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 for 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
“To be beaten by a belt, is good for children”, said Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus in October 2018, when he stood in front of journalists, admitting to having beaten his own children.
Many things have changed little or not at all in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union. One of the things that has not changed is the view of women’s place in society. Then, as now, a woman belongs first and foremost in the kitchen. She gives birth to children, goes to church and takes care of the family, but it is the man who is in charge. She may work as a teacher, nurse or doctor, but has few opinions of her own. The worst, however, is that she is expected to endure violence.
That is something Galina Ustinova has dedicated her life to change.
Dissidents standing up to the regime
Galina has been working from 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 much hope for change but believed in human rights values and principles of the rule of law.
Galina Ustinova has been one of them.
Improvements of the situation of women in Belarus must begin in the schools
Working as an engineer at the Electronic Machinery Factory, Galina became chairman of the women’s council as early as in the 1980s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, she got involved in the human rights movement and employed by the NGO “Law Initiative”. Fighting for women’s rights became her life’s mission. For many years, Galina was the only representative from Belarus in the organization WAVE, “Women Against Violence Europe” (WAVE) – an international network of NGOs.
The human rights situation in Belarus is among the worst in Europe. When it comes to the conditions for 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 to the authorities. Therefore, civil society actors are in constant danger of persecution and arrest.
The same goes for Galina Ustinova.
Time to shed light on the dark numbers
Galina has for several years been working on a bill to stop gender-based violence in Belarus. She is a member of the working group drafting the bill, which consist of experts and representatives from the government. This working group shows that cooperation between civil society and the authorities is possible, even in an authoritarian regime as Belarus.
However, President Lukashenko’s statements about him using violence against his own children, has put an end to the Ministry of Justice’s work on Galina’s bill.
Others might be frustrated and give up, facing such resistance. But Galina Ustinova continues her work, as the issue requires that she keeps up her courage.
The population of Belarus is 9.5 million. The police receive more than 120,000 reports of gender-based violence annually, according to the Ministry of Interior. Of these, approximately 50,000 receive administrative penalties and around 2,500 a prison sentence. Around 100 persons are killed annually, as a result of domestic violence. Due to these facts, Galina cannot allow herself to be discouraged. These murders account for one third of all serious criminal acts in Belarus.
“The improvements in women’s situation in Belarus must begin in the schools”, says Galina and continues:
“The pupils need to learn the importance of parents respecting each other. We must teach children about their rights, about gender-based violence. Domestic violence is not just a family matter”.
For Galina, the fight for women’s rights is a fight for a better Belarus.
A weak light in the tunnel
Although Lukashenko’s criticism of the bill can ruin all the work she has done over the years, Galina Ustinova is adamant. For decades, the Law Initiative has rescued hundreds of women from abusive marriages. They have rescued several children and forced prosecutors to investigate cases of domestic violence. There is a growing understanding in the Belarusian society for solving these problems and support to measures preventing violence. Galina is no longer alone; her victory is within reach.