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Third periodic report submitted on 1 July 1993

Political History

Belarus gained independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991.  Unlike in other former Soviet republics, nationhood  and nationalism have not figured prominently in the country’s political life.  Since his inauguration in 1994, the first democratically elected president in country’s history, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, restored the Soviet republican flag and emblem instead of the historical symbols of independence and has pursued reintegration with Russia through the signing of two unification decrees in 1997 and 1998, and the December 1999 treaty to create a political and economic confederation. Following  his June 1998 expulsion of foreign diplomats from their homes in Minsk,  US and Western governments withdrew their staff from Belarus.  Scholars explain this anomaly by historical developments which have worked against the development of a strong national consciousness in this country. [1]   At the same time, the Belarussian leader has strongly opposed democratic and market reforms, as well as the eastward expansion of NATO.  Belarus is the only country in the Central-East Europe which has been refused entry into the Council of Europe. [2]   Suspending the post-Soviet Constitution following an internationally criticized referendum of 27 November 1996, Lukashenka adopted a new constitution which gave him sweeping powers and in effect established the country as a system sliding toward a lawless personal dictatorship. [3]  

The Belarussian population is 78 percent Belarussian, 13 percent Russian, 4.1 percent Polish, 2.9 percent Ukrainian, and 1.1 percent Jewish. [4]   Eighty percent of the population identify themselves as Eastern Orthodox, and the remaining 20 percent practice Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Protestantism or  Islam.  The various ethnic groups have coexisted peacefully except for overt anti-Semitism during the Brezhnev period. [5]

The 1986 Chernobyl Explosion

Belarus is the country most affected by the 26 April 1986 explosion of Nuclear Reactor Number Four in Chernobyl, Ukraine.  Because of the northwestward wind direction at the time of the disaster, an estimated 70 percent of the radioactive smoke and fallout settled along the border with Belarus.  The city of Gomel and the surrounding areas received most of the invisible contamination.  Among the two million people affected by the contamination, [6] pregnant women and children suffered the most from severe radiation-related health problems. [7]

Freedom of Expression and Human Rights

Media, Professional and Academic Freedom

The Lukashenka government has attempted to silence opposition by imposing limits on the independent media, independent professionals including lawyers and academics, opposition political parties and nongovernmental organizations. In March 1998, Lukashenka issued a directive “On Enhancing Counter-Propaganda Activities Towards Opposition Press," forbidding state officials from making any documents available to independent media and banning government advertising in all but state-run outlets.  Several independent media outlets have been harassed, the newspaper Svaboda (Freedom) has been shut down, and the staged trial of ORT (Russian television) staff in Minsk have been prosecuted and given the choice between silence or a two-year prison term. [8]    Academic freedom has been attached by imposing warnings, expulsion, demotion or dismissal on faculty and students who join opposition organizations and otherwise manifest their criticism.  The state education system has been subordinated to the president by his power to directly appoint and dismiss university deans and rectors. [9]

Civil Society and Women’s NGOs

The women’s movement began emerging after Belarus became independent. [10]   As women were the social group most affected by postcommunist economic restructuring, changes in the welfare system and ecological effects of the Chernobyl disaster, the first groups were self-help organizations that focused their activities around “survival strategies.” According to Elena Gapova, the first independent women’s group, The Women’s League, was established in 1990 in the capital of Minsk. [11] Currently, there are several dozen women’s groups, working on issues related to employment rights, participation in decision-making in politics, sharing of housework, and violence against women. [12]

NGOs  have operated under extremely difficult conditions.  In January 1999 Lukashenka promulgated a decree requiring the registration of trade unions and political parties before 1 July 1999.  Belarussian human rights organizations (including women’s groups), trade unions and other organizations claim that the established procedures and regulations for re-registration are actually aimed at liquidating any organizations independent of the regime. [13]


The Belarussian economy has been in a crisis and production has dropped dramatically since independence.  In 1990-1995, industrial output decreased by 41 percent, agricultural production dropped by 26 percent, retail trade went down by 61 percent and employment fell by 14 percent. [14]   The fall 1998 financial crisis in Russia also had a serious impact on Belarus. [15]

In preparing the following report, IWRAW used materials and feedback from professor Elena Gapova based in Minsk, Belarus.  Caryn M. Wilde, student at Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who had worked with women’s groups in Belarus for the past several years provided comments on the draft of this report.




Women in Prisons

Belarus has one of the highest proportions of convicts in the world.  The crime rate for women has grown faster than the crime rate for men: while in general, crime rose 0.9 percent in 1997, the female crime rate increased by 4.2 percent.   Studies [16] of the female prison population in Belarus indicate that more than half (59.4 percent) of women convicted for violent crimes had been victims of domestic violence and only eleven percent have never been affected by domestic violence.  In 81.5 percent of these cases, women’s husbands or lovers were the perpetrators.  Studies suggest that women commit murder and other serious crime in response to long-lasting abuse. Researcher Irina Dunaeva attributes the situation in part to the cultural and traditional stereotypes that tolerate violence as means of regulating gender relations. [17] It is unknown if and what types of rehabilitation programs are available to female inmates, especially those with a history of victimization.

Women prisoners also report abuse from law enforcement officers, including sexual attacks.  Almost seven percent of female inmates — more than the non-inmate population — report sexual abuse. [18]


According to Gapova, as social and political transformation opened a discussion of gender roles and family values that has important implications for women.  Some of the models which are being revived interpret the “Slavic tradition” as the only alternative to Western technological and politicized civilization.  Women have often been portrayed in Belarus by community leaders and the media supportive of the Church as the “savior” of mankind and disseminator of Christian values and humanistic ideas.  These ideas have been accompanied by the call to “bring women back to families.” [19]   In response to declining fertility rates, the Soviet tradition of giving awards to women with five or more children has been revived. [20]   At the same time, attempts to retrain unemployed women have been limited to traditional women’s occupations, such as needlework and sometimes accounting.  According to Gapova, these programs rested on the stereotypical view that women, and not men, would want to acquire skills that would allow them to spend more time with their family. 


Belarus, like other countries of the region, has seen an increase in trafficking of women to work as prostitutes abroad.  The most common destinations are Western European countries, as well as other Eastern European countries (the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria) where the living standards are higher than in Belarus.  In the Belarussian printed media, it is common to find advertisements offering work abroad as models, dancers, or au pair.  Many of the advertisers are umbrellas for traffickers.  Some women who willingly travel abroad for prostitution also find themselves in utterly humiliating situations since, as illegal immigrants, they are forced to work in brothels and find themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy and under complete control by criminal groups. [21]     There exist no official or unofficial statistics on trafficking from Belarus as it is not easy to obtain reliable data.  Trafficked women are reluctant to come forward.  As the trafficking operates in several countries at the same time and women are typically offered “the job” while already abroad, it is difficult to find incriminating evidence in the territory of Belarus.  Therefore,  researchers Snezhana Rogach and Serge Shimukovitch recommend that joint action by all countries involved  (exporting, importing and transit countries) is necessary.  The government planned to set up a special department to deal with the problem of trafficking  of women at the Ministry of Internal Affairs in 1998.  It is unknown if such an agency has been established. [22]


Despite women’s higher educational and professional achievement (women constitute 58.4 percent of the workers with higher education and 65.8 percent of those with specialized secondary education [23] ), they do not play significant roles in decision-making in the political and public sphere.  Although 20-50 percent of the members of political parties are women, their representation in party leadership is disproportionately low, and stands at 2-15 percent. [24]   The cabinet includes only eight percent women and the legislature five percent. [25]  


By the end of the Soviet period, women constituted 50 percent of the labor force.  With the transition to the market economy (short-lived as it was), they have become the chief victims and the first to be laid off.  By 1996, over 60 percent of the unemployed were women. [26]    Despite their higher educational status, according to recent studies, the transitional period has been characterized by the worsening of women’s labor situation and they typically work in occupations below their educational level.   Researchers blame the re-establishment of the patriarchal models for this situation.  Patriarchal stereotypes limit the sphere of women’s activity to the family, and to sectors such as education and health care which receive lower funding from the state and typically enjoy a lower status and salaries.  For instance, women are employed by law enforcement agencies, but they are prohibited from entering the educational establishments of the Ministry of Interior. [27]

The February 1999 official data provided by the Ministry of Statistics and Analysis indicates that women constituted 66.6 percent of the unemployed (70,600 out of 105,900).  At the same time, while women’s employment in the non-production sector (health care, social support, education, housing and communal services) increased by one-half, their employment in the production sectors of the economy decreased from 36.1 percent in 1990 to 31.1 percent in 1996.  The number of women in science and science-related services decreased twofold, while the number of men in these areas has remained the same. Moreover, women have increasingly become predominant in jobs with unsatisfactory working conditions. [28]

Women have been particularly affected by  “intellectual unemployment,” as their share of unemployed has been high especially in the category of people with higher and secondary technical education. [29]   The market encourages well-educated women to reenter employment in different capacities which involves a significant decrease in their social and professional status.   For instance, in 1997, women with post-secondary education have participated in retraining in the following categories: 44.1 percent as bookkeepers, 34 percent as secretaries; and 20.4 percent as sewing machine operators.  Only 1.5 percent of the retrainees were learning other skills. [30]   According to sociological studies of 1997, two-thirds of women who enter the retraining programs used to be engineers, technical workers, scientists and professionals in the arts.  

Private Enrepreneurship

Although women legally can become entrepreneurs on an equal basis with men in Belarus, researcher Galina Sokolova claims that this opportunity is a more theoretical than practical reality for most women. [31]   According to her study, only one-third of respondents (both men and women) indicated that they had savings and resources to invest, and 9.1 percent of men as opposed to 2.7 percent of women actually started commercial activity.  The study indicates that the number of women willing to start their businesses is ten times higher than the number of those who have actually done it.   According to Sokolova, women face both financial and social-psychological obstacles.  Privatization provided few opportunities for women because so few were in the top managerial posts that receive compensation and entrepreneurial opportunity. [32]

Labor Law

Belarussian labor legislation as it relates to women is based on the concept of a woman and her needs as a mother.  The protectionist approach grants privileges to women during pregnancy and maternity; women with three or more children or with a handicapped child, single mothers with two children or more are given one paid day off per month.  The law also establishes criminal liability for refusal to employ a pregnant woman. [33]    Belarussian researcher Irina Kuchvalskaya has argued that this protectionist approach contributes to the deterioration of women’s situation in the labor market, as women’s competitiveness is dropping, and salary levels and working conditions are worsening.  In the market economy, owners of private businesses are unwilling to hire women to whom they have to grant numerous privileges and additional days off. [34]   According to Kuchvalskaya, the government should pursue a policy that would make the creation of jobs for women profitable and beneficial to employers which means legislation that would boost women’s employment and encourage the involvement of both parents in child care. [35]   She specifically advocates the following mechanisms:

·        tax benefits for  enterprises with employees with a limited competitiveness

·        loans on favorable conditions for the establishment of women’s businesses

·        profitable contract  by the state with employers who will make a commitment to hire women who are likely to be disadvantaged in the labor market (that is, women of pre-retirement age, pregnant, handicapped, single women and mothers with many children, women who have been unemployed for an extended period of time, women released from prison)


Effects of the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster

The maternal mortality rate in Belarus is 37 deaths per 100,000 live births. [36] Although government officials minimize the effects of the Chernobyl explosion, local scientists consistently claim that low doses of radiation received by the population on a regular basis have resulted in severe health problems which have continued 13 years after the explosion.  The numbers speak for themselves:  75 percent of  women  in Belarus need Cesarean section births as they are too weak to tolerate a normal delivery.  Only ten percent of mothers have non-radioactive milk. [37]   Children have also been affected:  about ten percent of the children in the Gomel area have leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumors or thyroid cancer; and most of the others suffer from a variety of  effects of radiation, from brittle and slow-growing bones to gum disease and weakened immune systems.  About 900 children die every year of thyroid cancer.  Many children who live in remote villages have been exposed to contaminated food and water since their birth and have not even been diagnosed.  Despite huge health care needs, the government has been consistently slashing funds for Chernobyl-related health services. [38]


For decades abortion has been available on demand and has been the most frequently used means of contraception.  Although abortion is still legal, according to professor Gapova, partly as a response to the falling fertility rates, it increasingly has been under attack from the Russian Orthodox church.  Since 1997 articles written by Russian Orthodox priests opposing abortion, calling it murder and women who decide to use it murderers, started appearing in the press.   The Church has largely defined the issue.  Gapova and other women’s activists have written on the topic, but the church has organized seminars on the topic — such as one in October entitled “Abortion as moral and spiritual issue of contemporary life.  According to Gapova, this campaign already has had a detrimental effect on women’s access to abortion as some women who requested abortion have been turned away in cases when they do not already have children or are under 38. [39]

Family Planning

Recent statistics show that only 23 percent of both men and women use contraception. [40]   According to Gapova, one of the reasons is that contraceptives are either very expensive or of very poor quality. [41]   In addition, abortion is still widely used.  It is estimated that about 44.5 percent (1997) of all pregnancies end in  abortion.  At the same time, according to Gapova, the Church has launched a anti-sex education campaign.


The Constitution of Belarus incorporates the principles of international law and affirms the right to equal protection of rights without any discrimination.  This includes the totality of rights of women. Article 35 contains provisions on equality of men and women in the family and grants women equal opportunity in receiving education and professional training, as well as in socio-political, cultural and other spheres, including equal pay for equal work.  Specifically, Article 32, section II of the Constitution defines gender quality in the following way: “Women are granted opportunities equal with men in education and professional training, in work and promotion in the service (job), in sociopolitical, cultural and other spheres of activity, as well as provision of conditions for protection of their work and health care.”  Professor Irina Kuchvalskaya has argued that the formulation is discriminatory in itself as it regards a man as a model enjoying rights, with women having to “catch up,” instead of affirming the equality of men and women as an overarching principle. [42]  

Criminal Law

The criminal law contains provisions which stipulate certain benefits and privileges for women only: forbidding application of the death penalty and life imprisonment to women, and providing for leniency in sentencing to prison.  However,  imprisoned women are subject to worse conditions than men. For example, in January 1999, correctional institutions for men were overcrowded by an average of 50 percent, while the only women’s prison in Belarus with the capacity of 1,350 persons, held 3,150 convicts (233 percent). [43]



Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Belarus (6 November 1997).  The CRC Committee considered Belarus’ fourth periodic report on 30 October 1997.

No recommendations concerning women were issued by this Committee.

Concluding Observations of  the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Belarus (19 March 1997). The CERD Committee considered Belarus’ fourteenth  periodic report on 6 and 7 March 1997.

No recommendations concerning women were issued by this Committee.

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Concluding Observations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Belarus (6 December 1996). The CESCR Committee considered Belarus’  third periodic report on 21 and 22 November 1996.

Principal Subjects of Concern:

·        The rise in unemployment, particularly in relation to its disproportionate impact on women. It is also concerned at the discrimination against women in appointment to jobs.

Suggestions and Recommendations:

·        Adopt legislation and practical steps to combat discrimination against women in employment.

Concluding Observations of  the Committee on the Rights of the Chile: Belarus. The CRC Committee considered Belarus’ initial report on 25 and 26 January 1994.

Suggestions and Recommendations:

·        Consider becoming a party to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption of 1993 as well as the 1980 Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Adopt the Family and Marriage Law that takes account of the need to undertake appropriate measures to address the serious problems of family breakdown in Belarus.

·        Place stronger emphasis on primary health care activities which would include the development of educational programs to cover such matters as family education, family planning, sex education and the benefits of breast feeding.




[1] Kathleen J. Mihalisko, “Belarus: Retreat to Authoritarianism,” In Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott, eds. Democratic Changes and Authoritarian Reactions in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 243.


[2] Ibid., 224.


[3] Ibid., 223.


[4] Ibid.,  243.


[5] Ibid., 243.


[6] Alice Lagnado, “The Children of Belarus are Paying Heavy Price,” The Times (London), 10 July 1999, Nexis, 19 August 1999.


[7] Darius Sanai , “Belarus: the Angel of Chernobyl,” The Independent (London) , 5 December 1998, 12.


[8] Committee to Protect Journalists, 1998 Country Report:Belarus, available at:  http://www.cpj.org, accessed 7 September 1999.


[9] Human Rights Watch, Republic of Belarus: Violations of Academic Freedom,  vol. 11 No. 7 (D) (July 1999), available at http://www.hrw.org, accessed 8 September 1999.


[10] United Nations Development Programme,  Belarussian Women as Seen Through Era (UNDP, 1997), available at www.un.minsk.by/wid/97, accessed 20 November 1999.


[11] Elena Gapova, “Women’s Movement: From Socialism... Whereto,? Belarus in the World: Politics-Economics-Security  n. 3, vol. 3  (1998): 43.


[12] United Nations Development Programme,  Belarussian Women as Seen Through Era (UNDP, 1997), available at www.un.minsk.by/wid/97, accessed 20 November 1999.


[13] International League for Human Rights, Save Belarussian NGOs, available at: <http://www.ilhr.org>, accessed 3 September 1999.


[14] “Gender Issues in the Belarussian Economy,” on-line, available at www.un.minsk.by/97/rz-1.html, accessed 5 August 1999.


[15] David R. Marples, The Democratic Crisis in Belarus, (unpublished article 1999).


[16] Irina Dunaeva, “Gender Features of Criminality and Victimization in Belarus,” Belarus in the World: Politics-Economics-Security  n. 3, vol. 3  (1998): 53.


[17] Ibid., 54.


[18] Ibid., 53.


[19] Elena Gapova, “Women’s Movement: From Socialism... Whereto,? Belarus in the World: Politics-Economics-Security  n. 3, vol. 3  (1998): 44.


[20] Irina Kuchvalskaya, Belarus in the World: Politics-Economics-Security  n. 3, vol. 3  (1998): 50.


[21] Snezhana Rogach, Serge Shimukovitch, Belarus in the World: Politics-Economics-Security  n. 3, vol. 3  (1998): 57.


[22] Ibid., 57.


[23] United Nations Development Programme,  Belarussian Women as Seen Through Era (UNDP, 1997), available at www.un.minsk.by/wid/97, accessed 20 November 1999.


[24] Ibid.


[25] Naomi Neft and Ann D. Levine, Where Women Stand: An International Report on the Status of Women in 140 Countries (1997-1998) (New York: Random House, 1997), 485.


[26] David R. Marples, The Democratic Crisis in Belarus, (unpublished article 1999).


[27] Irina Kuchvalskaya, “Female Equality in the Legislation of the Republic of Belarus,” Belarus in the World: Politics-Economics-Security  n. 3, vol. 3  (1998): 51.


[28] Galina Sokolova, “The Structure of Employment and Unemployment from the Gender View Point, Belarus in the World: Politics-Economics-Security  n. 3, vol. 3  (1998): 46-47.


[29] Ibid.,  46-47.


[30] Ibid.,  46-47.


[31] Ibid.,  47.


[32] Elena Gapova, “Women’s Movement: From Socialism... Whereto,? Belarus in the World: Politics-Economics-Security  n. 3, vol. 3  (1998): 43.


[33] Irina Kuchvalskaya, “Female Equality in the Legislation of the Republic of Belarus,” Belarus in the World: Politics-Economics-Security  n. 3, vol. 3  (1998): 50-51.


[34] Ibid., 50-51.


[35] Ibid., 51.


[36] Naomi Neft and Ann D. Levine, 506.


[37] Alice Lagnado, “The Children of Belarus are Paying Heavy Price,” The Times (London), 10 July 1999, Nexis, 19 August 1999.


[38] Darius Sanai , “Belarus: the Angel of Chernobyl,” The Independent (London) , 5 December 1998,\. 12.


[39] E-mail correspondence between Laura Katzive of Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York with Elena Gapova, 12 October 1997.


[40] Naomi Neft and Ann D. Levine, 502.


[41] E-mail correspondence from Elena Gapova to Laura Katzive of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York, 12 October 1997.


[42] Irina Kuchvalskaya, 49.


[43] Ibid., 49.



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