Following on from a bakery dedicated to employing mentally disabled people, the Belarusian capital Minsk is now set to be the home of another unique social enterprise, a café where women who have been the victims of violence can find work and a supportive environment.
The pioneering initiative, known as the NORM Café Club, was brought to life by Olga Gorbunova, the former head of Radislava, a Belarusian NGO founded by women who had suffered from domestic violence to help others in a similar situation. The Radislava has been providing shelter for victims for more than 18 years.
Speaking in an interview with Belarusian news portal TUT.BY, Ms Gorbunova said that she was now working to open the place in Minsk, and is looking for potential investors who can contribute, as well as hiring baristas, waitresses, bartenders, purchasing managers and sound specialists.
She says that she has taken on board the experience of similar initiatives in Prague, Lviv and Berlin.
“We ourselves saw how such institutions work in other cities. This is a great help to vulnerable groups, such examples show that our idea is right,” she says, recalling one of her trips to Prague.
“We want to make a platform where girls and women will be able to realise their creative potential [and] we plan to employ older women as well. But the café itself will be open to everyone,” she stresses, noting that 50 per cent of the café’s profits will be spent on building a women shelter that will be able to house 50 people.
The café will also be an inclusive place for others, is planned to be accessible for people in wheelchairs and those with poor vision. It will also have a large amount of healthy, home-made, as well as vegan food.
Discussing her experience with those who came to Radislava, she recalls how desperate one can be after becoming a victim of domestic violence.
“When a woman settles in a shelter, she needs money very quickly. If a client does not have a good education or has a disability, she can only rely on low-paid, unskilled work,” Ms Gorbunova says.
In 2018, Aleksander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, rejected a new law on domestic violence, describing it as “absurd” and “nonsense taken from the West.”
Belarus has also yet to sign or ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
According to the OECD, domestic violence in Belarus is “widely underreported” and “seen as a private matter, and rather than seeking help, women often try and resolve the problem themselves, or seek to divorce their husbands.”
Fortunately, as Ms Gorbunova says, the Belarusian authorities are generally supportive and responsive to her initiative. She also hopes to open a network of similar places and connect with others who want to be drivers of social change.
The NORM Café Club is located at Surganova Street 2, Minsk, close to the Belarusian capital’s Olympic complex.