Prague, 11 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - More than 300 prominent women business, law and political leaders from East and West are today concluding a three-day conference aimed at promoting closer ties between the two groups.
The conference, called "Vital Voices: Women in Democracy," has been sponsored and chaired by Swanee Hunt, U.S. Ambassador to Austria. In her opening address, Hunt told the participants that full democracy requires full participation for women. She then warned: "When the economic going gets rough, the lot of women gets rougher."
East European participants provided concrete support for Hunt's warning. Former Lithuanian Premier Kazemiera Prunskiene told the conference that in her country women were bearing the brunt of economic difficulties. She said that, on the average, they earned 42 percent less than men and, despite higher education levels, were more likely to be stuck in low-paying jobs. Prunskiene declared: "The worsening business situation, the black-market economy and the large number of bankruptcies have decreased job opportunities for women" in Lithuania.
Vesna Pesic, a Serbian opposition political leader, said that during the wars in former Yugoslavia, women had been relegated to their homes to care for their families, bear more children and make ends meet. Pesic concluded: "The participation of women in public life has decreased into insignificance." In Serbia, she added, women are formally guaranteed free medical care, abortions and paid maternity leave - but, in reality, they don't get any of the three because the government hasn't the money to pay the bills.
Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, President of the Polish National Bank, also believes that women face an uphill struggle in the reforming nations of Eastern Europe. She said that only 13 percent of Poland's parliamentarians are women, and that in the private sector women have a tougher time than men advancing in their professions. Gronkiewicz concluded: "Poland is now approaching the situation in the West, where it is difficult for women to get a good job."
Christina Chiva of Romania's Society for Feminist Analysis told the conference that the process of democratization itself can be used as excuse for neglecting basic women's rights. Speaking of the Romanian Government's attitude toward the issue, she said: "They say that transition to democracy and the economic status of families are more important than things like marital rape and sexual harassment."
Despite a large turn-out from Eastern Europe, the West is mostly represented at the conference by U.S. and Austrian women. About 200 invitations were sent to women in the 15 countries of the European Union, but only 30 participants are from the EU. Some delegates said that was because West Europeans considered the conference a U.S. initiative in the heart of Europe. Others, like Russia's Alevita Aparino, said they thought lack of West European interest was a reflection of what she called the area's "I'm-all-right attitude."
Aparino, Chairperson of the State Duma's Committee on Women, Family and Youth, said bluntly: "The reason why the West Europeans have not come is (their belief) that in their countries every thing is all right and they don't have the problems we in Eastern Europe are facing."
In Washington, the conference is regarded as an important contribution to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's recent pledge to "expand the circle of democracy by incorporating concerns related to women into the mainstream of American foreign policy." Ambassador Hunt, a successful businesswoman and major contributor to the Democratic Party, said the policy has been one of her main goals since her appointment by President Clinton in 1993.
The conference was due to close later today after hearing an address from Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of the U.S. President and a successful lawyer in her own right.