin, the repression after World War II, the mass participation of Belarusians in the war in Afghanistan. A new culture of discussion and interest has emerged in Belarus. People want answers!
'We need to support grassroots groups'
ifa: How does 'Our House' empower civil society, especially women?
Karatch: We do that with numerous advocacy campaigns. In 2012, we launched a campaign called 'Caution, Militia!' to stop police harassment of women. I started it after I had been detained because of my political activism. I faced physical violence and threats of being raped. We filed a case with the Supreme Court, and the policeman in charge was imprisoned and also lost his job. Then there weren't any cases of harassment, at least of women, registered for nearly seven years. But last year, numbers exploded. Between early August 2020 and the beginning of 2021, about 35,000 people were detained and tortured. Currently, 49 women are recognised as political prisoners, and more than 15,000 women have been prosecuted in administrative cases.
ifa: What needs to be done to further support the civil society of Belarus and their demand for change?
Karatch: It is extremely important to support grassroots groups who work at the intersection of civic activism, politics, and the struggle with misinformation, as well as activists such as YouTube bloggers. YouTube has remained almost the only independent channel not controlled by the regime.
In such a difficult situation it is essential to support the ones who continue their fight inside Belarus, who risk their life and freedom to pass on information about what is really happening in Belarus to bloggers abroad. Smart political analytics are also strongly required. Unfortunately, most expert analytics in Belarus are not independent.
We really do need civic education and programs for activists, so that Belarusians can enrich their education and understanding of what they need to do to make Belarus turn back to democracy.
Interview by Juliane Pfordte