In the woods outside Minsk, Belarus an Olympic training center sprawls among the snow-capped pine trees. Here athletes, including wrestlers from all over Europe, particularly the former Soviet Union, come to train. These young men—mostly they are men though occasionally women wrestlers train there—exercise, practice and then “go live” several times a day. From this center Olympic medalists emerge. Politics can seem as remote as the camp itself.
This past weekend in Minsk, approximately 20 miles away, as many as 10,000 people protested the outcome of Belarus’ presidential elections. Incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, won the election in a process widely criticized by both official outside observers (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe OSCE) and opposition parties. More than 600 people, including journalists, human rights activists and most of the opposition presidential candidates, were attacked and arrested. Among those arrested was Vladimir Neklyaev, writer and former president of Belarusian PEN, who was severely beaten, hospitalized and then taken away from the hospital to an unknown location, since identified as the Belarus State Security Agency (KGB).
Belarus, which is bounded by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and Russia, is itself wrestling between the ideologies and political systems of open democracy and authoritarian rule. Belarus has been called Europe’s last dictatorship.
As a new decade arrives and the twentieth anniversary of the breakup of the Soviet Union is observed, Belarus may be one of the telltales to judge the direction history leans. One hopes it will arrive at fair and open competition. In the Olympics it would certainly be grounds for disqualification if an athlete at any point before or after the competition attacked his or her fellow athletes.
The crowds have left; the reviewing stands, disassembled. The reflecting pool is frozen with sea gulls light-footing across it. Washington, DC has held its grand party. For three days, everyone was on foot, bundled in coats, scarves, gloves and walking everywhere–to the Mall, to the Capitol, to the White House (or as close as one could get), peering over barricades, hundreds of thousands of people.
Most of those who came to town have returned to all the states in the union from which they came. Those from the more than 100 foreign countries here to watch the Inauguration have also returned. As the full working week commenced in Washington, snow flakes were falling; the sky was cloudy, and the Potomac River, crusted with ice at the edges, waited for spring.
But the spirit remained. And the consequences of this global gathering were only beginning. Among those visiting Washington were women from the world’s conflict regions, women engaged in peace building, who were gathered to share experiences and also to study and watch the U.S. electoral process, particularly as it might apply to their circumstances and lives.
At a conference, sponsored by the Initiative for Inclusive Security, women from Afghanistan, Bolivia, Israel, Kashmir, Lebanon, Liberia, Palestine, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uganda and other areas came together for training, exchanging experiences, and working on peace initiatives around the globe. After the main conference, a dozen women met in a side room around a table with tea and coffee and strawberries, women from Uganda, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Iran and the U.S. to consider how to get more women in the electoral process in these countries.
The focus quickly turned to the upcoming July elections in the Sudan, where 25% of the seats have been set aside for women. At the table were Josephine Akulang Abalang from the Southern Sudan and Lina Zedriga Waru Abuku from Northern Uganda. These two women live in neighboring countries and regions, both of which have been devastated by years of conflict, separated by a few hundred miles and bad roads, both regions in a fragile state of peace.
Both women have considered running for office in their countries. However, Lina’s husband, who had been an opposition politician, “disappeared” eight years ago, and her children begged her not to take the same risk so for the moment she will stay out of the electoral process, but she is helping others. A lawyer, she manages the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 Project which seeks to empower women for peace and reconciliation.
“We are not victims; we are the stakeholders,” she says and repeats her mantra, “Nothing about us without us.”
She and the other women around the table focused their experience and contacts on Josephine, who may well embark on an electoral bid. At the height of the civil war in 1992, Josephine fled the Sudan on foot, along with 500 students; she was one of only six females in the group trying to get to Uganda. Instead she was captured by the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army and forced into military training, but eventually was released. She made her way to Kenya, where she was awarded a scholarship in Canada and earned a bachelor’s and then a masters degree in international relations. Currently working for the UN and for the government in the Southern Sudan on disarmament, she is the first from her village to graduate from school and would be the first woman from there to run for office.
She and Lina and the women from Sri Lanka and Iran said the impediments for women to seek election were psychological and systemic. “Women are 60 % of the population in the Southern Sudan, but women lack confidence,” Josephine said. “Women think they need certification to run.”
The women around the table representing civil society and experience in their communities began to strategize on how to get the Sudanese women the training, skills, credentials, and the solidarity of a community behind them to run for office.
There are immense challenges facing the Sudanese 2009 elections—gaps in voter education, logistical support for elections during the July rainy season, special difficulties for free and fair elections in Darfur, where rebel commanders didn’t allow the census and large areas continue to be plagued by armed opposition. Aid offered for election procedures has often been held up by the national government. But there are women starting to organize with the hope that at least on the ballot and then in the meeting rooms and around the tables where decisions are made, women will sit and bring to the issues and problems their voices and ideas.
Back in Washington, the women are seeking support –both financial and technical—for their efforts for gender parity in the Sudanese government and in the peace process. The call will also begin to go out to women around the globe who left the Sudan in the wider diaspora to return and run for office.
There is not much time until July, notes Josephine. But the work has begun.