Project Kesher Transforms Women's Lives

Author: Janet Elise Johnson, Professor, Brooklyn College, CUNY

As a scholar of political science and gender studies, who specializes in women's organizing in Russia, I was honored to observe Project Kesher in action in Moscow last week working to empower women to have more choices in their reproductive life and more bodily integrity.  Such undertakings face huge obstacles in today's Russia, where so much rhetoric is about women's responsibility to protect the family, where both gender equality and domestic violence legislation have languished in the Duma for two decades, and where many women's NGOs have been forced to close. 

Most significantly, Project Kesher's Russia director Svetlana Yakimenko led a day-long interfaith/cross-cultural conversation--the two are conflated in Russia as "nationality"--that brought hundreds of women to Russia's Public Chamber with support from a presidential grant. Project Kesher's activists stood out for their substantive work on issues and thoughtful comments, for example, about the need to create new traditions, not just accept the old traditions, and pushed for "respecting" others, not just the Soviet speak of "tolerance." Activists spoke most powerfully about the need to address domestic violence through collaboration with public health services, psychologists (which is as close as Russia gets to mental health providers), law enforcement, and government agencies.  Evelina Shubinskaya, a Project Kesher alumna, described her leadership of a government crisis center for helping women in Tula, a model for building a sustainable response to domestic violence into which she was "step by step" incorporating international best practices.  Alena Erlik helped launch the women's health project, Right to Choice, moderating a conversation among experts in the morning and among regular women in the evening.  The gap between these populations  was substantial, as the experts hued to hierarchical models of patient care and women's responsibility to have children while the non-experts spoke of their fear around their health and around going to doctors.

Western engagement in post-Soviet Russia has been fraught from the beginning, but the new high-level tensions make it even more difficult.  What most impresses me is the way that Project Kesher manages its cross-national dialogue through a model of women's empowerment.  It's often a subtle approach.  For example, Project Kesher's executive director Karyn Gershon read the room and called for women to "trust their inner voice" and "get together and share their stories," whether "married or not, or have children or not."  At the same time, the trip also brought Merle Hoffman, a New York-based pioneer in women's health, who brought tears to several women's eyes when she described a model of empowering and supportive reproductive healthcare for women, creating new ideas about what could be possible.  Yakimenko concluded that event by asserting "the importance of not putting women in a box" and laying out the various perspectives on gender so that women "can make choices."

Project Kesher has clearly been transformational.  As Gershon said, those who decide to get involved, don't tend to leave.  Shubinskaya, in describing her domestic violence work in Tula, declared that "Project Kesher made me," referring to trips she took to see a Chicago-based YMCA shelter with Project Kesher in the early 2000s and the leadership experience she then gained.  In addition to these events that Project Kesher coordinated, the group attended a large, two-day conference called "Woman who matters," where they found entrepreneurial women who are beginning to think about their social responsibility, another potential avenue for social change.

Janet Elise Johnson, Professor, Brooklyn College, CUNY

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