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East: Women Face Increasing Inequality In Post-Communist Countries

The UN says the end of communism in Eastern Europe has not improved the lot of women. A UNICEF report shows that inequality for women in post-communist countries has risen. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos speaks with one of the report's authors about what has changed for women.

Prague, 24 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A report released by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) (Sept. 22) says women in post-communist Europe are facing increasing inequality since the collapse of communism.

The UN agency studied 27 countries in Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Russia. It concluded that while communist policies never produced equality of the sexes, post-communist policies have been no better -- and women in post-communist countries are generally worse off. The study says they suffer higher rates of unemployment and lower pay than men. It also says women are more at risk from violence and disease than they were under the communist governments.

Although communism failed to promote a real culture of equality, it did produce some positive benefits for women. Heavy investments the communist governments made in basic social services meant that health care standards were good, educational achievement among women was high, and state-run child care was the norm.

But, says UNICEF, those gains are now under threat. The report says that with national autonomy restored and cultural traditions revived, patriarchal values are re-emerging .

John Micklewright is the senior researcher on the report. He says many of these problems existed before but were hidden by communism.

"A good example of that is violence against women. Domestic violence -- it happens we know in cultures the world over. But in the communist period this was very much a taboo subject, or one that was not discussed, not written about, no data on. We're seeing in the transition period that the lid is being taken off."

In the Russian capital Moscow, more than a third of divorced women in one survey said they had been beaten by their husbands. In Azerbaijan, one in four women surveyed said they experienced regular beatings from their husbands or partners.

Laws protecting women are lax in many post-communist countries. Domestic violence is not prohibited by law in Armenia, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Marital rape is not a crime in Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania, Tajikistan, or Ukraine. And in Slovenia, domestic violence is not considered criminal in cases of "light" injury P a definition which includes fractured noses, rib, light contusions and punched-out teeth.

With the collapse of state-supported services and the economic crises of the past decade, many women are facing unemployment for the first time. In the 27 countries that UNICEF studied, more than three times as many women than men had lost their jobs. Even in countries that have had relative economic success, women are still losing jobs at greater rates than men.

The upheaval of transition has also led to a rapid growth in the number of women involved in the sex industry. Trafficking in women has increased across the region, as has forced prostitution.

But in the face of these statistics, Micklewright says that there are also encouraging developments in the political arena. He says that while women hold few seats in national parliaments, they have a high representation at the local level. With the decentralization of state control, this means that women will have a greater influence over education and health care policies.

Still, Micklewright says, gender equality is a long way off.

"One has to start somewhere and start taking steps in the right direction. Our report is trying to stimulate those sorts of moves. Now as the economies for these societies begin to pick up -- that is increasingly helpful for the drive of gender-based development. Not that that one should see the problem as being 'fix the economy first and then we can worry about equity issues gender equity or any other equity issues.' that's definitely wrong. Broad-based human development comes from fixing these issues together. Nevertheless, as the economies pick up, there's more money around, more jobs around, there will be an easier climate to make positive moves that require resources being spent."

For now, women's situation is bleak. But Micklewright says the fact that the data on women in post-communist countries is available at all is a step in the right direction. For women, the transition years are just beginning.