By Pavel Kutsevol and Volya Vysotskaia
They stood in rows, all dressed in red and white — the colors of the independent Belarusian flag, used by the opposition and banned by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. The sight of hundreds of women peacefully marching in protest would become an enduring symbol in Belarus in 2020.
Initially, these women, who spearheaded the largest protest movement in the country’s history, were praised for bravely standing up for freedom and democracy in a country where the regime harshly represses dissent.
Now, almost three years later, they find themselves in a predicament: Pro-democracy activists criticize them for their peaceful approach against a particularly cruel regime, while Lukashenko continues to target them for their role in the protests.
Lukashenko denies targeting women, saying in a 2021 interview that he’s “not at war” with them. We know the opposite to be true: Women who challenge his regime have faced inhumane treatment, intimidation, and torture. Many have been forced to flee the country and are frequently blackmailed with threats toward their families and children.
Like Olga Ritus, who, after attending the 2020 election protests, was detained on her way to work. While being transferred to a local police station, several police officers beat her to the ground. Another officer dragged her by the hair.
Alyona Shcherbinskaya participated in the protests in August 2020 and was placed in the notorious pre-trial detention center, Okrestina, that same month. She recalls women were routinely beaten by the prison guards, kicked in the legs and stomach. After suffering a beating herself, Shcherbinskaya spent a week in hospital with internal abdominal and bladder injuries.
Protester Maria Zaitseva was shot multiple times by the riot police and lost her hearing after a stun grenade exploded next to her. Zaitseva suffered permanent injuries and was transferred to the hospital unconscious, where she spent several days in intensive care. Her photograph became another symbol of the regime’s cruelty.
Since 2020, more than 500 Belarusian women have been arrested on politically motivated grounds.
They’re then placed in a pre-trial detention center, where the women may be subjected to torture. Pavel Rezanovich details such an experience with his 58-year-old mother, who was severely beaten by KGB officers in order to get him to sign confession papers. Rezanovich was a defendant in the so-called “Avtukhovich case” — in which 12 defendants of various backgrounds were tried in a case against businessman and activist Mikalay Avtukhovich, who had been charged with high treason and terrorism.
He could hear his mother’s screams down the corridor and eventually signed the papers. In October 2022, he was sentenced to 19 years in prison for “participation in a criminal organization” and “an act of terrorism.” His mother, Liubou, was sentenced to 15 years.
Women are often placed in overcrowded prison cells, often without adequate access to food, water, clean air, or medical care. Kseniya Lutskina, a Belarusian journalist sentenced to eight years in prison in late 2022, had two brain tumors removed in 2014 and, while in prison, has reported constant headaches and tremors. Despite her deteriorating health, she hasn’t received any medical treatment.
And more: Women are placed into punishment cells for the smallest infractions, usually provoked by prison guards. Another punishment is sending the women to special work facilities for up to 12 hours a day in unsanitary and hazardous conditions. If a woman refuses work, she could be transferred to a male prison.
Irina Polyanina, a 51-year-old political prisoner, was arrested and sentenced to two years for a comment left on social media. While in the colony, her heart stopped because of overwork and poor work conditions. She was resuscitated, but when freed in November 2022, she returned to an apartment completely destroyed by law enforcement.
Female prisoners often face health complications due to a lack of basic hygiene. They’re forced to sleep on bare iron bunks and concrete floors without any bedding or linen, prevented from showering in their first week behind bars and then only once a week, with 10 women given only 15 minutes. They’re not provided with basic hygiene items, sanitary pads, and toilet paper.
The system is designed to break a person’s spirit.
Women behind bars also face psychological and emotional pressures too, prohibited from receiving letters, talking with relatives and loved ones, and meeting lawyers regularly.
Olga Gorbunova provided legal and psychological support to women who suffered from domestic violence and, in late 2021, was arrested and charged with the “organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order or active participation in them.” While behind bars, the prison administration routinely prevented her from receiving letters from her relatives but allowed letters from a man who threatened to kill her 14-year-old daughter.
Many detainees, especially younger ones, report having panic attacks from the psychological pressure, resulting in a strong physical response such as suffocation, vomiting, and loss of consciousness.
Sofia Sapega, a Russian national, was arrested along with her boyfriend, Roman Protasevich, an opposition journalist whose flight was grounded by the Belarusian government in May 2021. She is constantly barred from meeting with her relatives, with prison administration planting forbidden objects and accusing her of violating prison rules.
Some people can be deprived of visits from relatives and loved ones for years in Belarusian prisons.
When women leave prisons, their nightmares don’t end. Many reach out to psychologists and relatives for emotional help but are instead blamed for their arrests or mistreatment in prison. The line of argument that’s pervasive in Belarus is, essentially: “Well, what were you thinking giving that interview?” Its only purpose is to make women feel more isolated and confined. Female political prisoners are also often referred to as “zechka” — a derogatory term used to describe women who have gone through prison.
In the last three years, Lukashenko has destroyed virtually every organization or initiative helping women. So Politvyazynka, a Poland-based group, has stepped in, shining a light on the struggles women who leave prisons face, saying they’re often traumatized and closed off socially, having become inherently more suspicious and distrustful.
Outside of prison, women who speak against Lukashenko are blackmailed by authorities with the custody of their children.
In late 2020, at the peak of the demonstrations, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Belarus made a public statement, saying it would remove children from families involved in anti-government activities — and the regime quickly delivered on the promise. In March 2022, authorities took the property of Viktoryia Onakhava-Zhurauliova as “compensation for damage caused by a crime.” They revoked her right to adopt children as well — Viktoryia has 13 children, nine of whom are adopted. Her crime? She left a comment critical of Lukashenko on social media.
These are grave and systematic human rights abuses intentionally perpetrated by a criminal regime. The international democratic community must do more to support Belarusian women and hold perpetrators to account.
Pavel Kutsevol is a Policy Officer at HRF, covering Eastern Europe and former Soviet Republics. Volya Vysotskaia is an HRF Freedom Fellow from Belarus.