Gender Equality all across Eastern Europe…

Two of the basic values for a modern society are social justice and equal opportunities for all people to actively participate in society. Unfortunately, not all people are granted equal opportunities and make choices that are constrained by certain pressures in face of social institutions and policies that tend to either enhance or stunt the development of an individual’s life chances. People are still facing discrimination on different levels and fields of life. After 60 years of human right declaration and 100 years of fight for women rights, gender still remains one of the bases for discrimination. As for the countries in the process of transition to modern democratic societies, the inclusion of women is limited or not duly appreciated and evaluated. Gender equality should be evaluated as a key in building an open, inclusive and diverse society as it comes together with the transformation of social and political institutions.

Individuals tend to internalize obstacles (institutional, social, etc.) when considering various life opportunities. But as such obstacles are structural, surmounting them requires more than just individual willingness and action. One often cited example of such a barrier is the glass ceiling, a metaphor used to describe the invisible ‘ceiling’ that keeps women from moving up the career ladder., women are likely “to engage in self-censure. Knowing that a gender-based glass ceiling exists, women are less likely to aim for high-level positions, either curbing their ambitions or saying to themselves that attaining a high-powered position would expose them to a wide range of reactions and constraints, sapping their energy” (as mentioned at the recent European Feminist Summit in London).

Structural Obstacles

The situation in the transition countries of Central and Eastern Europe and South Caucasus is therefore likely to reveal the stickiness of structural obstacles to gender equality. States that have recently entered the European Union or are striving to integrate are encouraged to take measures for promoting gender equality. The legal commitments of the European Union can be used to encourage formal gender equality but in certain cases the legislation of the countries lags behind. Yet the enforcement of legal rights is necessary but never sufficient to ensure improvements.
The changes required are fundamentally cultural and social. Notwithstanding the de jure basis for gender equality laid in some of the Eastern European countries, there is a considerable lack of de facto implementation and enforcement. The lack of political will, traditional perceptions about gender roles and stereotypes and the low level of public awareness constitute the principle barriers to the substantive establishment of gender equality. Concerning the transformation of civil society, law enforcement processes are connected with the overcoming of all kinds of customary laws and stereotypes. Many people consider gender equality issues irrelevant or take the current situation as a general norm, with no alternative or diverse gender concepts.

The standards of femininity and masculinity are not naturally given but socially constructed and strictly applied to women and men. As inequalities between women and men persist in today’s European societies, the concepts of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are perceived as stable, as unchangeable classification structuring the society. The false ideal of the 2-gender-society is always discriminatory for people who do not fit into this limiting structure. Gender stereotypes do not only discriminate these people, but also affect and limit everybody’s personal gender. This system is affecting all levels of society, whether it is social, economical, ethnical, cultural or psychological. According to the tolls made in 2007 in South Caucasus namely in Georgia, from  1 100 respondents interviewed, 79.2 % said they did not want to have a homosexual neighbor, followed by drug addicts (77.2%) and alcoholics (64.5%). In the long run, the progress of democratization of the regions’ societies and the level of their openness will depend largely on the society’s acceptance of the individual rights and freedoms, among them freedoms in the area of sexuality.

Are Western concepts suitable for the situation in the East?

Another problem is that the local actors working in the field of gender equality often try to import Western and Western European theories, concepts and tools. They are trying to import priorities, conditions in order to comply with the demands of international donors organizations instead of finding the resources and strength to first look around and identify their own context-specific priorities. In order to make a really positive change it is critical to know the history of the development of your own society and to be capable of assessing the present developments. Concepts of gender equality have to be reworked and relieved again and again, always with deference to the concrete social and cultural environment.

Although the countries of Eastern Europe and so-called CIS countries are at different stages of economic development and have different contexts and challenges concerning gender equality, some common trends can be observed. Gender issues have been given little attention in the Central, Eastern European and CIS regions. Even if discussed, they are not approached in a comprehensive way. As a result, gender topics are raised mostly as a consequence of demographers’ alerts of dramatic decreases in fertility rates, or in the context of a significant gap in life expectancy figures between women and men. In Soviet times female labour participation was high in the majority of republics. Women were also represented in the governmental and party structures, although rather rarely at the highest level. There was a tendency for women to occupy more “feminine” occupations, spending more time bringing up children and being provided with different bonuses and benefits by the state. Women could easily come back to their previous working place, having the state guarantee against unemployment. At the same time, men traditionally performed the function of the bread-winner and occupied higher positions, including at the decision-making level, though the quota of 30% of these positions was guaranteed for women. Women had equal access to education and were not subject to large earnings disparities. Although those facts indicated formal gender equality, they have not been present during and after the transition. Different paths have been followed by men and women. The economic reforms or their lack have affected men and women in different ways. As a result, no single picture of the region in terms of gender equality applies any longer.

The Current Situation in a Nutshell

During the transition period many women had to leave the formal economy for the informal sector in order to be able to feed their families, thus losing social protection and job security. Today, the economic activity of women in the region remains rather high and constitutes around 80 women per 100 men. At the same time, women’s share in fast-developing and highly paid sectors is decreasing, industrial and occupational segregation is growing, and more women stay jobless for a long period of time. Notwithstanding the high literacy rates, unemployment rates among women are especially high in the Republic of Moldova where women constitute 68 percent of the unemployed, and in Armenia (66 percent). This is partly due to a return to traditional values, which has intensified the inequalities of women’s participation in the economy. In addition, because women generally have more limited access to professional associations or informal networks that could help them strengthen their careers, many are unemployed, underemployed or relegated to doing domestic chores.

In most countries of the region women still get 38% or even 60% of an average men’s salary, depending on the country and the sector. In Georgia women earn as little as 40 percent of a man’s income. Women are concentrated in the low-paid state sector, or in the rapidly growing sphere of informal employment, which brings with it reduced labor rights and few social benefits. Transition has also added to women’s double burden of earning an income and filling their caretaking role in the household. This was worsened by the reduction in the number of social services available for working mothers as state financing dried up and facilities were damaged or looted. In Albania, for instance, the number of kindergartens dropped by 42 per cent between 1990 and 2000. The lack of recognition women receive for the work they perform at home contributes to their economic marginalization. As women’s economic contribution has declined they have lost bargaining power and now have a diminished role in decision-making.

There is an alarming trend in the drastic decline in women’s participation in decision-making processes and politics. Their representation in national parliaments is at an average around 10%, and in some countries there are no female parliamentarians at all. Better access to decent jobs, education and decision-making organs still remain to be key challenges for women in the Central Eastern European and CIS region.

Trafficking of women for prostitution has become a major criminal enterprise and is a growing problem for some countries in the region including the Republic of Moldova and Albania. Women may fall prey to unscrupulous recruiters who deceive them, keep their identity documents and restrict their freedom of movement. Trafficking takes advantage of the vulnerability and gender inequalities in poor communities, especially in rural areas. Most victims are rural women who leave the countryside hoping to escape poverty.

The Way to Gender Equality

What is necessary at first is the introduction and consolidation of minimal values as an elementary establishment of equal basic right. This is especially urgent in family law and would promote the protection against gender-related violence. Property and political rights would be prioritized in determining the roles that women and men play in the family, the community and the society. Mutation of social structures and gender roles are slow (very slow), suggesting that most of the barriers to equality are still in place and there is much to do towards the consolidation of truly democratic societies all over Europe.

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