GENEVA—The situation is deteriorating today for women in the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where women previously enjoyed a wide range of benefits—especially in health and education.
A report commissioned by the United Nations children's fund (Unicef) found that since the collapse of socialism, women in the region have made gains in terms of democratic rights and freedom of expression, but that they, along with children, have seen a reduction in access to basic social services.
The study, “Women in Transition”, describes the failure of socialist regimes in promoting a culture of true equality between men and women. But it acknowledges that the communist system left a few positive legacies for women.
Carol Bellamy, executive-director of Unicef, said at the presentation of the report that women in the region suffered higher rates of unemployment than men, earned less than men, and were facing a reduction in childcare as well as a deterioration in education and healthcare.
Among the 200 million girls and women living in the 27 “transition countries”, teen pregnancy and abortion rates are high, drug and alcohol use is on the rise, and sexually transmitted diseases are spreading, Bellamy noted.
“If these trends continue, these countries risk losing one of their greatest assets: healthy, educated girls and women with the skills to contribute to the new economies and democratic societies,” states the report. “That would be a disaster for everyone, but especially for children of the region—boys as well as girls.”
According to Bellamy, “some past communist policies were of great value to women, such as near-universal access to education. In most countries, women were encouraged not only to study, but to marry and to have jobs as well as children.”
Although all of the countries in question have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the study found that the incidence of gender-based violence—ranging from domestic abuse to rape as a method of war—was rising.
A survey carried out in Moscow found that more than one of every three divorced women had been beaten by their husbands. In Azerbaijan, 26 percent of women reported being the victims of domestic violence, with one-quarter of them saying they suffered regular beatings. In that particular former Soviet republic, no form of domestic abuse against women is considered a crime.
John Mickleweight, the report's chief author, pointed out that in Slovenia, one of the countries preparing for admission to the European Union, domestic violence was not considered criminal “in cases of ‘light injury’—a definition which includes fractured nose, ribs, light contusions and punched-out teeth.” The report notes that “violence against women, including domestic violence, was more prevalent under communism than previously assumed. Worse still, it is now on the rise.”
When asked whether women were worse off under capitalism than under communism, Bellamy, a US citizen, replied that “I don’t think that this is an attempt to suggest what form of political infrastructure should exist in a country”, but rather an attempt to assess the needs of women.
The aim of the report was to identify trends and locate areas where specific actions could improve the situation of women, Bellamy added.
In his overview of the situation in the region, Mickleweight mentioned the decline in social services, which in the past greatly benefited women and children. As a consequence of the overall contraction of the economy, all citizens have faced deteriorating conditions since the transition period in 1990, he said. But, he added, it is women and children who have been hit hardest by the drop in spending on basic social services.
The study states that “the most graphic illustration of the ephemeral quality of communist policies toward women can be seen in the political arena, where the number of women in parliaments—who were once well represented because of rigid quotas—dropped sharply after the first democratic elections.”
Today, the average proportion of women in parliaments in the Baltic states and the Community of Independent States (CIS) is below 10 percent, and as low as just one percent in Kyrgyzstan.
But according to Mickleweight, in many of the “transition countries, women's political representation is more impressive at the local level than at the national level—and these women, together with those who are in the parliaments, are now involved in politics in their own right, rather than as part of a rigid quota system”.
Bellamy said Unicef hoped that the report would serve as a “wake-up call to national leaders that gender equality must be elevated higher on the political agenda if their efforts to revitalize civil society are to succeed”.
(Inter Press Service)