Meet 12 change-makers pushing for women’s empowerment

March 5, 2018

From supporting women’s economic empowerment to combating violence and discrimination, these changemakers are working across Europe and Central Asia to bridge gender gaps in legislation and on the ground.

Mihaela Spataru is a Member of Parliament in the Republic of Moldova and one of the founders of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus.

“I don’t believe women are better than men or that men are better than women. There are simply no jobs that a woman cannot do.”

“I’ve been a Member of Parliament for three years. I work on national security, defence and internal affairs, all very traditionally masculine domains.

I am happy to see more and more women getting involved in internal affairs and defence and I would like to see more of them involved in conflict resolution.

We are only 21 women parliamentarians. So we founded the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus to promote gender equality initiatives. The Caucus was instrumental in introducing a 40 percent quota for women on political party lists in national and local elections. But I hope in 10 years, we won’t need a quota anymore. I would like for equality to become business as usual.”

- Mihaela Spataru, Moldova

Guljahon Bobosadykova is the chairperson of the From Equality De-Jure to Equality De-Facto coalition and a well-known gender equality expert in Tajikistan.

“As soon as I finished secondary school, my father wanted to arrange my marriage.

Luckily, my mother insisted that I continue my education. It was her wisdom and courage that allowed me to go to university and eventually become a professor.

Many girls still do not have such support from their families and are not free to choose their path in life

Our coalition of NGOs is working with the UN, the Parliament and the Government to make changes in the national legislation on early marriages and domestic violence. We are also lobbying to increase quotas in higher education for young women from rural areas.

Through our efforts, we were able to raise the age of marital consent from 17 to 18. But this is only the beginning of our journey.”

- Guljahon Bobosadykova, Tajikistan

Armenuhi Kyureghyan is a Member of Parliament in Armenia, advocating to introduce gender quotas at the local level. Photo: Jodi Hilton / UNDP

“If decisions are being made for women and men, then why are women not at the table?

For a country like ours, which relies on human capital, excluding women from politics and wasting their huge potential, is a luxury.

For 20 years, I’ve been a part of the gender equality movement in Armenia. I’ve realized activism is not enough to improve people’s lives. All bright ideas are just theory until you participate in decision-making.

There is a widely spread misconception that politics is not for women, that women do not want to be engaged in politics. Working with many women in the field, I can say with certainty that women want to, can and must change the decision-making culture.”

- Armenuhi Kyureghyan, Armenia

Gulmira Kazakunova is the coordinator of the Central Asia Network of Women with Disabilities.

“A woman living with disabilities is twice discriminated. First, because of her disability. Second, because of her gender.”

“In 2004, there were no organizations in Kyrgyzstan fighting for the rights of women living with disabilities. We were invisible. I knew women who were being subjected to violence at home and had no one to ask for help. Being disabled myself I could feel their pain.

That’s why I founded an NGO to protect the rights of women and girls living with disabilities. We help them overcome their fears and accomplish their goals. Some have launched their own small enterprises.

Witnessing their victories makes me feel that I am on the right path and that I need to continue this journey."

- Gulmira Kazakunova, Kyrgyzstan

Ivan Malisic is project manager at a regional development agency in Montenegro.

“My family raised me to believe that we are all equal. I know how to recognise even the subtlest elements of gender inequality and discrimination and I fight against it every day.

Our society is still deeply patriarchal. In Montenegro, rural women are among the most underprivileged, both economically and socially. They do hard manual labour all their lives, with little pay and appreciation, without pension or social insurance.

I started supporting rural women and their businesses while working on programmes for rural development funded by the European Union. I help them develop business plans and learn the skills they need. I encourage and support them. So far, I have helped more than 200 women become successful entrepreneurs, which I am really proud of.

Men should do much more to achieve gender equality, given that they hold much of the decision-making power.” 

- Ivan Malisic, Montenegro

Lyubov Maksymovych is the head of the Women’s Perspectives Center in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

“It’s estimated that 500,000 Ukrainian women have been trafficked to Western Europe in the 1990s.

We were one of the first NGOs to raise the issue of human trafficking in the country. I will never forget one of our first cases. It was 1999 and a 19-year old girl from eastern Ukraine was brought to our Centre after spending 6 months in sexual slavery in Germany. She was so intimidated, it took us a while to restore her ability to communicate with others.

When I raised human trafficking issues at meetings with the authorities, I was often interrupted. Men yelled at me, arguing that those who go abroad for work, know what they are going for.

But we have never stopped persuading authorities and the media that domestic violence, human trafficking, and women’s absence from decision-making are very important issues. Over the last 15 years we have achieved a lot of progress and it would have not been possible without the voices of the Ukrainian civil society.”

- Lyubov Maksymovych, Ukraine

Saida Yusupova and Elena Selezneva are the founders of a programme teaching coding to young women and girls in Uzbekistan.

“We used every opportunity we had to promote our idea, from social media to birthday parties. But many people still can’t think of women as being IT specialists.”

It was difficult to find mentors for the girls and sponsors who would financially support a programme teaching coding to young women and girls. At one point, we almost quit. 

We see many stereotypes regarding the type of careers women can have. But things are slowly changing. This time last year, we had about 100 girls who wanted to participate. Now we have 250. We are also trying to engage women and girls from different backgrounds and regions of Uzbekistan.

We love it when parents come to watch their daughters learn coding. Or when girls bring their sisters along as well. They learn together and build each other’s confidence. It’s really rewarding to watch your work have such impact.”

- Saida Yusupova and Elena Selezneva, Uzbekistan

Naze Ymeri is a United Nations volunteer working to empower Roma and Egyptian communities in Albania.

“I was in fifth grade when I joined my first non-profit organisation supporting the education of Roma children in Albania. I haven't stopped volunteering and helping people since.”

“Working at the grassroots level, I see how Romani and Egyptian women experience multiple discriminations every day, because of their ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status.

Last year, I assisted around 150 women and girls to gain access to social services, health care and education and learn more about their rights. Since I am a nurse, my skills and knowledge have proved valuable for them when it comes to issues related to nutrition, family planning, pregnancy care, and infectious diseases. Most of them still face many challenges in accessing proper health care.

I believe the wellbeing of women is critical for the development of a society, and I am devoted to make whatever I can to improve their lives.”

- Naze Ymeri, Albania

Nevena Petrušić is the former Commissioner for the Protection of Equality in Serbia and one of the initiators of the country’s Law on Gender Equality.

“As a law professor, I know that there is a big difference between what is written in the legislation and what goes on in practice.

In my faculty, we founded a legal clinic where students, with our supervision, give free legal advice to women who have experienced violence and discrimination. It helps them gain an insight about real life situations and women’s authentic experiences.

As educators, our role is to break the shackles of the patriarchal mindset for younger generations. We have to support them in building a world where men and women have equal opportunities, unbounded by predefined gender roles.

I always tell my students: Don’t curse the darkness, light a candle with your contribution!”

- Nevena Petrušić, Serbia

Ketevan Khidasheli is the 2017 champion of the Kato Mikeladze Prize which acknowledges outstanding achievements in supporting women’s rights in Georgia.

“Ten years ago, I moved from Tbilisi to a small village in one of the poorest regions of Georgia. I was the only person in the village who had computer skills and access to internet.

Together with a group of local activists, we set up a local organization to fight gender-based violence, provide opportunities for women and youth, and advocate for human rights.

This year, after a long two-year struggle with the municipality, we are opening a kindergarten for the small Muslim community living next to our village. This is a great victory for us and for the mothers, who now have more time to focus on their personal development.

It’s not easy to be a woman, especially if you live in rural areas. But I tell all women I meet that they need to go out into the world and see what they can do for others. You can’t make your little home perfect if your big home is in trouble.”

- Ketevan Khidasheli, Georgia

Yuliya Malkova is the founder and CEO of ProWomen, an organization advocating for women’s right in Belarus. Photo: CityDog magazine

“Two years ago, I moved from Ukraine to Belarus. I wanted to start a small business, but I was surprised to find that there wasn’t a community of women business-owners that I could ask for advice. So, I decided to create it myself.

In the beginning, ProWomen was designed as a networking platform to connect women entrepreneurs with each other and engage other women interested in launching a business. But the more we discussed, the more we realized that women who want to start a business face a lot of challenges, from lack of support to discrimination to the double workload.

This motivated us to start advocating for women’s rights and fight social and economic barriers faced by the women in Belarus.

Many people see feminism negatively. They don’t realize that both men and women can benefit from feminism.”

- Yuliya Malkova, Belarus