Interview with Regina Kiriutina, ECSN BRICSAM Russia and GCAP Russia Coordinator

Regina Kiriutina is a program officer for GCAP Russia and a coordinator for the ECSN BRICSAM Program in the Russian Federation. She is a gender equality advocate and recently attended the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Antalya, Turkey and a workshop on engaging with the G20 in Beijing China hosted by CSN BRICSAM partner, the Social Research Institute.

You have attended a number of notable conferences recently, including the Civil BRICS in Moscow and the C20 in Istanbul.  What’s it like engaging in inequality-related advocacy in the Russian Federation? What do you think some of the unique challenges or similarities are in comparison to the other BRICSAM countries?

The concept of inequality could hardly be called new as it has been very thoroughly researched by academics from all over the world for decades. The decision makers and politicians, unlike academics, put their minds to things only when they become very real, very tangible. Russian decision makers are mostly concerned about economic inequality and largely in cases strictly regarding the ongoing deep economic crisis inside the country. Gender inequality is mainly perceived as a Western agenda in Russia and therefore is marginal. The majority of the decision makers do not believe in discrimination of women at work, in families and in society in general. Legislative procedures are not helping women to prove wrong those in positions of power. This denial of the issue definitely makes it harder for advocacy.

I believe that Russia’s unique gender advocacy challenge is the political environment based on very specific traditional family values, which here are often viewed as opposed to liberal values. It is obvious that opposing family values to liberal values is erroneous, nevertheless liberal is often considered ‘Western’ and ‘Western’ can be regarded as politically unacceptable. The biggest similarity between all BRICSAM countries, in my opinion, is legislation which is not working or simply non-existent. Together with corruption and ideological propaganda this makes a very heavy mix for someone who is trying to advocate for a change.

Russia has been instrumental in creating a civil society space both for the BRICS and the G20. There is an ongoing conversation related to the meaning of these forums in terms of advocacy. Do you see the political climate reflected in C20 outcomes and recommendations to the G20? Are there any chronically underrepresented issues that are more politically challenging to advocate for than others?

In my opinion, the Steering Committee of the Civil20 in Turkey did a tremendous job designing an agenda which would be both relevant to civil society and useful for the G20 governments. Every G20 host brings into its presidential priorities a lot of country-specific matters. Some issues have dominated the political scene during this year’s G20 – like the refugee and Syria crisis, calls to action against international terrorist groups. These causes weren’t abandoned by civil society. As one of the deeply respected international advocacy heavyweights has rightfully noted: “Governments know where the flaws in their policies are. They need solutions.” Gender issues are normally underrepresented at global fora and harder to advocate for, as they were at the C20 not so long ago. 2015 was the first year to introduce the separate Gender Working Group at the Civil20 and the W20 (Woman20) as an independent engagement track. These are all fine efforts to support the dialogue and discussion around these issues; nevertheless, LGBTQ rights are still mainly orphaned on the majority of the agendas of the G20 engagement groups.

One key focus of your work has been gender advocacy. You have been one of the very few Russian participants in the Gender Equality Working Group at the Civil20 in Turkey and the G20 Leader’s Summit. What do you think is unique about the Russian perspective on international gender advocacy?

Russia is in multiple ways a very special case among all the G20 countries when it comes to women’s rights. The Soviet Union has passed along a very elaborate system of motherhood and childhood protection, including long maternity leaves, which could be also used by any member of the family (including working grandparents), who would be taking care of the child until he/she is 3 years old. At the same time the government is legally discriminating against women at work, which is vocally stated in the labour code. Basically it is prohibiting using female labour in so called “hazardous work environments”, which theoretically could be damaging for women’s reproductive systems. There are around 400 jobs which women cannot legally occupy. Technically the government calls it a “positive discrimination”, but quite frankly this is neither logical, nor constitutional.

It is extremely interesting to see all the different stages that G20 countries are at. I believe that Russia could give some great input on maternity leave, but should definitely adopt some of the basic ideas of the mature capitalist economies when it comes to making the labour market better designed for everyone. G20 is an economic entity which in 2014 committed to put 100 million women to work by 2025. I see this goal achievable only if governments figure out the right balance between protecting and respecting the choices half of the citizens make.

You recently attended an event in China partially funded by the ECSN BRICSAM program, staged by partner organization the Social Research Institute and the China Association for NGO Cooperation, on engaging a prospective C20 China event, which is still TBD. China has its own specific cultural climate and set of challenges facing civil society. Do you have any key takeaways and recommendations from this event you feel would be useful to highlight to CSOs regarding China’s G20 chairmanship and potential C20 advocacy?

I would say that my key takeaway from this event is a very uplifting sense of eagerness of Chinese CSOs to get together and work alongside other G20 NGOs. I think it’s very important to spread the message that there is a lot of determination and desire from Chinese NGOs to make the C20 happen in one form or another. In terms of agenda I saw an amazing amount of high quality expertise and activism among the participants, which can become a tremendously good basis for many interesting debates. I am convinced that with a bit of assistance from the other members of Troika (Turkey and Germany this year) Chinese CSOs have all the reasons to become excellent hosts of the next C20. Unfortunately it is hard to forecast the C20 advocacy strategies before we have any more or less clear ideas on how the process will look.

What in your mind have been ECSN BRICSAM’s biggest accomplishments relating to BRICS, G20 and C20 both in terms of advocacy and capacity building?

Of course there are several dimensions from where you can look at the accomplishments of the program. An accomplishment from which all the international civil society fora will continue to benefit from has been bringing the issue of inequality in all its variety to the discussion table of the C20 and CivilBRICS, as well as looking at inequality as a complex challenge for middle to high income countries. Capacity building wise — it would be hard to even start the extremely long list of how significantly the ECSN Program has enriched everyone who has ever worked as a part of it. I myself have definitely benefited from becoming a more confident networker and speaker and have developed a vital self-starter skill.

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