21 Remarkable Women Who Are Changing Eastern Europe
On International Women’s Day most women in Eastern Europe merely receive some flowers and words of gratitude for the work they have done for the family. We asked 21 journalists in 21 countries to introduce us to a remarkable woman from their country.
von n-ost Border Crossing Journalism
“Kristine Sargsyan is the founder of the TEDxYerevan conferences and she started the TED Talks translation movement in Armenia. When she organized her first event in 2010, the TEDx program was still experimental, but in the past seven years she inspired me and many people in Yerevan and the regions of Armenia to start translating more TED Talks into Armenian and organize TEDx conferences for different communities. In the lastfew years, she also established a program that enables young people from across Armenia to share their ideas with the world and have their voices heard by their communities at large (and some of the problems solved).”
“Larisa Zhigar’s son has been falsely accused for drug distribution and sentenced to eight years in prison. In Belarus it’s easy to become a prisoner for five to twelve years just for owning a gram of marihuana. Zhigar founded an informal union of parents who fight against such harsh drug penalties. Despite the pressure of the authorities and limited access to mass media, she continues to challenge the courts and to suggest progressive solutions against drug abuse among young Belarusians. It’s inspiring to see her working with such an uneasy topic in hard circumstances. With Zhigar’s sense of enthusiasm and ability for advocacy, however, it’s clear that good changes are yet to come.”
Sasha Gubskaja covers cultural, environmental and social topics for 34mag.net, the leading independent online magazine for young Belarusians.
“Renata Radić-Dragić is an investigative reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN) in Sarajevo, where she also worked as the Editor-in-Chief for three years. Her stories helped uncover many wrongdoings in the society, change the laws and demand accountability from public figures, creating a positive and palpable change in Bosnia. She is the recipient of several local and international awards for investigative reporting, but even more importantly, she is a person who fully lives the idea of solidarity: Radić-Dragić gives space to younger women, and she acts as a mentor, both through formal support programs, as well as informally.”
Maida Salkanovic is an author and activist from Bosnia-Herzegovina, involved in several activist projects, mostly focusing on gender equality.
“As a jobless historian in Bulgaria, she emigrated to be a house worker in Greece, where she faced exploitation, grew as a syndical leader, survived an acid attack and was elected as a member of the European Parliament. Kostadinka Kuneva now is a MEP from the GUE party. Her activism may not be widely known at home, where poverty forced her into emigration – just like great number of other women who work abroad for the survival of their families. But by being the voice of domestic workers in Greece and the EU, Kuneva has contributed greatly for defending the rights of the most vulnerable Bulgarians – the migrant workers, who are common victims of discrimination, trafficking and abuse.”
“Sanja Kovačević is a feminist activist, journalist and librarian who has done so much for the Croatian feminist movement and the entire community by putting topics such as violence against women on the political agenda. As a co-founder of the feminist collective fAKTIV, she organized the first Night March for International Women’s Day on March 8th 2016 in Zagreb, the biggest march for women’s rights in Croatia in the last 25 years. She is always ready to step in and help those around her in the most difficult times. Through her courage and modesty, she has inspired me countless times to persevere in our common struggle for a better tomorrow.”
“Matina Katsiveli turned the small Greek island of Leros into a shelter of solidarity and compassion. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis she had been witnessing this horrific tragedy. While the rest of the EU countries aren’t meeting their responsibilities, a woman in this small country on this small island has managed to provide refuge to other women and children fleeing war. By gathering around her a network of simple people, residents of the island, she renovated an old villa and hospital. There, the islanders gave refugee women the chance to feel dignified again. Matina made sure solidarity would prevail and a network of locals from Leros has been restoring our faith in humanity ever since.”
Maria Sidiropoulou is a journalist and TV producer, who worked for SKAI TV, ARTE and VICE and reports on socio-political issues, the financial crisis and refugee crisis.
“Elnura Osmonalieva is undoubtedly the most prominent female director in modern Kyrgyz cinema. She has represented Kyrgyzstan on the international arts scene with her poignant short films and documentaries. Through her visual storytelling she tries to raise awareness of social injustice towards women and young people and promotes the ideas of youth empowerment and importance of education and hard work. Osmonalieva and her husband Tolondu Toichubaev run a network of non-profit secondary schools called Bilimkana, that provides qualitative and innovative education to children in the rural communities of Kyrgyzstan.”
“Aiman Umarova is a fearless and tireless lawyer who managed to put prison guards into prison for raping a female inmate and defended the victim of a gang rape. These women were one of the first in Kazakhstan to publicly speak about sexual attacks. Previously, it was considered a taboo in the Kazakh society, where the blame is usually put on women. Umarova claims herself a feminist and always makes sure that truth will be heard from the prison cells she visits. Sometimes I wonder how she is not afraid of being“loud”, while having small children and family. When I asked her, she said it is very hard and exhausting but she cannot ignore the injustice.”
Aigerim Toleukhanova is a freelance journalist, who mostly works for EurasiaNet.org and The Conway Bulletin. Her main focus is on the political and economic development of Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan.
“Beriana Mustafa’s father was a leading intellectual in Kosovo during the tempestuous 1990s, who became one of the targets of a politically-motivated “cleansing campaign” by those who wanted their power cemented in post-war Kosovo. She has been one of the loudest voices asking to resolve the murder of her father and other intellectuals. This battle has been made even more difficult by the fact that she is a woman in a predominantly patriarchal society. While the topic is extremely controversial and some of the perpetrators are expected to face the courts soon, only few have had the courage to speak up about it in public. Mustafa shows us that there are no sensitive topics that women can’t write about.”
Una Hajdari is a journalist covering Balkan-wide topics mainly for English-language publications. Her main focus in Kosovo have been interethnic tensions and political manipulations.
“Tamara Chergoleishvili and Irma Inashvili are both energetic and charismatic and both run a TV station. They are also polar opposites of each other. One is pro-Western, the other toes the Kremlin line in Georgia. Chergoleishvili is fighting for liberal values, Inashvili is building her political career on defending “family” values and opposing the West. Four months of following their lives and work for Coda’s mini-documentary series “Clash of Narratives”, seeing them side by side, forced me to get out of my echo-chamber and think hard about what matters to people and how important it is to stand up for something you truly believe in. Relevant lessons for our polarised world.”
“Judit Wirth is a legal expert and has been part of the Hungarian women’s movement since the late 1990s. She is working for the advocacy group NANE, which is sustaining a helpline for women and children who are exposed to violence as well as a helpline for rape victims. The organization is also training child-services professionals and teacher, and occasionally judges and the police on the effective handling of cases of domestic violence. Wirth is a mentor to lots of young feminists and brought up two kickass feminist daughters. I have always found the combination of knowledge, unapologetic radicalism, restlessness and humour that she represents very empowering.”
“Katica Janeva was a small town prosecutor from the South of Macedonia and is now the most popular woman in the country. As the Chief of the Special Prosecution she is facing the challenge to prosecute top officials, including the former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. She took the job when there were not many who wanted to take the risks. Her task is to bring justice to Macedonian citizens, who were victimized for decades by kleptocratic leaders and their thefts gangs of acting officials and corporate directors. Having a women do this job in a country that still struggles with strong stereotypes about women is an important sign.”
“The Black Protest was a large action against the complete ban of abortions, including strikes and demonstrations in many Polish cities at the end of 2016. It’s hard to find out who initiated the protest, as many NGOs working for women as well as the political party Razem (Together) were involved in its organization. Anyway, it wouldn’t have worked without thousands of participants, mostly women, filling the streets of Poland. Demonstrations were numerous even in the smallest cities, where the level of civic engagement is very low and where the Catholic Church is the most important organizer of social life. That’s why it was really brave of women to show their non-conservative views publicly.”
Kaja Puto is a journalist, publisher and refugee activist with a focus on Eastern Europe and migration.
“In a country that has a lot to work on gender equality, Maia Sandu ran for the presidency of Moldova against candidates supported by the corrupt Moldovan and Russian governments. She survived the direct misogynist attacks on her personality that happened during the campaign with dignity. Despite the dirty games of her opponents, she managed to unify the entire Moldovan diaspora, hopefulto return to a home led by a trustworthy president. Their wish didn’t come true, but it can happen at the next elections. Maia Sandu is the first politician in a long time that raised hope in Moldovan souls.”
Ana Gherciu is a journalist at Moldova.org.
“Laura Codruța Kövesi is one of the most influential women in Romania today. Regarded as the leader of the anti-corruption fight in Romania, the 43 years old prosecutor holds the chief position of the Anti-Corruption Directorate, generally known as DNA. Before she took over, in 2013, DNA was a rather weak institution, but under her leadership, it scored major successes by putting top officials behind bars, among which former ministers and a former prime minister. Today, DNA is one of the most trusted institutions in the country.”
“I nominate Olga Allenova, a special correspondent for the Kommersant Newspaper. For many years, Olga has been reporting on socially disadvantaged people, children and adults living in mental care facilities, orphanages and other ‘closed’ institutions. She regularly reports on the human rights violations in such institutions, helping to solve particularly difficult issues, but also lobbying for bigger changes at the state level. She also works a lot to promote greater tolerance and acceptance of people with disabilities (including mental disabilities), among the general public in Russia.”
Angelina Davydova, an environmental and climate journalist living in St.Petersburg and Moscow, Russia, regularly reports for Russian and international media.
“When during last years power shift in Serbia’s Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, the public service TV and radio station got under pressure, Sanja Kljajić spoke up about the attacks and showed us how to stand in protection of journalistic and personal integrity. Together with her colleagues, she took the fight out to the streets of Novi Sad, organising protests, from which the civil initiative “Support RTV” arose. As a result, she had to quit her job. She since has become the voice of a generation of young journalists who she supports and guides on how it is still possible to stay professional and to protect public interest and media freedom – in spite of threats, blackmail and pressure.”
“Sevda Karaca was born in 1984 in the agriculturally productive city Adana, as the daughter of textile workers. Due to her social environment she was exposed to women workers’ problems at an early stage of her life. After studying Political Sciences in Ankara she co-founded the TV channel Hayatin Sesi, where she created and hosted the show Ekmek ve Gül (Bread and Rose). It was the first TV show in Turkey to report on the women workers’ movement, on female journalists and artists. Hayatin Sesi was shut down by decree after the coup attempt in 2016, but Ekmek ve Gül still mobilizes and inspires many women. Currently Sevda Karaca is working with a team to turn the show into a website.”
“Soltan Achilova raises her voice in a country that regards women just as an accessory in colorful clothes for a clique of old men surrounding the leader of the nation and his absurd personality cult. The journalist reveals for Azatlyk Radiosy, the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, what should be kept silent in Turkmenistan: long queues for scarce food, pressure on farmers to fulfill the norm. They want her to be silent, so she was arrested several times and attacked again and again. But she tirelessly reports from her home country that is cut off from the outside world, a 67-year-old multimedia reporter, well connected, not fearless, but experienced, and for this very reason an important voice.”
Edda Schlager is a freelance journalist writing about Central Asia.
“In Ukraine people say about Nastya Melnichenko, that she achieved a miracle. Her post on Facebook has helped thousands of women all over the post-Soviet space. In July 2016, she launched the hashtag “I’m not afraid to say.” Under it, thousands of women began to share their stories of rape. The effect was a bombshell: no one expected that so many had survived sexual violence and kept silent about it for years. Two days later, Melnichenko suffered a minor heart attack: it was hard for her to read the stories, which she encouraged the women to write. Now she is creating a program of assistance to women who were raped or subjected to harassment. In March, she will publish a book for adolescents about the famous hashtag.”
“Munojat Yulchieva is an ordinary and modern uzbek woman blessed with a beautiful voice and extraordinary artistic talent on stage. She sings makoms, uzbek traditional songs, which is one of the most difficult genres of vocal art. She was applauded in the best concert halls in France, England, America and Japan, and has become the personification of musical art of Uzbekistan for thousands of people. I am inspired by her work, because she worked hard and achieved worldwide recognition. In Uzbekistan, many artists sing pop songs because it helps to become rich and famous. But Yulchieva is still the same modest and devoted singer of makoms.”
Umida Maniyazova is a freelance journalist writing about Central Asia.