On November 26-27, 2012 the South Caucasus Regional Office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation (HBF), in cooperation with HBF offices of Poland, Russia and Ukraine, hosted an International Workshop to discuss the various issues concerning gender diversity and to look closer at the manifold angles of gender. Considering the existing political contexts in respective countries, the workshop consisted of the thematic blocks on Women’s Empowerment and Political Participation, Religion and Gender Roles, LGBT Rights and Feminism.
The workshop participants were welcomed by directors of the HBF offices of Georgia, Poland, Russia and Ukraine – Nino Lejava, Kyryl Savin, Jens Siegert and Wolfgang Templin, who have initiated an idea to lounge a regional project – international workshop with an objective to share and exchange experiences and mutual visions regarding gender issues among experts, activists and researchers. The aim of the workshop was to exchange viewpoints, learn about regional context, and find a common ground for future cooperation.
The first two panels of the workshop were dedicated to the activities within HBF gender programs in respective countries, as well as to the analysis of the existing political contexts and challenges in the region. This part of the workshop titled – Gender work at the HBF Offices – Challenges, Visible Results and Approaches, presented HBF projects and activities to the audience by Irina Kosterina (Gender Coordinator, HBF Russia), Agnieszka Grzybek (Gender Politics Coordinator, HBF Poland), Anna Dovgopol (Program Coordinator Gender Democracy/ Women's rights/ LGBT rights, HBF Ukraine), and Khatuna Samnidze (Gender Coordinator, HBF South Caucasus).
Women’s Rights, Empowerment and Political Participation
With her speech on Women, Politics and Quotas: Case of Poland Malgorzata Fuszara, an expert from Poland, lawyer and sociologist described the history of women’s movement in Poland. She focused on the first draft of the bill on quotas and political parties’ cooperation in this regard. The topic – Gender Studies and Gender Sensitive Teaching – triggered hot discussion in the audience. Issues touched upon turned out to be of a mutual concern for counties that share the Soviet past. Questions raised were whether to have gender studies as separate elective course or to incorporate gender sensitive teaching in curriculum of different faculties instead, how to overcome the ingrained prejudice that works against the separate gender courses and lack of interest from the male students, etc. Tata Tsopurashvili, a professor at Illia University, Georgia and Tamar Tskhadadze, head of Master's Program in Gender Studies at Iv. Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University shared their experience and described the challenges in this regard, like the skepticism about courses itself; “ghettoisation” of the gender studies in general due to their not-mainstreamed character; and relation/disconnection between academia and activism in this sphere.
Speaker Ludmila Popkova, who is one of the authors of the first Russian text-book on gender studies and number of articles on these topics, talked about legacy of Soviet gender order and described the patriarchal patterns of women’s public speeches. She also analyzed the ideological discourses of different women’s groups and politicians in contemporary Russia. Tamar Sabedashvili, gender advisor for Georgia from UN Women provided key data about women’s rights and gender equality situation in Georgia since the country gained its independence.
Lesya Pagulich, a researcher and activist of initiative group Feminist Ofenzyva in Ukraine
Religion and Gender Equality
Lesya Pagulich, a researcher and activist of initiative group Feminist Ofenzyva in Ukraine, in her presentation on Protecting Children of Ukraine: Attacks on Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Religious Discourse and National Legislative Initiatives showed examples how orthodox fundamentalist non-governmental and religious organizations have become stronger for the past five years in Ukraine. The topic was continued by Katarzyna Pabijanek, coordinator of ASTRA Network, Poland, who delivered a speech on The Role of the Catholic Church in Abortion Debates after 1989 in Poland. With her presentation she suggested the overview of main events that influenced the debate on abortion and flag out the role of the Catholic Church on the processes that led to restricting women’s access to abortion and other reproductive health services in Poland. Rusudan Gotsiridze, Bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, tried to find the basis for the “gender egalitaranism” both in Old and New Testaments as well as in the Christian Church experiences and to envisage the future prospects. She outlined the gender equality issue as the biggest challenge of the modern Christianity.
Eka Aghdgomelashvili’s from the Women’s Initiative Supporting Group, Georgia analyzed the homophobic attitudes and hate speech in perspective of political cycles in the country. Focusing on the latest statistics she underlined that the existing negative attitude towards LGBT issues have not changed since 2009 in Georgia. Although the interest towards this particular topic rises in the society and it becomes actively discussed, in most of the cases the attitudes still remain negative. Continuing the discussion on the LGBT rights, Tamara Martsenyuk, an associate professor of the National University of "Kyiv-Mohyla Academy," Ukraine, presented her research with the empirical data describing the LGBT families in Ukraine and challenges faced by same-sex couples. Maria Kozlovskaya, a lawyer of the LGBT Organization “Coming-out” in Saint-Petersburg talked about the Use of “Homosexual Propaganda” Laws in Russia. She presented the visual material to show how the “homosexual propaganda” laws are used as a pretext for arbitrary arrests of LGBT activists, which violates their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. As she noted for the time being, homosexual propaganda laws have been passed in 9 regions of Russia. Furthermore, introduction of this law at federal level is being debated in the State Duma of the Russian Federation.
Framing Feminist Activism: Reactions and Expressions was the last discussion topic of the workshop, where Mariam Gagoshashvili (Women’s Fund in Georgia) – a member of the Independent Group of Feminists and “Partisan Girls” talked about self-mobilizing capacities of women and emergence of alternative forms of feminist activism in Georgia. With the short videos and photos she showed the reactions and expressions - methods of feminist struggle by two groups - Independent Group of Feminists and “Partisan Girls”, which is becoming very active in Georgia nowadays. Both groups are decentralized networks of individuals with very diverse backgrounds (students, scholars, NGO activists, artists, public and private sector representatives, etc.) and sexual identities. Both groups utilize radical methods of activism, including artistic expressions and street demonstrations (vs. conventional methods like seminars, trainings, brochures, etc.) and are more reactive rather than proactive responding to diverse set of events/phenomenon with feminist interventions, rather than following a prior elaborated strategy.
Prospects and Future Plans
Despite broadness and diversity of the issues discussed at the workshop, the meeting showed that there are number of problems of mutual concern: Burden of the Soviet past; challenges related to gender studies – how to connect activism with academia; emergence of nationalistic rightist groups against LGBT community; strong church and its’ influence on society; and strong resistance towards women’s rights. Though the range of problems discussed during the two-day workshop was very broad, the outmost interest was dedicated to the role of church.
It is important to underline that the workshop gave opportunity not only to the HBF representatives to meet and learn about their activities and existing political situation in their respective countries, but also gave a chance to the invited guests/experts/activists to share their experiences, talk about possible cooperation and inspire one another by their work and achievements. The HBF representatives expressed their hope to continue such cross regional meetings in future as an arena for establishing new ties as well as strengthening and expanding existing gender networks. One of the ideas that emerged during the discussion was to organize the next event with thematically deeper approach and expanded format on the issue of Religion and Gender Equality which turned out to be the most concerning issue.