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Bringing Moldova's Women Into The Democratization Process

A woman weeps at a center for reabilitating victims of domestic violence in Moldova. (file photo)
A woman weeps at a center for reabilitating victims of domestic violence in Moldova. (file photo)
Moldova's women remain prime targets for human trafficking and exploitation, and it will take more than just improving Moldova's economy to save them.

Both the blight and the profits of human trafficking in Moldova can be felt everywhere in the small country. Children left in the care of ailing grandparents or abandoned to appalling orphanages in Chisinau represent part of the toll trafficking has taken on families in Moldova. The ostentatious new homes at the edges of poor villages and young men driving luxury cars purchased with foreign remittances illustrate the irresistible lure of the trade.

Trafficking represents more than just the selling of human bodies. It is a painfully clear indication of a government's failure to protect its citizens, to provide basic necessities, and to insure civil rights. Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, bears the scars of poor governance, geopolitical tugs-of-war, and internal ethnic struggles.

But it is Moldova's women who are suffering the most in these struggles. If trafficking is to be abated, if Moldova is to get back on its feet economically and politically, and if civil society and democracy are to be strengthened, Moldova needs to pay attention to the rights and democratic responsibilities of women.

Responsibility, But No Power

As in many post-Soviet states, the role of women in Moldova has reverted to pre-Soviet "traditional" roles that emphasize women as mothers and domestic caretakers, but not as political or economic actors.

Indeed, the International Fund for Agricultural Development reports that the majority of those unemployed -- a whopping 68 percent -- are women. Those who do have employment continue to work in lower-paying jobs and represent an insignificant number of decision-makers in the economic and political spheres.

Yet women are more likely to carry the burden of providing for their families. Thus, women are often placed in the contradictory position of being the family breadwinner --either for a lower salary than men in Moldova earn or, more commonly, for higher pay and higher risks working abroad.

Some official estimates report that between 200,000 and 400,000 Moldovans have been trafficked since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which includes men trafficked for labor as well as women trafficked for labor and sex work. Unofficial estimates put this figure much higher, while the UN's "2009 Trafficking in Persons Report" estimates that 25,000 Moldovans were trafficked in 2008 alone.

Yet women do not possess power within society to change these conditions for themselves and their families. Nor do they have the power to change conditions within society for the benefit of all. Through the seemingly empowering act of emigration, many women are made victims of traffickers and abusive employment practices abroad, yet they receive little or no protection from the Moldovan government or society.

Although the Moldovan government has paid lip service to the empowerment of women through the establishment of such bodies as the Commission for Equality between Women and Men, women's real political empowerment has not improved much. Surprisingly, the government has no means of tracking changes in attitudes or gauging women's political and economic participation.

Increasing women's participation in civil society is crucial to improving women's roles in Moldova and stemming the tide of trafficking. Overwhelming evidence from around the world has shown that when women participate fully in a country's economy and politics, there are vast improvements in both. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argues that including women in economic and political decision-making structures results in policy making that is more inclusive, protects individual rights, and is more likely to resolve social inequalities that harm both men and women.

Bolstering Civil Society

To that end, the international community -- including the European Union and the United States -- has developed various strategies to further democratic-transition processes. On the most basic level, this means that states must create the institutions necessary to encourage free-and-fair elections and to allow for free speech, free association, and free-market reforms.

Further, the international community has made an explicit link between the strength of democracy and a state's ability to protect its citizens from the abuses of trafficking. The UN's Protocol on Trafficking, which went into force in 2003, provides states with tools and model laws to help stem the tide of trafficking. The success of the protocol lies in the strength of ties between NGOs and law enforcement, thus implicitly linking civil society, democracy, and the protection of a state's citizens.

But the solutions are not clear-cut. While the process of democratization requires consideration of women's rights if the endeavor is to succeed, arguing for women's rights in the face of a government more concerned with preserving its tenuous grip on power often meets strong resistance.

If the Chisinau protests in 2009 and the newly elected non-Communist government are any indication, however, civil society may indeed be strengthening. Those of us watching Moldovan politics were encouraged by the massive protests seemingly spurred by university students and technologies like Twitter.

At the same time, the global economic crisis means there is no end in sight for Moldova's economic woes in the near future. Nor will Moldova's continued on-again, off-again relationship with Russia provide security.

But there is much that can be done domestically and internationally if Moldova's authorities really want to strengthen civil society and curtail the plague of trafficking. The first step is making women's rights and responsibilities one of its highest priorities.

Denise Horn is an assistant professor of international affairs and political science at Northeastern University (Boston). The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL