This article is a part of the campaign #12 Women on the Barricades, developed by The Norwegian Helsinki Committee in collaboration with illustrator Jenny Jordahl. We present 12 portraits of women standing on the barricades of other women, focusing on the greatest human rights challenges facing women in Europe today – and what needs to be done to overcome them. Read about the 11 other women on www.nhc.no/en/12womenonthebarricades
“A good hit with the belt is good for children,” said Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus in October 2018, when he stood in front of journalists and admitted having beaten his own children.
There is not much change in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union. Among others, it concerns the view of women’s place in society. Then, as now, woman belong first and foremost in the kitchen. She gives birth to a child, goes to church and takes care of the family, but it is the man who decides. She works as a teacher, nurse or doctor, but has not much of own opinion. Perhaps the worst of what she is expected to endure, is violence.
That is something Galina Ustinova has dedicated her life to change.
Dissidents against the regime
Galina has been working under authoritarian regimes all her life. In the Soviet Union, when she was growing up, human rights activists were dissidents. They sensed the authoritarian elements of the Soviet Union and countered the repressive regime. Dissidents fought against the system without any hope for change, but with a belief in human rights values and principles of the rule of law.
Galina Ustinova has been one of them.
Improvements to the situation of women in Belarus must begin in school
As an engineer at the Electronic Machinery Factory, Galina became chairman of the women’s council as early as the 1980s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, she got involved in the human rights movement and joined the NGO Law Initiative, where fighting for women’s rights became her life’s mission. For many years, Galina has been the only representative from Belarus in the organization WAVE, “Women Against Violence Europe” (WAVE) – an international network of NGOs.
The situation in Belarus is among the worst in Europe. When it comes to the conditions for the civil society groups, little has changed since Belarus became an independent country: Independent NGOs cannot register in the country if their activities include any form of criticism or threat for the authorities. Therefore, civil society actors are in constant danger of persecution and arrest.
The same goes for Galina Ustinova as well.
Must decrease the dark numbers
For many years, Galina has been working on a bill to stop gender-based violence in Belarus. She has therefore been a member of the working group, consisting of experts and government representatives. This indicates the possibility for cooperation between civil society and the authorities, even in such an authoritarian regime as the Belarusian one.
However, the President Lukashenko’s statements about him using violence against his own children, has put an end to the Justice Department’s work on the Galina’s bill. Others would give up and be frustrated to face such a resistance.
But not Galina Ustinova. The case requires her to keep up her courage.
There is 9.5 million people, living in Belarus. According to the Ministry of the Interior, the police receive over 120,000 reports of gender-based violence annually, of which approximately 50,000 receive administrative penalties and around 2,500 get sentenced. Around 100 people are killed as a result of domestic violence. All these facts mean that Galina cannot allow herself to be discouraged. The killings account for one third of all serious criminal acts in Belarus.
“Improvements to the situation of women in Belarus must begin in school,” says Galina and continues:
“You have to talk to the pupils about the importance of each other’s respect, we have to remind the children about their rights and tell them about gender-based violence. That it is not just a family matter.”
For Galina, the fight for women’s rights is a fight for a better Belarus.
A gleam in the tunnel
Although Lukashenko’s criticism of the bill can ruin all the work that has been done over the years, Galina Ustinova is a tough nut to crack. For decades, the Law Initiative has helped hundreds of women from abusive marriages. They have rescued several children and forced prosecutors to investigate cases of domestic violence. Belarusian society understands that the problem must be solved and supports the measures to prevent violence. Galina is no longer alone. Her victory is just a matter of time.