In a small classroom at the Icelandic Business College in Reykjavik, women from all over the world are gathered to discuss the problems and perils they face in entering public life. They are here as part of a U.S.-launched project on women and democracy, which focused this weekend on women in Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and the Nordic states. RFE/RL correspondent Petra Mayer reports.
Reykjavik, 11 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- At the Women and Democracy conference in Reykjavik this weekend, delegates formed workshops to share ideas about particular topics.
This group is discussing ways to increase women's participation in public life in their different countries. Many of the delegates in the group are from Russia.
Nadezhda Shvedova is the president of Gaia, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that promotes women's rights in Russia. She says that in the Soviet era, women often held high positions in government, but that is no longer the case.
"We have a really paradoxical situation in my country. What I mean, I mean that in the sense of the legislature, we have the best legislation in the world, because let me give you one example that our constitution has a provision which says that women and men possess not only equal rights, but equal opportunities. But you know, there is the biggest distance between proclaimed ideas and implementation of them in real life."
Shvedova says that one of the main problems in Russia is the absence of any government agency or judicial body devoted to upholding equal rights. She says that although Russia has joined the UN Convention on Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, there is no way to enforce the convention.
Other women around the table tossed out suggestions on shoring up the convention in Russia. Some suggested a court case, but the idea was abandoned in favor of a media campaign to raise awareness of the need for equal rights. Indeed, these women see the media as playing a huge role in their efforts to participate in public life. Among the projects proposed at the end of the conference was the creation of a database of prominent women to aid reporters in covering women in politics.
The proposed database is similar to one already used in Denmark. It would be an aid not only to reporters, but to the women themselves, who are trying to build a global network of contacts, a sort of United Nations of women. That "new girls' network" -- in contrast to the "old boys' network" -- is still in an embryonic stage.
Unfortunately, practical concerns are holding back development of that network. Gaia's Nadezhda Shvedova says the main problem is finding money.
"The necessity (is) to have some financial support for development of the different kind of steps to improve women's status in my country and to promote interest on the level of legislature, on the level of making decisions really."
Shvedova says Gaia, like many Russian women's organizations, cannot even afford a computer. And without access to the Internet, it's much harder for the women to organize and exert pressure on legislators. Some delegates joked that they should ask Microsoft head Bill Gates to donate computers for the Russian women.
A more realistic source of funding may be the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Helle Degn is a member of parliament in her home country of Denmark, and she's also the elected head of the OSCE's parliament. She says the first thing she'll do when she gets home is fire off letters asking international organizations to fund women's groups.
"I have to go home and see what can OSCE finance, what can the Council of Europe finance -- I am also a member of the Council of Europe, and I am chairman of the economic committee there -- I have to go back and see whether the councils from the Nordic countries, the Nordic ministers, what can they finance?"
Degn says she will look for ways for the OSCE to help women entering political life not only in Russia, but in the Balkans and all over Eastern Europe.