Written by Meg Wright.
“Do you fancy applying for a peer exchange in Russia?” a colleague asked me last year. What an exciting prospect! I’d participated in the ACOSVO Leadership Exchange programme a few years ago and had such a great learning experience that I was delighted to be accepted for this new opportunity.
The purpose was to share learning around financial sustainability and develop ideas for future collaborations. My exchange partner was Ana from St Petersburg Women’s Crisis Centre. I was leading Ross-shire Women’s Aid, so the match was perfect for both organisations.
The first part of our shared journey took place in the Scottish Highlands, where we covered national policy, violence against women partnerships, legal frameworks, resourcing and funding. Ana was amazed at our resources and policy context. She visited the Refuge which offers accommodation for women and their children, and met many of our partners, including funders who gave Ana a flavour of the different dimensions of working with women and children suffering from domestic abuse. I remember being struck by Ana saying that her experience was like “being in a dream”- my visit to Russia helped me to understand exactly what she meant.
Our next stop was Russia, where we spent time in St Petersburg and Moscow. At the Women’s Crisis Centre in St Petersburg I learned of the legal and cultural challenges facing Ana and her colleagues, and was in awe of their ingenuity and tenacity. I learned that in Russia, domestic abuse has been de-criminalised, forcing women to jump countless hurdles to bring a perpetrator to court. Even those who win their hard-fought cases often see the guilty party walking free with only a fine. I asked a Human Rights Lawyer how she finds the motivation to keep working in such challenging circumstances: “I need to keep going,” she told me. In Russia, “getting a woman to complain and make a police report feels like a victory”.
I met with workers in two more organisations: one a feminist space and the other LGBTQI. Both are deemed as “subversive” by the Russian government and have to be careful in promoting their work. The Propaganda Act bans them from raising awareness in ways that we simply take for granted here in the UK: even wearing a rainbow badge in a school breaks the law. In the feminist space I visited, the women are engaged in such dissident activities as feminist book readings and film nights. The last film they watched and discussed was Made in Dagenham, which they found inspirational. My suggestion for their next viewing was Stepford Wives!
It isn’t just women who face the effects of Russian national policy supposedly designed to “protect the family”. One gay man told me he had been attacked and was taking his case to court. Although he knew he would have a better chance of getting his case heard under common assault legislation, he decided to insist that his case should be tried as a hate crime. I felt humbled by his strength in standing up for his own rights and the rights of others. I also visited Men of the 21st Century, a programme for perpetrators to address their anger and aggressive behaviour.
In Moscow I met women from a Crisis Centre, a feminist psychology network and a women’s rights programme. We talked at length about our context in Scotland and they felt I was so lucky to be working with the support of police and government. The office I visited had been raided by the police and afterwards was found to be bugged. The people I met did a lot of their work by telephone and were careful in who they invited to their location.
Understanding the cultural context of my host country was the most challenging learning for me. So much of Russian legislation is focused on “protecting the family unit”, yet in many cases this seems to mean turning a blind eye when families need help or break down. All the organisations I visited were hidden from view, with no branding and nothing to show what they were. Over 300 types of jobs are legally unavailable to women under the guise of protecting their reproductive capabilities. The state sees domestic abuse as a private issue, yet there are state-sponsored lessons on being a good wife and mother.
In Scotland, we take it for granted that domestic abuse has legal consequences: that perpetrators will be punished whilst victims get help and support. In Russia, services battle to be heard and the barriers to simple human treatment often seem insurmountable. I admired the tenacity and bravery of the people I met in getting their messages out and attracting funding from abroad. Some organisations promote their work and messages in very subtle ways, through art and drama. Others are bold, shout loudly and accept the consequences. At times I felt I was in the company of pioneers whose names will be remembered many years from now: inspiring leaders with the courage to keep demanding justice.
Russia was so different to what I’m used to at home, which actually provided a great lesson in “followership”. As a leader in the third sector I am used to… well, leading! It was a refreshing change to be totally guided for a week as others organised my schedule, arranged transport and led the way. Their guidance allowed me to recharge my leadership battery while learning from their management and organisational styles.
It wasn’t all business, and to get myself into the Russian frame of mind, I psyched myself up and had the full Banya treatment. This traditional steam bath involves massaging (or, more accurately, beating) the skin with birch leaves and leaping into freezing cold pools. I was wracked with nerves, but it was an exhilarating and liberating experience. My attempt to go on a boat trip was foiled by the river being frozen solid, but I slipped and slid my way around the Hermitage, the Red Square and down a hill in Gorky Park.
In reflecting on my experience of this peer exchange, it would be all too easy to focus on the outrage that I felt when others are denied their most basic rights. In our roles, Ana and I are both familiar with the damaging impacts of violence and injustice- our societies and daily lives may be very different, but the need for the work we do is just as urgent.
On the one hand, it was frustrating to see Ana and her colleagues fight to make changes without the support of government policy and legal frameworks. The experience really made me appreciate how great an impact is made by aligning legislation, practice and funding. On the other hand, the lack of state backing in Russia has led to grassroots organisations developing great talent and resourcefulness to maximise their impact, which I found inspirational to watch.
Looking back, what impressed me most was everything we had in common with our Russian colleagues. We faced similar challenges, particularly in terms of funding and long-term sustainability. We shared our desire for equality and human rights, and swapped strategies with good humour, generosity and open minds. Ultimately, we all just wanted to make a difference. Taking part in a peer exchange gave us all the opportunity to understand different contexts, and to consider our own positions from a fresh point of view.
My time in Russia was vibrant, complex and unforgettable: I’ll be learning from it for a long time to come.
“In reflecting on my experience of this peer exchange, it would be all too easy to focus on the outrage that I felt when others are denied their most basic rights. In our roles, Ana and I are both familiar with the damaging impacts of violence and injustice- our societies and daily lives may be very different, but the need for the work we do is just as urgent. ”
Our extensive work in peer-to-peer exchanges, including through Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs and SEED EURO-MED, has strengthened our capacity to create productive, lasting partnerships between civil society organisations and social enterprises across Europe.
Our Peer Exchange programme contributes to strengthening democracy by empowering civil society organisations through peer learning and exchanges with counterparts from across Europe
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