Since the murder of more than 300 people in a Beslan school seized by Chechen militants in September, Russians have been intently focused on terrorism. As in the United States, this has meant increasing security and suspicion.
But Russian teachers Svetlana “Sveta” Yakimenko, 51, and Tatyana “Tanya” Molodtseva, 46, have found a different way to fight local terrorism: by battling domestic violence and the trafficking of women, supporting women through loans and health programs, and opening dialogue between people of different faiths and ethnic groups.
As a former high school English teacher in a suburb of Moscow, Yakimenko has long been involved with peace and justice movements. During a peace march attended by international visitors in Russia in 1987, she befriended Illinois-based social worker Sallie Gratch, who eventually relocated to the Ukraine. Five years later, the two women founded an organization called Project Kesher.
“Kesher” means “connection,” and they based the group on the Jewish principle that faith and social activism are inextricably linked. Fighting rampant domestic violence and other abuses against women, they thought, would help to increase peace and understanding on larger levels.
Since then, Project Kesher has grown to serve thousands of women of various backgrounds, with programs in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. After the Beslan massacre, the group felt it only natural to take leadership in shaping local attitudes and approaches.
“The whole country was in fear and anger,” says Yakimenko, during a November speaking visit to the United States. “It was like a civil war, everyone was ready to get a gun. … But the women we work with, who are community leaders and organizers, realized that’s what the terrorists wanted, to sow hatred and fear.”
In response, the group wrote an appeal to 165 community, ethnic and religious groups encouraging them to start learning about each other and thereby violence in society. “In two days we got responses from over 30 organizations and started organizing roundtables where we learn about each other’s cultures and traditions,” Yakimenko says.
Molodtseva, also a high school English teacher, works as the outreach coordinator and a computer teacher for Project Kesher. She got involved with the group several years ago, when her teenage daughter asked her to attend a retreat where mothers and daughters were encouraged to talk about sex, relationships and other often-taboo subjects.
“That was difficult because I had never talked about those things with my mother,” Moldtseva said. “This helped us bond as women.”
She lives in Kineshma, a town on the Volga River that is home to a large women’s prison. Many of the women are incarcerated as a result of their attempts to confront or escape domestic abusers. Molodtseva often visits the prison to bring feminine care products and other supplies.
She notes that while some fear international terrorism, many women live in terror every day. Many don’t feel they can challenge their husbands or seek help. They say that husbands will often come home from work tired and drunk and take their frustration out on their wives. Others must sneak away to attend Project Kesher activities. “It’s not easy for women to leave home and come to a women’s group,” Yakimenko said.
In November, the group hosted a series of events called “Sixteen Days to End Domestic Violence.”
HIV prevention and other sexual health issues have been another major focus of the project. They teach sex-ed courses using Planned Parenthood’s model and have done large fundraising drives for babies born with HIV.
Project Kesher also serves as a resource for the high number of Eastern European women who are trafficked to foreign countries to work as low-paid domestic servants or in the sex industry. The group mounts puppet shows demonstrating how traffickers approach women with false promises of well-paying jobs, and provides the women with health clinics, refugee organizations and other resources. The group claims that their appeals to politicians in the Russian Duma played a large role in recently proposed anti-trafficking legislation.
Project Kesher’s work ties in and reacts to larger global patterns. “It’s all linked,” said Yakimenko. “Women might decide to go abroad because of domestic violence, or because they lost their job. If they can become self-sufficient here, that won’t happen as much.”
Molodtseva serves as a prime example — she says that working with Project Kesher has helped her to take control of her own life. “Before I wasn’t socially active, I was just a wife of my husband and a mother of my children,” she said. “Now I am my own person.”
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.