Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Gagauzia

How a girl’s dream to become a police officer raised the bar of gender equality in a conservative region.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Gagauzia

How a girl’s dream to become a police officer raised the bar of gender equality in a conservative region.

Thursday, 24 March, 2022

As a child, Natalia Novachly devoured detective stories and spent hours trying to work out who the villains were. She dreamed of joining the police force, an almost unheard of ambition for a girl growing up in Gagauzia, a region in southern Moldova.

However, aged 26, after graduating in history and law, she became the first female police officer in her district. This set her on a path of achievements that raised the bar for gender equality in a deeply conservative region.

Novachly, now 62, eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Ten years ago she left the police and became the first - and for a decade the only - woman in her precinct. After she retired, she was appointed chair of Ceadîr-Lunga’s city council, the first woman ever in the role.

Although Gagauzia’s governor since 2015 has been a woman, Irina Vlah, patriarchal gender stereotypes discourage women from entering politics. The 35-member local assembly includes only two women.

“It is easier for men to run in the elections because they have more friends and acquaintances. They go to the baths together, they drink beer. Women don’t do that; they do not socialise like that,” Novachly told IWPR.

The region is largely populated by Gagauz, the country’s second largest minority group after Ukrainians. Numbering about 150,000, their culture is unique: they are Christian ethnic Turks and speak Russian in a mostly Romanian-speaking country.

Gagauzia is Moldova’s only autonomous territory. Gagauz briefly made a bid for independence in January 1906 when the self-proclaimed Republic of Comrat was formed. It lasted only six days. In August 1990, Gagauz attempted to declare independence after Moldova declared its own sovereignty from the Soviet Union. The bid failed but in 1994 Moldova’s parliament passed a law establishing the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia.

Novachly recalled her first position as a district police officer at the division for juvenile affairs in 1985. It would take ten years before another woman entered the regional police force.

“I was granted the rank of lieutenant, because of my higher education. When I started, I was given the shoulder straps and I decided to sew them on my uniform by myself. I did it the wrong way and when I came to work my colleagues laughed a lot,” she recalled.

She said that she had seen many distressing things in her 26 years of service.

“I was afraid of seeing a dead body, but when I went to the scene of my first case, I saw that the men were even more afraid. We entered a house whose owner was found dead by his neighbours. He had died over a week earlier. A cat was sitting near him. It was hungry and it had chewed up his ears and nose. It was gruesome,” Natalia recalled.

Informing people about their loved ones’ death, however, was always the hardest task for her.

“When I drive along the road and see crosses, I remember all the car accidents. There was a case when three people died and one survived in a car accident. I called the relatives and told them the tragic news. I described what the boys were wearing and turned out that the boys had exchanged their jackets shortly before the accident. The boy whose mother thought he was dead appeared to be alive and was taken to the hospital, and vice versa.”

Remaining loyal to her principles created a few challenges during the course of her career.

“We had a good chief, but he was fired [and] when I was asked to testify against him, I refused. Because of that, I lost a good position and was demoted in the rank, from major to lieutenant. This is essentially a demotion two ranks down. But eventually justice was served and two years later I was promoted major,” she recalled.

As the defunct Soviet Union and newly independent Moldova was in turmoil Gagauzia had declared self-rule. On an autumn day, in November 1992, she was on her way to a village with a colleague to follow up on a case. On the way, they were stopped by a black Volga, an executive car produced in the USSR, with government plates.

“The driver said they were going to Ceadîr-Lunga for negotiations and asked for our help to get there safely. I agreed to help and sat in the front seat. I did not look who was sitting in the back seat. At the checkpoint, men with machine guns recognised me. I was in my uniform. They were not very friendly, but they let us through. The delegation arrived safely in the city,” Novachly said.

A few days later, her chief told her that Moldova’s Prime Minister, Andrei Sangheli, wanted to see her. As it turned out, he was the man sitting in the back seat.

“He thanked me for the help… he asked me if I had a family, if I needed a house. I said that I was married and had two children, but we were still living in a house provided by my agency.

The government decided to send money to my account, from the reserve fund, and I bought my house, I still live there. It cost 15,000 dollars,” she said.

In 2011 she retired and was asked to run for office in the city council. Since then, she has been re-elected three times. In 2015, she became the first female chair of the council, a position she holds to date.

The first four years were difficult, now I know all the work,” she said, adding, “I have always been disciplined. I have never missed a council meeting.

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