Date: Fri, 1 Aug 97 11:21:33 CDT
From: (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: Women's Revolution in the Russian Duma
Article: 15496

/** headlines: 186.0 **/
** Topic: Women's Revolution in the Russian Duma **
** Written 11:32 PM Jul 31, 1997 by mmason in cdp:headlines **
/* Written 12:04 AM Jul 22, 1997 by genderexpert@glas.UUCP in women.east-west *

—— “Russia: Framing Legislation on Gender” ——

A Women's Revolution in the Russian Duma?

By Amy Caiazza, Indiana University, and Elena Kotchkina, Gender Legal Analysis Project, Moscow Center for Gender Studies, 22 July 1997

In May the Russian Duma Committee on the Affairs of Women, Family and Youth, headed by Communist Deputy Alevtina Aparina, held a hearing on a draft proposal outlining Russian legal priorities for achieving equal rights and opportunities for men and women. Drafting the “Conceptions” (as they are known), the committee worked with women's non-governmental organizations and incorporated recommendations from experts in the area, including the State Legislative Institute and the Gender Legal Analysis Project of the Moscow Center for Gender Studies. About 200 people (including just seven men) attended the May hearing. Despite this promising development, however, the dearth of men belies a fundamental problem with the approach the committee and activists in general are taking towards the issue: “equal” rights and opportunities has become “women's” rights and opportunities.

In the past, Soviet and Russian experiences with women's rights compared in some ways quite favorably to Western liberal democracies. Most such policy focused on women workers, special advantages for working mothers, and protective legislation for women. Russian women, for example, enjoy leave policies enviable by American standards: from the 1980s, women workers were eligible for 18 months leave, fully (if modestly) paid, with guaranteed work upon their return. Indeed, upon arriving at a new job women were (and are) asked directly about their marital and family status, a practice blatantly illegal in the US. The practice, however, was used in the past—when local employers controlled and distributed many benefits—to determine women's needs for child care and other support systems. Consequently the question “do you have children” ostensibly meant access to social benefits. Now, however, when 40% of industry is closed and most private enterprises have lost state funding for these benefits, it means something different: it has become, as it was in the US, a means of discrimination. Because of the benefits they can claim, married women and mothers are often more expensive employees than men, and thus employers are hesitant to hire them.

In this rapidly changing situation, Russia must answer important questions. It must, for one, decide which approach is most appropriate for guaranteeing equal rights and opportunities to men and women. The Conceptions are an attempt to answer this question, but they raise as many questions as they answer. Perhaps most importantly for Western progressives, they bring a new twist to an old debate: how will Russian legislators reconcile the apparent contradiction between the approaches implied by the two very different phrases “equal rights” and “equal opportunities”?

Although this question is crucial, the Conceptions do not answer it. In fact it seems that no one in Russia can. Existing legislation contains several types of approaches. As Elena Mizuleana, Vice-chair of the Duma Legislative Committee, points out, currently about 250 legal acts regulate women's rights and citizenship. Most are protective legislation leftover from Soviet times, such as prohibitions from nocturnal and dangerous work for working women. Women criminals have lighter sentences, and women can work five fewer years to receive pensions. Women also have a network of social benefits beyond this protective legislation, as leave policy shows (in 1990 men, too, became eligible for this leave, although there is no evidence of men using it). On the whole, these approaches reflect a tendency to modify “men's rights” with women's “special” needs.

This is also evident in the current Conceptions, which, also like past policy, are largely symbolic. Their history began in 1993 with the adoption of a new Constitution. Statute 19.3 of the document guarantees equal rights and opportunities to men and women. Until now, however, no serious legislative attempts to implement this guarantee have been initiated, although the Beijing Conference did prompt state women officials to produce a variety of largely rhetorical government directives and presidential decrees. An attempt finally to flesh out the meaning of Statute 19.3, the issues and priorities contained in the Conceptions include fifty-five legal initiatives covering political participation, social and labor rights, violence against women, family planning, and various oversight provisions.

But the Conceptions do not cover many important aspects of equal rights and opportunities: conspicuously absent, for example, are pornography and sex education, already key issues in the media and al- ready discussed in the Duma (both are hotly resisted by patriotic forces there). Many potentially important legislative arenas are ignored: tax policy, for example, is not discussed at all, while it could conceivably be important as a means for achieving equal rights and/or opportunities. Similarly, implementation is inadequately discussed. Quotas, for example, were introduced a year ago, but the Conceptions do not give any sense of how they will be actualized. The Conceptions also do not call for women's advisors, ministers, or other representatives in the executive branch to advocate and take responsibility for women's issues; they do not demand any type of representation for women's interests in the state. On the other hand, the Conceptions call for legislative changes that already exist: they call for women's rights to be a part of a new, ombudsman's office for human rights, but according to Ludmila Zavadskaia, author of the ombudsman law, this provision is already implicitly part of the law. Thus as a list of priorities, the Conceptions are incomplete and highly controversial.

The Conceptions also continue the tradition of focusing on specifically women as targets of equality legislation. That is, they ignore potentially political equality issues for men. For example, despite the fact that in Russia men are subject to universal mandatory military service, the Conceptions do not call for “equal rights and opportunities” in that realm. Ostensibly any question of equality must address areas in which men and women are treated differently by the law, but the Conceptions seem to ignore questions in which men's rights are at stake.

Finally, the text does not differentiate among its variety of approaches to equality. Protectionism, equal rights, and equal oppornunities are jumbled together without any theoretical explanation. In the US, of course, we also have a variety of approaches encompassing a wide range of answers to the question of achieving equality, but largely because we have a common law and not code-based legal system. Our complex and often contradictory system of courts and legislatures has led to an often confused situation. In Russia, however, a code-based legal system means that the legislature has the opportunity to develop a consistent, well-thoughtout approach to women's rights: it could, for example, follow the European Community in declaring the equal opportunity approach its basic conceptual framework. The current version of the Conceptions has not exploited this opportunity.

Why, ultimately, does this matter? Why should legislators be clear about which theoretical approach they are choosing? The answer lies in the fact that in Russia (as in just about any country) realizing equality may demand analyzing exactly when equal rights and equal opportunities are at cross-purposes, and which approach is most appropriate for a specific sphere of life. For example, in the Soviet education system, Russian women constituted 50% of students at every level below Ph.D. programs. In this sphere, positive discrimination (a question of equal opportunities over equal rights) may be appropriate only in terms of providing access for a few professions, those in which imbalances based on discrimination are evident: e.g., in international journalism and, more recently, legal programs. On the other hand, in the realm of politics, women constitute less than 1.5% of the highest levels of the executive branch (ministers and vice-ministers). In this area, quotas as a tool of positive discrimination seem a statistically sound solution. Only if legislators can identify such differences, and thus be aware of the variety of problems facing them, can they react properly. The absence of such analysis makes the Conceptions, as a legal document, potentially weak.

In fact, the quota issue is a particularly good example because it also shows the problems of sensitivity to the complicated nature of Russian politics. The Conceptions call for quotas on electoral party lists: neither sex should make up more than 70% of a party list. But they do not make a similar recommendation for parties as a whole, and in fact, most parties have no more than 10% women. Consequently this imposition by the state on civil society will probably largely lead to a situation in which wives and friends are included on lists instead of women leaders. In addition, such positive discrimination is bad from a PR standpoint in Russia: it is largely identified with Soviet quotas for women's representation, which in turn is associated with tokenism and a puppet legislature. Thus such an approach may not be appropriate in this sphere. On the other hand, it may work in the state, where hiring and promotion practices are not a matter of popular decision.

Another example of the quagmire of equality in Russia is the pornography issue, which is similarly complex and contradictory. In 1997, the criminal code legalized pornography. A sudden move for a society in which pornography was illegal for decades, the legalization mobilized anti-pornography efforts by patriotic factions, headed by famous producer Stanislav Govorukhin. Local forces and initiatives have started to outlaw pornography: in fact the electorate seems largely to support anti-pornographic legislation. How this should be considered in light of the equal rights and opportunities clause of the Constitution, however, is unclear—and remains unaddressed by the Conceptions.

Thus Russia is in dire need of a fair, complete and theoretically clear approach to gender equality: without taking these issues into consideration, a host of important issues are ignored that potentially influence gender relations. The consequence is a situation in which gender is ignored on the legislative stage, even by new “liberal” legislators. Gender-blind “liberal” reform and its negative consequences on the status of women have become an additional resource for Communist and nationalist forces to support old gender systems, whether based on Soviet protectionism or Russian Christian Orthodox values.

The main author of the Conceptions, Dr. Svetlana Polenina, hopes to place the draft before the State Duma for its approval this June. While it will be one step towards raising attention for equality issues, as committee advocates argue, it will not advance a truly developed, well-though-out idea of equal opportunities because it is not clear about what it means by this phrase. Consequently, rather than contributing to the development of equal opportunities and equal rights, the document will become more of an assessment of the current status of women. So, unfortunately, the Duma has yet to experience a real women's revolution.