50.50: Analysis

The feminist movement in Eastern Europe: struggles in a changing landscape

Women’s rights movements in the region have faced challenges ranging from war to the rise of anti-gender activism

Lucy Martirosyan
23 January 2023, 1.44pm

Nina Hälker (left), Gohar Shahnazaryan, Gosia Leszko, Salome Chagelishvili, Olesia Bondar (right) at a FemTalks forum hosted by the Women’s Fund Armenia in Yerevan on 26 October 2022 | Women’s Fund Armenia

The feminist movement in Eastern Europe has radically changed in the past three years, with women’s rights activists having to adapt to war, conflict and the rise of the anti-gender movement.

In response, local women’s funds in Ukraine, Armenia, Poland, Georgia and Germany have been working together to assess the needs of women and girls through Feminist Landscapes – Civil Society Dialogue with All Voices, a project coordinated by filia, a German-based feminist grantmaking group that aims to empower marginalised women’s rights groups. Here’s what they found.

Ukraine: adapting to war

Since 24 February 2022, Russia’s full-scale invasion has transformed the women’s rights movement in Ukraine. Activists have had to switch from focusing on feminist issues to spearheading the collection and distribution of humanitarian aid, evacuating people and creating shelters, recording crimes, and organising medical and psychological support for victims of military aggression.

“Women’s rights [and human rights] organisations are very close to burnout because they work 24/7,” said Olesia Bondar, the executive director of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund (UWF), a feminist charitable foundation in Kyiv.

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For nearly a year, women and girls, inside and outside Ukraine, have been disproportionately affected by the global impacts on food, energy, and finance caused by the Russian invasion. According to the UN, there has also been an increase in gender-based violence both in Ukraine and around the world. The Council of Europe’s secretary general, Marija Pejčinović Burić, released a statement in November condemning rape and other acts of sexual violence committed by Russian combatants against women and children in Ukraine.

“There is a backlash on women’s rights in Ukraine,” Bondar said. “Women’s voices are weaker than they were before February.” Before the war, women were just starting to participate in politics and advocacy. Bondar worries about the next steps for women’s rights organisations that have been working only on humanitarian aid services since the invasion.

Between March and November 2022, the UWF distributed 124 grants totalling 28,029,731 Ukrainian hryvnias (roughly £627,270), according to its website. But some of the funds from big donors come in large amounts over short, two- or three-month periods, which makes it challenging to plan projects in advance.

“It’s important to have a [good] level of support for [2023] when something could happen in other parts of the world, and the attention of [donors] will be on that issue,” Bondar told openDemocracy.

Armenia: trauma, burnout and division

In Armenia, the women’s rights movement is burnt out, traumatised, and deeply divided.

“Women’s rights defenders had already faced a lot of mental health issues [before the war in September 2020],” said Gohar Shahnazaryan, a co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Fund in Armenia (WFA). “But now, it’s worse.”

Harassment by anti-gender demonstrators emboldened by the patriarchal state has only intensified since Covid-19 and the resuming in 2020 of the more than 30-year frozen war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has been blockading the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia since 12 December 2022, restricting aid to 120,000 ethnic Armenians there.

The ongoing conflict has ideologically torn apart the Armenian women’s rights movement, with some feminists calling for women to volunteer for the army, while others condemn the idea and advocate for an anti-militaristic approach. As for the women directly affected by the war – they’re barely keeping their heads above water.

“We have to take into account that some organisations aren’t in a good enough condition to write and submit reports,” said Shahnazaryan. “Women [activists] directly affected by the war weren’t able to [present their findings] because of their psychological situation.”

In addition to carrying out need-based assessments and supporting trauma healing and psychological training, the WFA has developed the habit of carving out 10% in each grant to go to the well-being of the organisation.

“It’s up to them to decide how to spend this money,” Shahnazaryan said. It could be used for medical insurance, team-building activities or retreats.

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“When dealing with burnout, it doesn’t make sense to say, ‘please join this new workshop’,” said Nina Hälker, filia’s programme manager and deputy executive director. “We’re seeing that it’s important to fund safe spaces where people can [gather and collect themselves].”

Addressing burnout and providing communal spaces for activists relies on unrestricted funding – which the WFA lacks.

“If we don't have core support, we can’t provide flexible, unrestricted funding as we want to,” Shahnazaryan said. “$5,000 (£4,120) per year for one organisation is [too little] to develop resilience or a strong voice.”

Countries such as Armenia and Georgia, with fewer mainstream feminist movements, typically rely on short-term, public grants – mainly from the EU – which means there are specific timescales, agendas and requirements to abide by, according to Shahnazaryan.

This has unintentionally resulted in the pigeon-holing of many women’s rights groups in Armenia into two issues: gender-based violence and ‘sex-selective abortion’ – terminating a pregnancy because of the (generally female) sex of the foetus. Armenia ranks 89th out of 146 countries on sex ratio at birth on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. But there are other important feminist topics that need to be covered, too. For example, Shahnazaryan highlighted tackling gender role stereotypes in education and media.

Thanks to the support of the Feminist Landscape project, as well as the flexible funding provided by Prospera, the international network of women's funds, the WFA has been able to extend its support beyond those affected by war to marginalised women, such as those with disabilities, and to LGBTIQ+ people.

“When you want to build a strong movement, there should be unrestricted funding that comes with the understanding that the movement knows best how to spend the money,” Shahnazaryan said.

Poland: going beyond access to ‘legal abortion’

In October 2020, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, which has been accused by Germany’s top judge of being a “puppet” for the far-right government, banned abortions carried out due to foetal anomalies, one of the last remaining legal grounds for the procedure in the country. This provision previously accounted for around 98% of all legal terminations in Poland.

Today, the country has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the EU – pregnant people may legally obtain an abortion only when their life is at risk or the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.

Access to abortion has been the main issue occupying feminist groups ever since. FemFund, a Polish feminist philanthropic group, has been challenging the narrative and going beyond the question of so-called ‘legal’ versus ‘illegal’ abortions.

“You shouldn’t need to justify your decision [to have an abortion],” said Gosia Leszko, a grant coordinator at FemFund. “We need to trust people who are pregnant to make these decisions autonomously, regardless of their reasons.”

Taking abortion pills – mifepristone and misoprostol – is one way to ensure a pregnant person’s autonomy over their own body. Although it’s not illegal for a pregnant person to terminate their own pregnancy in Poland, it is outlawed for doctors, friends, and relatives to ‘help’ – a term that remains ambiguous in the Criminal Code, according to Leszko.

Groups supported by FemFund, such as Abortion Dream Team (ADT) and Abortion Without Borders (AWB), which promote and spread awareness of abortion pills, are currently facing a crackdown by Polish authorities.

For the first time in European history, an activist is being prosecuted for providing abortion pills. Justyna Wydrzyńska, a member of ADT, faces up to three years in prison.

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“The government and police are trying to frighten activists,” said Justyna Frydrych, one of the three founders of FemFund.

But Frydrych and Leszko believe access to abortion care is only one of the many issues faced by women in Poland. It’s the one that garners a lot of media attention – in contrast to many systemic issues, such as economic inequalities, gender-based violence and discrimination against women with disabilities.

“There is a need for a more intersectional approach to the movement,” Frydrych said. “It’s really important to acknowledge that the feminist movement is everywhere – in climate justice and the fight for migrant and refugee rights.”

Georgia: resisting the anti-gender movement

Georgia’s feminist movement has been battling anti-gender media discourses disseminated by ultra-nationalist, far-right groups.

Alt-Info, one of Georgia’s conservative, radically antifeminist TV and media platforms, was officially registered as a political party in 2021, the same year that it encouraged violence against Tbilisi Pride.

Alt-Info and similar groups use antifeminism to strengthen their political positions by diverting public attention from socio-economic conditions, according to a gender analysis report by the Danish Neighbourhood Programme.

The anti-gender movement in Georgia is largely funded by the highly influential Georgian Orthodox Church. One of the main actors is Levan Vasadze, a Russian millionaire and Georgian ultranationalist, who hosted a meeting of the World Congress of Families in Georgia in 2016. This umbrella group is made up of Christian right leaders from the US and Russia, who promote anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ+ policies.

“The resources are asymmetrical,” Chagelishvili said. “The anti-gender movement is well-organised [compared to the feminist movement] because it has resources and concrete strategies.”

The pressure to react and protest on the streets is leading to a feeling of burnout for many Georgian women’s rights activists.

“Sometimes marching and demonstrating doesn’t feel fruitful anymore,” Chagelishvili said, adding that even participating in one demonstration is enough to cause “emotional and psychological trauma” because of the counter-protests and backlash from anti-gender demonstrators.

Chagelishvili is critical of the notion of “an ideal activist out on the field 24/7”. Now, the WFG is fighting to introduce healing practices within the feminist movement in Georgia – not only for individuals but collectively, for the movement as a whole.

“Sometimes there’s this motivation to take care of myself so I remain useful for the [movement],” Chagelishvili said. “But the attempt here is to reshape this [idea] and understand that we deserve self-care because we deserve to have decent living conditions.”

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