About the Author: Ruth Bennett serves as the Public Affairs Advisor for the Office of International Women’s Issues. This entry is one in a series of profiles of the 2009 International Women of Courage Award recipients.
Veronika Marchenko started the “Mother’s Right” Foundation in 1990, while she was still a student. She worked out of a small room in downtown Moscow, with one table, one chair, and a telephone.
When her activism brought public attention to hazing in the then-Soviet armed forces, the small foundation became an NGO with a mission of exposing the true circumstances surrounding peacetime deaths in the army. It provided moral and legal support to surviving families and lobbied against corruption in the armed forces.
Ms. Marchenko still presses for the elimination of hazing and bullying, which she claims each year take the lives of up to 3,000 of the men obligated to serve. “The basic postulate from the Soviet era until now says a conscript is a nobody,” Ms. Marchenko told an LA Times reporter. “He’s a cogwheel in a machine, and this cogwheel is a very inexpensive element of that machine which, if it breaks down, can be replaced very easily.”
Because most of these deaths are classified as suicides regardless of additional or contributing factors, these soldiers’ families encounter difficulty in receiving survivors’ entitlements. Ms. Marchenko’s group leads investigations into the circumstances of conscripts’ deaths, often helping to prove that a suicide was actually a provocation to suicide or a murder, bringing accurate information to grieving families as well as a means of support. “When we don’t win quickly,” she told French reporters, “we are ready for a long fight in order to make the law prevail.”
Lawyers from Mother’s Right participated in 132 pro bono litigations in 21 cities across Russia in 2007 alone. That same year, the foundation assisted 5,323 families of servicemen who died during noncombat military service.
The organization led by Ms. Marchenko is an outstanding example of a grass-roots endeavor that began with little more than a commitment to social justice, and evolved into an influential and powerful group. Ms. Marchenko’s courage in defying the pressure of authorities and her perseverance over nearly 20 years allowed this to happen. Today, Mother’s Right is a whistleblower organization that brings public scrutiny of human rights abuses to a large and opaque bureaucracy, giving vindication and sustenance to families and support and improved conditions to young men serving their country.