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Women From East and West Gather At Vienna Forum

  • Tom Hagler

Vienna, May 14 (RFE/RL) - Barriers between women's groups are slowly being torn down during talks designed to strengthen the role of women in Eastern Europe's emerging democracies.

As part of the Vienna Women's Initiative, established and financed by U.S. Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt, women leaders are visiting Austria's capital to learn to work together, and to develop contacts with their Western counterparts.

The first groups came for recent weekend visits from the Ukraine, Bosnia and Croatia, societies turned upside down by disaster. And organisers expect women leaders from Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia and other CIS members also to attend.

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster was high on the agenda during discussions with Ukrainian delegates, who included politicians, doctors and teachers. The birth rate has tumbled since the nuclear blast spread a cloud of radioactivity across the land. Psychological studies have shown women are becoming increasingly afraid of having children, although statistical research has shown birth defects have not increased since the accident a decade ago.

The women from Ukraine wept while recounting the disaster's impact on their lives and families, and the feeling of government betrayal. Lilia Grygorovich, a doctor elected Parliament after Ukrainian independence, said there had been no official reaction immediately after the disaster. She said: "Children were let out to participate in parades."

For the Bosnian women who visited Vienna, getting that country back on its feet after years of war is their top concern, but no one seems to know where to turn.

Since the Dayton accords were signed, the women say emergency relief to the country has dried up, and that money for reconstruction is in short supply. They say their needs are simple: shoes and notebooks so children can attend school; an EKG machine to establish a cardiology clinic; and medicine for ill children at a pediatrics hospital.

The country also lacks psychologists to help those who have been emotionally scarred by the war. Esma Cemerlic-Zecevic, director of Sarajevo's pediatric hospital said: "We have big problems with small children who suffer from nightmares, or wet the bed."

The women also are working to coordinate their efforts, and a conference is planned June 28-30 in Sarajevo to discuss how they can help transform themselves and their shattered society. Conference organizer Nurdzihana Dozic said she hopes to draw 200 women from all corners of Bosnia, along with 100 women leaders from abroad.

In Croatia, the Vienna Women's Initiative was told, people struggle with the trauma of soldiers returning from the battlefield. Alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide have soared. Some support groups exist to help wives, but nothing is done for the men, they say. "Everybody knows it's a big problem, but no one wants to do anything. Everyone wants to hide it under the table," said Zeljka Antunovic, an opposition member of Croatia's parliament.

The women also say they face government rhetoric, urging them to have more children to compensate for the thousands of Croats killed during the war.

Rada Boric, coordinator of the Center for Women War Victims in Zagreb said: "The government doesn't only want to send women back to the kitchen, but back to the bedroom."

The Vienna meetings are not all doom and gloom. The women receive tips on fund raising and establishing a foundation, and learn about loan programs to help get small businesses off the ground.

Because former communist countries don't have a tradition of fund raising, all delegates were urged to approach Western firms moving into their countries. They were told that part of the West's corporate philosophy consists of supporting worthy causes.

Time also was set aside for the visiting women to mingle with Americans and Austrians. Dijana Cizmadija, a politician with the opposition Social Democratic Party in Rijeka, Croatia, said she attended the weekend "because I would like to feel empowered and to encourage women to be involved."

Lorraine Hollingsworth, an attorney from Albuquerque, New Mexico, said: "It's enriching to hear the experiences they've been through, and how they've coped."