Katya Sliapneva is International Secretary and Leader of a feminist club in IFWEA’s latest affiliate, ABF Belarus. She speaks to us about the organisation, and what circumstances are like in Belarus at the moment:

How/why did you join the organisation – what interested you?

I was a student at a local university and I was completely dissatisfied with the quality of my education there. I could feel that it was numbing me. I was looking for some alternative education resources which were available for somebody who didn’t have a lot of money. And I found ABF. I came there to attend the Philosophy Study Circle and stayed. I have been with ABF for three years already.

Please tell us about ABF Belarus: When was the organisation founded?

It was established in August 2015 in cooperation with the Swedish organisation of popular education ABF Gastrikebygden and several Belarusian youth organisations.

What is your core/main activity of the organisation?

The main activity of our organisation is peoples’ education, the main method of which is Study Circles. This method means that there is no classical hierarchy of a teacher and students. Instead of a teacher, every circle has its leader – his/her duties are to create a favourable atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance, motivating participants to contribute. It means that Study Circles develop the potential of every member. Apart from getting knowledge on the topic of the Study Circle, the members develop their soft skills, speaking skills and organisational skills.

What other activities do you do?

In addition to Study Circles, we also use other methods of non-formal education: we conduct seminars and training, “leadership academies” (a seminar where people are taught the skills of becoming a Study Circle leader), and social campaigns.

We also give free lectures, run discussions, we even run a self-defence course. Apart from that, we launch some local on-demand activities, for example, to clean the very dirty areas of our cities or to distribute posters and leaflets with information about coronavirus.

Our members have also been actively engaged in the protests that have been taking place in Belarus since August: we participate in marches, solidarity chains, we connect people with rights defenders.

Do you operate in different regions – if so, where?

At the moment we have representatives in several regions: Gomel, Grodno, Minsk and Mogilev.

What do you focus on?

We focus on building a civil society with democratic values such as freedom, solidarity, equality of right and opportunities, social justice and tolerance.  In a society where grassroots initiatives are smashed by dictatorship, we are trying to empower people and to give them the necessary skills and self-confidence to express their ideas and to turn them into reality. Through free and voluntary educational activities based on the principles of equality, solidarity, tolerance and social justice, we aim to encourage critical thinking, civic engagement and personal responsibility of youth and adults.

Our main activities are related to human rights as a universal category, as well as to the rights and opportunities of socially vulnerable groups, such as women, LGBTQ+, national minorities, youth, people with disabilities, migrants, students, etc.

Tell us about your Gender Lab?

Gender Lab is a Study Circle, where people analyse different social and media events through ‘Gender Glasses’. It raises the themes of feminism, social inequality, and gender theory. At the circle, we relate theory to personal experience, so that we can better realise how the theoretical ideas impact our reality.

How difficult has it been to operate in Belarus at the moment – please tell us your experiences?

This year has been difficult for us (as it has been for many). First of all, we faced the complete neglect by our government in facing the coronavirus. We needed to help volunteers to make masks for doctors, we needed to spread the information about the dangers of the pandemic, and we also needed to switch to online mode, which wasn’t easy, because we needed to adjust the highly interactive method of a Study Circle, which includes games, discussions and sometimes even physical activity, to online.

In August the second hurdle came: elections in Belarus together with the protests against our President-Dictator, who rigged the elections. Eight of our activists were arrested. We did our best to find information about them, the location of their detention, to get in touch with their families, to find lawyers for them.

With the police brutality, many people are afraid to leave their homes to attend Study Circles. Considering the arrest of the activists, people in the organisation face the fear of also being arrested. In Belarus in order for an organisation to function, it needs to be officially registered. It is not an easy process, which implies proving that you are not a political organisation, you are not dangerous to the regime, etc. You also need to pay fees and spend quite a bit of time on figuring out the questions of bureaucracy. Currently, it has become even more difficult to do so, because the government is more afraid of non-governmental organisations, especially if they are linked with the EU countries.

In general, with civil initiatives being repressed, activists are afraid for their safety.

The absence of the internet for three days also made the function of the organisation more difficult.

The whole situation is tough to go through emotionally. When the police torture people, you can’t think about your work. You can only think about the injustice that is going on.

How do you see joining IFWEA as an affiliate – what do you hope to gain/give?

We hope to get international support in any possible way: from spreading the awareness about our situation among your contacts to simply wiring a supportive message to the Belarussian people.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about ABF Belarus?

ABF for me is hope. Hope and proof at the same time. ABF shows that education in our country can be non-punitive, that it can be high-quality and student-oriented. ABF refutes the myth that Belarusians are very passive, they are afraid of everything and that they can’t show solidarity.

In ABF, you see people who are constantly doing their best for the free life of society. You go there and see that our people can be active and responsible. And most importantly, you make sure that you can also be active and responsible.