Konferencia Leading Change: Women and Democracy's New Frontiers

Konferencia Leading Change: Women and Democracy's New Frontiers

V dňoch 23. až 25. marca 2006 sa analytička IVO Zora Bútorová zúčastnila na konferencii Medzinárodného republikánskeho inštitútu (IRI) Leading Change: Women and Democracy's New Frontiers, ktorá sa konala v Istanbule. Správa z konferencie

Text príspevku Zory Bútorovej (eng.)

Women in CEE expanding the frontiers of democracy

Zora Butorova , Institute for Public Affairs Bratislava

I was asked by the organizers to answer the question why women in public life are so important to democratic change and to present a view from those Central Eastern European countries that have become new members of the European Union in 2004. It will be a voice of a sociologist from an independent public policy think tank. In my seven remarks, I will focus on the “democratic homework” that we have to do in our own countries, with a special emphasis on Slovakia.

1. My first point may sound like a tautology or a repetition of an obvious truth. Women in public life are important to democratic change, because the democratic change as such is important. Let us not delude ourselves: all of us living in Europe have to deal with some forms of democratic deficit – citizens of the old and new member states of the European Union, and even more so in some other European states eastward and southward of the EU.

Having said that, I am not denying the great progress in the new EU member states from the former Soviet bloc. The very fact that we have been admitted to the EU speaks a volume and indicates that we are on the right track. Since the non-violent revolutions in the late 80ties, we have got far away from the communist regime that suppressed political freedom and free entrepreneurship and humiliated people in countless situations in everyday life. Despite all ups and downs, we have reached substantial progress in building free market economy and liberal democracy.

However, we are facing not only new opportunities, but also old problems and new challenges. Some of the new democracies are struggling with high unemployment, deep social gaps and increasing regional differences. Our public life is often marked by corruption scandals, clientelism and arrogance of the noveau riches; our political climate suffers of the alienation of the “political class” from the citizens. We have to work hard to cultivate tolerance toward ethnic, religious and other minorities and to deal with increasing diversity of people’s values, beliefs, and life styles.

All these and other problems are a part of our new “domestic” political agenda. For coping with them, we need broad coalitions consisting of policy makers, educators, media, NGOs, but also responsible employers and employees, consumers, patients, parents – simply of all interested, engaged citizens. And obviously, these coalitions must encompass women, who enjoy – at least de iure – the same rights and responsibilities as men. Women in Slovakia, as well as other countries of our region, have reached a little higher, or at least the same level of education as men. So they are beyond any doubt potentially strong actors.

2. One of the obvious reasons why women should play a stronger role in public life is the need to strengthen their position in the society. This concerns first and foremost the notorious gender inequality on the labor market which is reflected in the horizontal and vertical job segregation, in income inequality, as well as in under-representation of women among managers, particularly on top levels of decision making. We have to combat humiliating working conditions in some private companies where women are treated first and foremost as cheap labor force. There is a great need to spread good practices of employer policies friendly to women and families. We have to alleviate the widespread discrimination on labor market not only of young mothers; but also of women over 45. We have to bear in mind that the trend of population ageing is combined with the feminization of ageing and the feminization of poverty.

3. Sociological surveys indicate a hopeful trend: women in Slovakia have become more sensitive and critical of their inequality and even discrimination on the labor market. This is why they have welcomed the passing of equal treatment legislation which has been implemented in our country in accordance with EU standards. However, up to now, the law enforcement in this field is rather weak. One of the reasons is women’s passive approach to the defense of their own rights – the fact which women themselves self-critically admit. As sociological surveys indicate, Slovak women realize that in pursuing their interests, they lag behind their male counterparts, as well as behind women from some “older democracies.” This is one of the reasons why law suits filed by women against their employer’s discriminatory practices are very rare. And even more uncommon are collective actions of solidarity. The fear of women (but also of men) to counter discrimination on labor market is particularly strong in the regions with high rate of unemployment.

4. Another field where women’s position is traditionally weaker is politics. It can be stated that up to now, a majority of women in Slovakia has practiced a specific syndrome of learned helplessness: they have resigned on their own participation in the political decision-making and handed their responsibility over to men. Needless to say, this pattern of behavior was strengthened during the decades of undemocratic communist regime.

Especially the national level of politics needs a stronger presence of women in legislative and executive positions. Let me give some illustrative facts from Slovakia. The overall proportion of women on party candidate lists was 22 % before the 2002 national election and is 23% before the upcoming June 2006 election. The percentage of women who were voted into the parliament was 15% after the 2002 election and will probably remain the same after the 2006 election. During more than three years of the last electoral term, the Slovak government consisted merely of men and the situation has improved only by the very end of the term, when two women ministers were nominated.

In reaction to this disproportionately low participation of women in top politics, there have been several attempts at introducing some temporary measures into the legislation that would help to increase the share of women in the power-elite. However, they failed: there appeared to be widespread resistance among politicians (including women politicians) to any initiative to improve the chances of women candidates “from above.” Some opponents labeled such measures as harmful “social engineering” and drew an analogy with the communist quota system, arguing that the proposed new temporary measures, too, would be doomed to pervert into pseudo-representation of women.

That does not mean, however, that citizens in Slovakia would be satisfied with the under-representation of women in politics. On the contrary, a majority of them would like to see higher numbers of women in top legislative and executive positions. This is why most of citizens were not against introducing temporary measures aimed at strengthening womens's chances in politics. However, there has been no public mobilization in support of the legislative changes.

As Slovakia is preparing for the upcoming 2006 national election, the composition of the party candidate lists proves that despite intensified public discussion about women’s role in politics, the process of strengthening women’s position within individual political parties is either stagnating or advancing at a very slow pace. When we study the 2006 percentage and position of women on the recently published candidate lists of six political parties that were elected to parliament in 2002 and probably will be elected again, we can state that in one half of them, the position of women candidates has slightly improved, while in the other half of them, it has slightly deteriorated.

Up to now, unlike in Nordic countries, the public opinion in CEE countries has not severely “punished” those political parties, which have not provided adequate space for women. However, it can be expected that the critical feedback of the voters will gradually strengthen, so that male politicians will feel more pressed to respect this requirement and female politicians will feel more encouraged to push harder. Exempla trahunt – and fortunately enough, there are successful women politicians from various parts of the political spectrum in the countries of EU: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Finish President Tarja Halonen, Hungarian Speaker of the Parliament Katalin Szili, or Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

5. Obviously, it would not be right to explain the low share of women in politics only by the phenomenon of glass ceiling. It reflects also the low prestige of politics as a realm of human activity. Many women in Slovakia and other CEE countries – similarly to men – perceive politics as “dirty business”, as a tough and risky profession, which demands sacrifices. Moreover, there is another serious obstacle, for many women virtually insurmountable - the well-known double burden resulting from the traditional division of labor within the families and from the underdeveloped or financially inaccessible social services.

While most people admit the existence of this barrier, it is not so simple to agree on a solution. The challenge ahead is of long-term character and means in fact a gradual, non-violent cultural revolution. In order to better use women’s political potential, a generation of young women is needed who will request from their partners a greater participation in family life and a generation of men has to come who will believe in the virtue of equal partnership in their private relationships. This is a common assignment for media, for personalities from culture and pop culture, for parents, but first and foremost for the official education system. And let us be frank: we have a long way to go.

I realized it recently when I was listening to a group of women teachers from Slovakia who admitted they have failed to introduce a more balanced division of labor in their own families. So, even the teachers themselves have difficulties to get rid of patriarchal stereotypes, which – by the way – are still spread to our students through the unrevised traditional textbooks. While in the Czech Republic, the ministry of education has already introduced a gender audit of textbooks, in Slovakia the official education system has resisted such changes. Fortunately enough, there are women NGOs that have taken up the challenge of introducing gender sensitive education into the community of teachers. Although these informal initiatives prepared outside the official system of education cannot substitute a serious reform of the curricula; they can at least pave the way to it and serve as an innovation impetus.

6. This brings me to another sphere of women’s involvement in public life – to their role in the civil society, in particular in the NGOs. Following the rebirth of associational life after the collapse of communism, women have played an important role in the Slovak non-profit or third sector. This sphere of human activity, with its spirit of openness, creativity and willingness to serve the public good, with its preference of horizontal cooperation and ”soft interactions” over rigid hierarchical subordination, and also with its flexible time organization, has become attractive for many women.

And some of them grew to be not only tireless activists, but also social innovators, public entrepreneurs, and true leaders. Let me give you a few examples. It is a woman leader, the head of a human rights organization Citizen and Democracy Lota Pufflerova, who was the spokesperson of the Civic Campaign OK ’98 that substantially contributed to the victory of democratic forces against the authoritarian threat in 1998 embodied in the rule of the then Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. It is two women – Ema Sicakova, the head of the Transparency International Slovakia, and Zuzana Wienk, the head of the Alliance Fair Play – who stand on the forefront of the civic fight against clientelism and corruption. It is the Charter 77 foundation headed by Zuzana Szatmary, which has provided for free legal counseling and defense of rank-and-file citizens against various forms of discrimination, including those practiced by some big companies. It is the key personalities of the women’s interest association Aspekt Jana Juranova and Jana Cvikova who have introduced the ideas of feminism into Slovakia ’s intellectual discourse and – together with other feminist NGOs – have strived to cultivate gender sensitivity of Slovak population. It is Eva Sopkova, the head of Pro familia center, who broke the taboo about the domestic violence and together with other women NGOs launched fight against this pervasive negative social phenomenon. It is Klara Orgovanova and other women leaders, who have been working tirelessly to overcome the vicious circle of social degradation of Roma community. It is Jolana Krkoskova, the head of the Women of Kysuce civic organization, who launched a program of social mentoring for unemployed women in one of the underdeveloped regions of Slovakia. It is a woman, the head of the Pontis Foundation Lenka Surotchak who has initiated the establishment of Business Leaders Forum – informal association of corporations practicing the principles of corporate social responsibility in Slovakia.

All these and other women leaders, as well as many less known activists are the true fighters for a better quality of democracy in our own country. However, in the recent years, more women from NGOs have entered also the field of humanitarian and development aid. So, Slovak women – civic activists and NGO experts, together with their male colleagues from People in Peril association, Pontis foundation, and many others, organize fundraising campaigns and provide development aid and democratic assistance in countries like Kosovo, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Indonesia; cooperate with Cuban, Belarusian and Iraqi civic leaders, start to develop human rights education in Afghanistan, and so forth. As these examples illustrate, we in Slovakia are slowly moving from former mere recipients of foreign assistance to those who can give our own helping hand to those less fortunate. And women from Slovak NGOs are around.

7. Let me conclude. Our nations – the Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians, similarly to Baltic nations or Southern Slavs – were living for the most part of the 20 th century under undemocratic conditions. The communist regime marginalized women and men who did not stand in line, virtually cut off the heads of those, who distinguished themselves by independent thinking and nonconformist acting. While it opened universities and labor market for women, at the same time it kept them obedient, subordinated, unprepared and untrained to reach out and to rise up to genuine civic leaders. Therefore, new and new generations of girls grew up without having the chance to be inspired by the strong personalities of women working for the cause of democracy.

Obviously, 16 years are not enough to heal all scars that the communist regime left on our collective mentality. Yet, this period is long enough to notice the emerging sea-change. Each of the women whom I mentioned can become genuine role models for the younger generation of women. They all embody the virtues of professional excellence, imagination, but also selfless service, and courage. And this is a huge promise for the future.

Of course, in our globally interconnected world, we cannot confine ourselves only to our domestic horizons. This is why the meetings like this are so important. This is why I feel so privileged to be here with you and so eager to learn from your experiences.

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