Belarus | Alexandra Chichikova

“Nothing should be decided without us”

Words: Hanna Liubakova | Images: Maxim Sarychau

Crowned Miss Wheelchair World 2017, Alexandra Chichikova, 26, is an atypical beauty queen in a country in turmoil. She works tirelessly as an inclusion activist, fighting to improve sexual and reproductive health for women with disabilities, and calling for a more open society. 

(Belarusian President) Alexander Lukashenko mocked women and said they are unfit to take up political roles, stating that: a female president “would collapse, poor thing”. What’s your take on this?

I can only say that what a person says is [reflective of] their intelligence and upbringing. 

But Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is spearheading the popular protests to unseat Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, is a woman…

Her opinions on justice, her respect for it, became an essential part of the movement. Her story, the fact that she became popular so quickly, that people voted for her as their president… It breaks stereotypes. It will convince many that women can hold political positions. But I can’t say this is the first time. Women in Belarus have been leading society for years. No wonder they’ve become part of a wider movement of people, who share the same claim: our rights have been violated. 

What rights?

The right to freedom of expression and choosing a political affiliation. The right to have a decent standard of living, access to medical assistance and education. 

The president of Belarus has been in power for 26 years, the same amount of time you’ve been alive. Do you think that it’s thanks to the new generation disagreeing with [Lukashenko’s] politics that the current movement has appeared? 

People started protesting because they’d had enough, because their rights have been violated for years. It’s important for Belarusians to feel they are respected by the state, to feel supported and safe. They haven’t been feeling that. 

You are a social activist yourself. What is the focus of your work at the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund)?

Part of my work is aimed at combatting violence against women and men, but I moslty focus on women’s rights in the field of reproductive and sexual health, as well as women’s rights to plan a family. In Belarus, there’s a huge gap between big cities and regional areas, which are lacking education and access to information. In villages and small towns, women have limited access to specific doctors and types of services, pharmacies and contraceptives. 

What are the main challenges Belarusian women face when it comes to violence? 

First and foremost, women in Belarus don’t have any protections against domestic violence. The myth of “if he beats you, then it means he loves you” is still rampant. Many women don’t make the distinction between different types of domestic violence, like sexual, economic, emotional and physical. It’s crucial to work with both men and women, to inform and explain. These issues are mainly addressed by NGOs with some support from the government. 

“The myth of “if he beats you, then it means he loves you” is still rampant in Belarus”.

One of the most well-known projects you were part of is called “Limitless”. What was its focus?

We delivered gynaecological chairs for maternity wards and worked on educating specialists. One of our goals was to make visits to the gynaecologist comfortable for women with disabilities. But there were broader goals as well. We wanted to make sure that women were in charge of their pregnancies, that they give birth in a free and comfortable way. Let me be clear: Women with disabilities have specific needs when they visit a doctor. For example, it takes them longer to get undressed. It has to be a barrier-free environment. 

Have you ever experienced such challenges yourself?

A few years ago, I visited a gynaecologist who started asking me why I wanted to have children because I’m in a wheelchair. I was 19, so it was like a cold shower for me. Since then, I understood that I wanted to work towards finding equality between men and women; women with and without disabilities. I’ve been supporting UNFPA projects on increasing competences among doctors, because many problems come from a lack of professionalism, as well as a lack of ethics or empathy. I remember that, in a hospital right after my trauma, a doctor told me not to cry “because I won’t be walking anyway”. 

Is Belarusian society more open to discussing the health and reproductive rights of women with disabilities now?

There’s a social stigma. Many people think women in wheelchairs can’t be mothers. I’ve heard people say they believe I’ll give birth to a child with a disability, because I’m in a wheelchair. These stereotypes don’t come from nowhere. Perhaps it comes from their environment. Through my work, I’m trying to show that women with disabilities have the same rights as other women. If a woman wants to give birth, she shouldn’t face difficulties in healthcare or be condemned by society. At the same time, I find it crucial not to accuse and complain, but to explain and show an alternative. I prefer to say what doesn’t suit me and why, or ask for help. 

Since you work in the field of women’s rights in Belarus, do you consider yourself a feminist?

I can’t say I’m a feminist. I’m not part of this movement, but I am working to ensure equal rights for everyone, without making a distinction between men and women. 

What dream do you have for the women of Belarus?

I want every woman to feel worthy, to know her rights by heart and to be confident that those rights will be respected. I want every girl and woman to have access to an education, to know about sexual and reproductive rights, to know about various types of violence, and to receive timely advice and assistance. 

Where does your understanding of equality come from?

For me, equality is a broad concept that relates to all areas of life. Some of my understanding comes from the relationships in my family, who has been a role model for me. My family never treated me differently after my spine injury at 17. It helped me avoid dividing my life into a “before” and an “after”. I stayed the same… My environment changed, but I didn’t. My family encouraged me to go to university, even if my father had to drive me there for some courses. My sisters reassured me right after the trauma by saying that nothing changed, and that we would soon go dancing or drink a coffee. 

What did they learn from you?

I’ve become an example of resilience for them, and shown them how not to limit themselves because of fears or doubts. I showed my parents, my six brothers and sisters, that in order to understand what you like and want to do, you have to try various things. 

Do you have a role model in terms of activism ?

Elena Kasko, the former assistant representative of the UNPF in Belarus. I met her four years ago, and she inspired me to focus on the right to sexual and reproductive health. She’s an example of struggle, constant development and a desire for change. She is such an engine. 

“All of the barriers are in your head.”

But I also want to mention the international “School of Leaders” I attended in Poland when I was 19. Leaders in various fields, from the environment to disabilities, social initiatives, impressed me and inspired me to focus on social work. 

Did you ever face discrimination as a woman and as a woman with a disability?

In Belarus, there are no discrimination laws so it’s not easy to define it. For me, discrimination starts with a building that doesn’t have a ramp, because it discriminates those who can’t use steps. 

I also feel that society is often condescending towards women with disabilities. It’s almost like, “You’re a woman, and on top of that you have a disability, so surely you need help.” I experienced that at university when my professors wanted to make exams easier for me. Before the pandemic, I held a managerial position in the development of mobile games. My wheelchair was never a problem at my last company. 

Is Minsk a convenient city to get around?

My car helps me move around. The urban environment isn’t perfect in Minsk, and I sometimes come across curbs, which makes me more dependent on others. But the most important message I want to convey when I’m invited to seminars or training at schools is: All of the barriers are in your head. If I think that I’ve been mistreated, if I tie everything to the fact that I have a disability, then nothing will change. If I only pay attention to this one thing, I’ll miss a bright part of my life. 

In 2017, you were the first Miss Wheelchair World. Did it change something in your life?

After winning the competition, I was able to more confidently defend my rights. More people heard me.

Was it your motivation to take part in the contest?

Initially, I was hooked by the fact that organisers were looking for women to show that disability is not an obstacle and a wheelchair is not a limitation. It’s not a beauty pageant nor a competition. The contest is organised by two disabled women who want to send a powerful message that disabilities don’t mean you can’t achieve success.

The contest took place in Warsaw, Poland. Where do you prefer to travel: to Belarus’s eastern or western neighbours?

I like travelling in general. In Russia, I like St. Petersburg with its mood of a tsarist Russia, it’s a truly diverse city. In Europe, I enjoy the architecture and cultural heritage, but also the accessibility in big cities and the openness of their residents. Travelling to international conferences is also part of my job as a social activist. 

Do you consider Belarus as a European or post-Soviet country?

I don’t separate Belarus as either a European or post-Soviet country. The country’s history is part of both the European and the Soviet history. Many people still remember being brought up in the Soviet regime.

If you’re older than 25, you’ll most certainly be asked why you don’t have children. But it’s common among older generations. Young people nowadays are focussing on their careers and professional development, so I don’t really see it as a problem. 

Do you consider Belarus to be a women-friendly country? Has it changed in the past years?

In Belarus, a woman has opportunities and she can feel secure, despite many problems that exist, of course. Overall, she has access to education or medicine, though some of these need improvement. I didn’t live during the Soviet times, but what I know from my parents that gender equality might have existed on the surface. Women had the same rights as men when it came to work, for example. But when you took a deeper look, women still had to do all the house chores despite working the same amount as men. Now women and men can at least share their responsibilities at home. 

“Belarus history is part of both the European and the Soviet history.”

Was the #MeToo movement widespread in your social circle?

To be honest, it didn’t affect me. I saw hashtags, but nothing more. At that time, when it became popular, I wasn’t involved in the activities related to women’s rights so closely.

What laws, dreams or ideas could improve women’s lives? With or without disabilities. 

For me, the main document is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is a fundamental document that includes all the principles and laws that I want to be fully observed in our country. Because it talks precisely about rights and opportunities, and that it is unacceptable to have a division between a person with a disability and a person without a disability.

What would you change in Belarus to make it more inclusive?

The social work we’ve been doing has brought colossal changes. Women with disabilities can get information from brochures and websites. It brings change, but it’s work that needs to be done step-by-step. But if you’re asking me to dream, I’d like society to be more open. Openness gives a clearer understanding of what the problem is. When there’s no openness, it gets harder and slower to achieve change. 

What do you hope for your home country?

I hope that everyone will be able to develop the potential they have, use their life as an opportunity to move forward, to live with dignity, and invest in knowledge and growth. Don’t forget that there are different people, and different categories. Remember that nothing, no policy or decision, should be made or accepted without us, without our participation.