Women’s rights not just on Women’s Day

The festive “Women’s Day” is over and the gloomy days of late winter follow one after another, as March in Russia has the same distant relation to real spring as women’s rights have little to do with a strange tradition to give them mimosa flowers and drink for “dear ladies” on the 8th of March.

Not everyone, however, spent this day listening to congratulations and toasts – activists who spoke out for the rights of women in St. Petersburg are now awaiting their trial. They are being accused of going out onto the street, of “listening to and discussing the policy of the federal government in support of the problems of women’s equality in society with the aim of expressing their opinion and forming the opinion of others, violating the established regulations for holding rallies” (the quote is from a police protocol of an administrative offense).

All the 14 persons detained on March 8, 2017 (only one of them was man) are charged with exactly this violation – and it is written in masculine gender in the protocol, a real masterpiece of police thought! To listen to the policy of the state in support of the problems of women’s equality on the International Women’s Day, is, perhaps, really too much. And all the people who assembled on the Nevsky prospect in St.Petersburg on that day should have been captured, dragged into police vans by force, kicked, tossed, driven then for hours through the city streets, kept in custody for the rest of the “festive” day and into the evening and then sent with threatening protocols of offence to courts.

The policy of the Russian federal government in support of “the problems of women’s equality”, alas, indeed exists. Authorities in fact do consider this equality problematic, not recognizing women’s rights to equal opportunities for work and equal pay.

The authorities of the Russian Federation (as before them the authorities of the Soviet Union) prohibit women from working in hundreds of jobs included into the list of “professions dangerous and harmful for women”. Women can’t be miners and sailors, they can’t drive trucks, trains and subway trains, long-haul buses which carry more than 14 passengers, they can’t mount anything at a height, engage in underwater work, even work as carpenters and locksmiths. These prohibitions are explained by concern for the “reproductive function of women”, which allegedly can suffer from such types of work. In fact, it is completely incomprehensible why women are harmed if they mount weight at altitude, while the same is allowed to them at ground level, why work on the deck of a ship is forbidden while many kinds of hard labor are allowed in manufacturing, agriculture, etc. The debate about what harms or does not harm women’s reproductive health itself seems to be the state’s “support for equality problems”, as no one forbids men to work where they like, even if some activities are harmful to them or pose risks for their reproductive capabilities.

Women should enjoy the same rights as men in choosing their work and profession in accordance with their liking and abilities. To effectively achieve this right for all women, campaign all-jobs4all-women was launched. The campaign’s website presents the stories of those who were prevented from pursuing their professional career due to the ban on “harmful occupations” (female seamen, for example) and stories of those who were not prevented from spending their whole life on hard and low-paid work in the mining sector (where women are not accepted for prestigious and better paid jobs of miners, but are allowed to manually re-load tons of coal). These personal stories reveal the unmasked discrimination of women’s rights to work, as well as the hypocrisy of prohibitions that lead only to humiliation and poverty for women.

In early 2017 the Russian Ministry of Labor announced its readiness to reconsider certain restrictions, taking into account technical progress, so as to allow women to work in some of the previously prohibited spheres. We can hope that such a revision will be thorough, and that out of 456 types of work prohibited to women restrictions will be removed not just from 2-3 professions, but from hundreds of interesting, well-paid types of work, which are demanded by women.

Despite the threats of persecution, police protocols for supposed administrative violations, dismissals women need to continue their efforts to defend their rights and criticize the “policy of the federal government”. This is to be done on all days of the year, not just the 8th of March.

Women and girls can do a lot. Saglana Salchak, a 4-year-old girl in Tuva, marched alone for 8 kilometers in the taiga, in freezing cold in order to call for aid for her dying grandmother. The girl did this, but the authorities could not accept this natural act of a child from a distant taiga region. On the very day when Salgana’s peers throughout the country congratulated their mothers and grandmothers with Women’s Day, Salgana’s own mother was prosecuted for having a brave and strong little daughter, who lived in a remote hut deep in the woods with her grandmother (same as her ancestors lived since ancient times).

Whether the authorities accept it or not, women and girls are capable of doing more than they are allowed to. They can also succeed in overcoming “problems of women’s equality in society”.

Stefania Kulayeva

First published in the blog of Radio Liberty

Photo by David Frenkel