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Russia: Reports Says Women Bear Brunt of Poverty

Russian authorities boast of improvements in social benefits for the poor, particularly for those receiving regular pensions. But a little-noticed study published this year by the World Bank on the "feminization" of poverty in Russia points to a deteriorating situation for women, especially single mothers. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini speaks with a single parent and members of a charity trying to help them.

Moscow, 27 September (RFE/RL) -- Russia's Minister for Social Policy Aleksandr Pochinok says that for all but 30 million Russians who live in extreme poverty living standards "are going up for the first time." He told RFE/RL last week that pensions have increased 38 percent this year and will continue to grow.

But there's been little improvement in the life of Olga Ivanova, a 48-year-old Moscow invalid with cardiac problems. She is raising two grandsons and caring for her bed-ridden mother on social assistance amounting to little more than $60 a month.

Our correspondent visited Ivanova's threadbare apartment. She saw Pavlik, a pale three-year-old who is almost deaf climbing from his bed to the table and back again. Dima, a frail 11-year-old suffering from untreated bronchial asthma, joined his brother in play.

Their grandmother, left alone with them after the chidren's mother ran away, tried to describe her life through tears and shouts at Pavlik who was rolling on the floor and screaming:

"We live, as you can see yourself, poorly. Pavlik! I had a heart attack but became my grandson's guardian. The little boy is [an] invalid, the older one goes to kindergarten. My mother's paralyzed. We live off $64 [1,800 rubles] a month [in total combined income]. My son sometimes gives me money and sometimes he doesn't. My daughter doesn't [even] pay the rent. So I go to [a government assistance facility] and get something there for the boys. Sometimes I don't even have any bread for them."

According to Tatiana Troitskaya of the Taganka Children's Fund, a charity specializing in helping single-parent families in Moscow's Taganka district, Ivanova is not even one of the more extreme poverty cases. Troitskaya says some of the families she sees don't even have beds, huddling in one room of their apartments while renting out the other.

The Taganka Fund assists about 500 families and more than 700 children. Divorced mothers left alone with their children make up most of the cases. But unwed mothers as well as widows -- in a country where men's life expectancy has dropped to 57 years -- are also a prime aid target. The fund's director, Vladimir Shepelin, notes that almost one half [about 45 percent] of Moscow's families fall into the "single-parent" category. All of them, he says, have had to adapt to a new social order and to material hardships.

"During World War II, women also stayed alone with their children. But they weren't lost. They knew how to fight against food shortages. But now, they don't have society's support and they don't understand what's going on. They suffer from bureaucrats. They suffer from material difficulties. They suffer because their children are out of control. Among [the fund's] mothers, there are a lot with higher education -- scientists, people from the arts. These specialties are not wanted on the job market at the moment."

One of the reasons that single-parent families often have less money coming in than pensioners -- the primary group targeted by government social policy -- is that pensioners vote, but children don't. Shepelin explains:

"Their [that is, single-parent families'] income level is lower, according to our data. A single-mother's or other [single parent's income] ranges from $11 [300 rubles] to $54 [1,500 rubles]. Remember, that's for two family members and is, much less than a pension. So the arithmetic is very simple: The needs [of single-parent families] are two to three times higher, while their income is twice as low."

Other figures make the same point. Pensions can go as high as $30 a month, while single-parent aid is about $8 a month. Benefits for children are about two dollars monthly, while a widow's pension can be 10 times as much.

The study published earlier this year (May) by the World Bank on "the feminization of poverty" in Russia confirms in stark statistics what Shepelin sees daily in practice. The study says Russian women's vulnerability is growing, particularly among single mothers and women pensioners, and that slight increases in benefits won't make much difference.

The study also says poverty is spreading since the economic crisis in August 1998 by incorporating families with two working parents whose combined earnings are not enough to feed their children." In addition, it points out, the material status of families is further sapped by the decline of social institutions, such as hospitals and schools. Even though primary school is nominally free, a majority [86 percent] of students' parents chip in for maintenance and repair costs.