For East Europe's Women, a Rude Awakening

Article excerpt

Elisabeth Kulakowska [o]

Women are starting to react to the fallout from eastern Europe's economic transition which has hit them hard, bringing growing poverty, social decline and prostitution

In Romania and Russia, they have started by highlighting domestic violence. In Poland, they are fighting for legal abortion. In Bulgaria and Hungary, they campaign to make girls aware of the dangers of making "easy money" through prostitution. Women everywhere in eastern Europe are tying to organize in defence of their rights. They have an uphill job on their hands.

The political and economic changes which have swept the former countries of the Soviet bloc since the early 1990s have generally pushed women aside, both economically and in terms of their presence in government and administration. Equality of the sexes is still written into all the national constitutions of central and eastern Europe. But the reality is quite different.

The first to be fired

A UNICEF report, Women in Transition, [1] which looks at 27 formerly communist states, confirms this in detail. "While communism brought women many advantages, especially in education and health care, it did not manage to bring real equality of the sexes," said UNICEF director-general Carol Bellamy when the report came out in September 1999. "Today, in the transition to a market economy, the situation of women is deteriorating."

Since 1990, in every country of the region except Hungary, economic restructuring has especially affected industries with a large number of women workers. Where there are both male and female employees, the women have been laid off before the men, in line with well-known discriminatory practices which send women "back to their homes".

"Of the 26 million or so jobs that have disappeared in eastern Europe since 1989, about 14 million were held by women," says Bellamy. Today unemployment among women is about five per cent higher than among men.

Employers, especially in Poland, will sometimes ask a job applicant to take a test to prove she is not pregnant. In Bulgaria and Romania, the newspapers are filled with blatantly sexist job advertisements.

Because of the seriousness of the economic crisis, governments have sharply cut social welfare expenditure. They have also abolished many laws passed under communism that gave privileged status to single mothers and mothers with young children, and provided for infants through day-care allowances or creche facilities. The ending of these benefits has reduced women's chances of getting a job or finding a new one. And when women do have a job, they get paid less than their male colleagues. The gap in pay is an average 24 per cent in Russia, 16 per cent in Poland and 15 per cent in Hungary, UNICEF says. According to specialists, the result is a "feminization of poverty".

One of the most serious consequences of the economic crisis and the opening of national borders is the growing number of young women who are being lured into prostitution or enmeshed in international sex rings. About half a million young women from eastern Europe, including Russia, are now prostitutes in the West, according to the Polish NGO La Strada and the Vienna-based International Organization for Migration. Regina Indsheva, head of the Women's Alliance for Development, in Sofia, says, "10,000 Bulgarian prostitutes are 'on the market'every year in the countries of the European Union."

Sexually transmitted diseases, including Aids, are spreading. One young woman in every 100 in Russia has syphilis, according to UNICEF. In the 27 countries surveyed in the report, cases of HIV infection rose from 30,000 in 1994 to 270,000 by the end of 1998, says Bellamy. In addition, there is rising alcoholism and drug addiction among younger and younger women, especially in Russia.

Domestic violence against women, a taboo subject that was totally hidden under communism, has recently made headlines for the first time in Romania and Poland. …