Empowering Women in Russia: Activism, Aid, and NGOs
Julie Hemment's engrossing study traces the development encounter through interactions between international foundations and Russian women's groups during a decade of national collapse. Prohibited from organizing independently under state socialism, women's groups became a focus of attention in the mid-1990s for foundations eager to promote participatory democracy, but the version of civil society that has emerged (the "third sector") is far from what Russian activists envisioned and what donor agencies promised. Drawing on ethnographic methods and Participatory Action Research, Hemment tells the story of her introduction to and growing collaboration with members of the group Zhenskii Svet (Women's Light) in the provincial city of Tver'.
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Although the book is not current, but it gives additional perspectives on how the author perceive international aid and donor agencies in promoting women activist in post-socialist Russia. Hemment, a feminist anthropologist who conducted her research in Russia, Tver shared Russia’s experience with regard to women emancipation which was acknowledged since Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 but encountered decline during socialist period. This is to say that women issues are not something new for Russians.
In this book, Hemment also underlined her position to move beyond criticizing international aid to promoting and underlining collaborative and dialogic approach between donors and recipients. In introduction of the book, Hemment highlights several critiques which she referred from other authors over international foundations or donor agencies. Most books were from year 2000 and 2004, which are understandable recalling the increasing so called international assistance which mushroomed in 1998.
The terms Hemment put such as ‘gendered intervention’ and ‘gender mainstreaming’ are also relevant in understanding the way donors’ work in promoting women activism which is in line with promotion of civil society.
Some of the critiques relates to the hastily designed projects of donors which were at odds with local conditions; that women activism was responded differently by local stakeholders in Russia as they were suspicious toward women organizing; not to mention the perceptions that those NGOs receiving grants tend to please donors and their organisations’ sustainability through the period of experimentation, which seemed to benefit women elites than real grassroots who knew real needs of the local women. Another point was that the situation where international assistance to support women were also conducted at the same time with pressure from the US and Western countries, as well as international institutions such as World Bank and IMF to recipients to apply budget constraint policies, thus affecting public spending, which in the end also heavily affecting women.
However, through this book, Hemment shared her changing position to go beyond criticizing international aid to promoting and appreciating collaborative cooperation amongst different actors in promoting women activism in Russia. She acknowledged how women became well organized in undertaking their efforts and more capable in voicing their concerns, not to mention confident in participating in public and global events.
She further argued that ending only on the critiques would take nowhere to support efforts to promote women empowerment. There are dangerous in doing this because it tends to think this effort supported by the donors are irrelevant to women, not to mention tend to highlight anti Western perspectives.
I think Hemment’s reflections in the book is crucial and useful for reader to comprehend how feminists especially from anthropology background perceive international intervention in promoting gender mainstreaming through their activities. On the other hand, the author is being objective through her participatory and in-depth research in Tver in analyzing relations between international donors and the recipients based on the Russian context as well as history.
In other words, Hemment has been able to take not only critical position on this issue but also being objective by acknowledging the roles of donor in improving organizational capacity of women for example in Russia; promoting specialties to address issues related to women, etcetera.
In my opinion, through this book, Hemment seems to convey that international assistance in promoting gender activism is relevant with the needs of women in Russia in contemporary context. Nevertheless, the donors are expected to understand the local context where they work accordingly to make sure that they can understand different responses from the recipients as well as the needs of the beneficiaries and other stakeholders in order to come up with relevant programs.
Participatory Action Research in Tver
Civil Society International Aid and the Riddle of the Third Sector
3 Gender Mainstreaming and the ThirdSectorization of Russian Womens Activism
Setting up a Crisis Center in Tver
5 A Tale of Two Projects