By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI, Jan 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Elena Lysenko-Saltykova loves trains so much she got married on one. Yet fulfilling her childhood dream of working as a train driver has proved challenging. In fact, until Dec. 31 she was legally barred from doing so.
25-year-old Lysenko-Saltykova last week became the first female driver in Russia to operate a passenger train, chartering her maiden voyage from Moscow, following the lifting of a ban preventing women from working in hundreds of jobs.
"I still can't believe it's true," said Lysenko-Saltykova. Getting in the driver's seat had been a "rather difficult" journey, she explained.
For decades, laws have prevented Russian women from holding over 400 jobs that involve 'heavy work and work in harmful working conditions' such as firefighting and diving, ostensibly to protect their safety and reproductive health.
After rights groups and the United Nations decried the law as "discriminatory", Russia reduced the number of men-only jobs down to around 100 in a 2019 order that came into force on Jan.1.
Women can now work as car mechanics, drive trucks and operate the country's thousands of trains - a life-long goal of Lysenko-Saltykova's.
The daughter of a pilot and a flight attendant, Lysenko-Saltykova attended a Soviet-era children's railway club and later enrolled in a college for transportation workers.
"Driving trains is a romantic profession," she said. "I like the way the landscape constantly changes outside the window."
But she struggled to convert her passion for trains into hands-on experience: employers wouldn't take her on, even as an intern, and often disrespected her.
"A woman working in human resources once told me I would never find work as a train driver. I felt wronged and frustrated but I kept trying," she said.
She eventually found work with a train depot that allowed her to complete her qualification and in 2018 was hired by a commuter rail carrier in Moscow as an assistant driver.
Her maiden trip, a 40-minute journey from Moscow's Kiyevsky station to the suburban stop of Novoperedelkino last week drew media attention and praise but also a spate of nasty comments on social media.
"There are still a lot of people who think that women drivers are not good," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from home outside Moscow.
Around 100 other professions including working in mines and operating excavators, bulldozers and other heavy machinery, remain off limits for Russian women.
"This discrimination reinforces perceptions about women that have broader repercussions for women in society," said Jacqui Hunt, Europe's director at women's rights group Equality Now.
"The message being projected is that females are 'weak' and need protection, whereas men are 'strong' and can tough it out."
Lysenko-Saltykova said that while it might take time for society to change, she hoped that her story could inspire other women to follow their professional dreams.
"Women should be allowed to try any job and decide for themselves whether they can do it or not," she said.
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