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(AGENPARL) – WASHINGTON (DC), mer 05 agosto 2020

This year was meant to be one of success and celebration of how far women’s rights have come, punctuated by the 25th anniversary of the unanimously adopted Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Instead, the global coronavirus pandemic is grinding progress in gender equality to a halt, threatening to erode advances and increasingly intensifying the preexisting gender inequalities that are still so very present. Across the globe, women are being hit harder by the pandemic, as they confront the renewed and recurrent challenges of balancing childcare and their children’s remote education with work. Once again, gaps in the representation of women in senior legislative and healthcare roles become more apparent as the coronavirus threatens to leave women and girls behind in its aftermath. These inequalities have long been prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), and these gender disparities increasingly run the risk of solidifying themselves in the region as the “normal” in the post-pandemic world.

Last October, one report on gender equality in CEE countries revealed considerable disparities in perceptions of the importance of gender equality in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, and Slovakia. Despite efforts to bring gender relations on equal footing across Europe—most visibly through the gender strategy of former European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers, and Gender Equality Věra Jourová from 2014-2019 and now by Commissioner for Equality Helena Dali—the gender discussions in CEE are qualitatively different, and equality there lags behind other European countries. This, however, is not explained by backwardness or traditions; there is still a recognizable difference in socialization that plays out in today’s CEE societies. As a Czech woman working at an NGO in Brussels in her late 20s testified in an interview with the author, the conversation on gender is largely driven by foreign trends or developments; for example, an event at the EU level or abroad is what often puts the issue on the media’s radar in CEE countries.

CEE countries have a unique history and attitude toward equality—from their women’s rights movements prior to WWII to a state-imposed women’s movement during communist times. Under communism, women and men were equally expected to work and contribute to society. In another interview, a Polish woman in her early 30s working for the European Research Council in Brussels describes the lack of employment barriers between men and women under communism, citing how her grandmother, a university professor, held more sophisticated employment than her grandfather. However, the end of the Cold War ushered in an influx of Western ideas, a rush to join the EU, and an eagerness to shed all traces of communism. CEE countries, trying to adhere to Western European ideals on paper, failed to have a national, inclusive debate about what type of society they wanted and what roles men and women would have within it. At the same time, individuals wished finally to have more of a choice in determining family cohesion, and CEE women welcomed long maternity leave that was unavailable during communism. Few CEE women actively took part in political life, which could have played a role in restructuring traditions and traditional gender roles, including Western ideals of equal opportunities while maintaining certain “positive” legacies of communism–such as the right to work and an infrastructure providing childcare. In the aftermath of communism’s mandatory work requirements for men and women, work was perceived as a burden, and the opportunity to stay home and take advantage of maternity leave was regarded as an achievement and privilege. Ultimately, public life and politics were left to men. The Polish woman further describes how competition in the 1990s encouraged the hiring of men for management positions at public institutions and universities, and how parental laws today are almost entirely female-oriented; 99 percent of parents taking parental leave are women. In some other CEE countries—such as Romania and Slovakia—parents are not entitled to early-care services after parental leave ends, which further hinders mothers from actively participating in the labor force. Consequently, today’s CEE women are faced with the dilemma of reconciling society’s expectations for a woman (as mother, caretaker, and wife—reinforced by the strong role of the Catholic church in encouraging traditional, paternalistic visions of society, particularly in Poland) with Western trends and initiatives that promote equal opportunities and gender equality.

A reflection on the period since the fall of the Berlin Wall highlights the cracks in CEE countries’ transitions, suggesting that, while they became emancipated from the Soviet Union, these countries and the EU fell short in their efforts to make a reality of gender equality and a modern role for women. As Tània Verge, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, discussed at the event Feminism at the Forefront of Europe hosted by the Delegation of the Government of Catalonia to the EU in February 2020, in these countries’ accession to the EU, there was a clear disconnect between aspirations, expectations, and the reality surrounding gender equality. This misrepresents the actual experience of CEE women in the larger European narrative about women’s participation in society. Countries like Poland, Hungary, and, to a lesser degree, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, show stark polarizations: populism, strong male-dominated politics, and corruption on one hand, and efforts to strengthen civil society on the other. As citizens demonstrate and demand a different vision, and as these societies reformulate and reflect on what values they want to prioritize, gender equality should be not just part of the discussion but instead a priority, requiring its incorporation across all sectors and embedding gender legislation and bodies into existing systems. Women need to play key roles in formulating this debate and ensuring that their voices are heard. While the EU can issue directives, it is up to each CEE country to determine how to implement these, and the EU must play the key role of ensuring that each are fully equipped to do so.

Moving Forward

CEE women can be part of promoting a new narrative on Europe that is homegrown and includes their visions on gender roles and parity in the region. Women need to recognize that they can be involved in shaping the discussions going forward. Strong, implementable recommendations on gender policies by the EU are important to remind member states of expectations, but they cannot be the sole source of initiating change. Quotas, gender budgeting, and mixed ballot lists can be effective tools, but, at the same time, there needs to be domestic dynamics and engagement by women to demand, shape, and cultivate these policies, ensuring that they are implemented and enforced within local, societal contexts.

Quotas and gendered legislation to reinforce gender parity in the discussion need to be a priority. The Czech Republic, Croatia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary (in that order) consecutively occupy seven of the bottom eight European country rankings in the Gender Index of 2019, with Hungary 27th. Slovenia, at 11th, was the only CEE country to score above the EU average. There is a clear shortfall when it comes to effective gender-equality mechanisms at the local level—they are either generally absent or insufficient overall. Gender frameworks are important for reinforcing gender-equality mechanisms—such as quotas—which offer women across Europe opportunities otherwise unavailable. Noting that Hungary, a country without gender quotas, has the smallest percentage of women mayors with a mere nine out of 100 cities, Budapest Deputy Mayor Kata Tutto, at the conference on The State of Democracy in East-Central Europe held by International IDEA in November 2019, emphasized that women do not try if not given a chance, and that men do not create the space if not asked. Jasna Gabric, Mayor of Trbovlje in Slovenia (a country that ranks ninth–four places above the EU average–when it comes to gender equality at the political level), used a contrasting experience to emphasize the essential role that quotas played in opening access to the invaluable opportunities that enabled her rise to her current position. Quotas should not be seen as a goal in and of itself, but as a means to achieve a goal; they are vital in changing mindsets and ensuring that opportunities exist for women to excel—necessities when it comes to nurturing equality in democratic states.

Yet, as a woman interviewed from Romania working for a think tank in Brussels described, Romania’s problem is not a lack of the right legislation—on paper, everything looks stellar—but rather failure of implementation, as awareness, knowledge about these mechanisms, and staff expertise are inadequate. Shortage of financial support drives shortfalls in the amount and accessibility of gender trainings and enforcement of equality mechanisms. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women noted in a 2017 report that the lack of resources in Romania led to weak execution of policies surrounding equal rights and non-discrimination.

The EU needs to reevaluate how it funds equality and the women’s rights agenda and how it and inter-governmental organizations hold accountable political parties that impede equal-gender participation. At the conference on The State of Democracy in East-Central Europe, Marcin Walecki, Head of the Democratization Department for the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, called for a discussion and restructuring of the funding for the CEE region to increase the success of parity work and to assist effectively in generating definitive action. Through funding, EU institutions need to support women in civil society organizations by monitoring and imposing sanctions when required to tackle non-compliance.

Institutional structures need to be aligned to reach gender equality in Central and Eastern Europe. A quick glance at European Parliament gender statistics reaffirms this: Western European countries send more equitable male and female representation to the European Parliament, whereas CEE countries’ representative make-up falls dismally inadequate. For example, in the 2019 statistics, of the 32 representatives from Romania to the EU Parliament, only seven were women. True democratic governance and a chance for women to participate more actively in regional discussions on gender roles could be orchestrated through stronger EU guidelines on equal opportunities for women and men in the decision-making process, but, so far, the EU has been able to do little to change things in the region. To implement this change of mindset, there needs to be a conscious effort on all sides to eradicate bias. The EU institutions need to assist in changing the dialogue in Central and Eastern Europe to make it more reflective of female empowerment, equal opportunities, and gender parity, and progressive, female CEE policymakers in Brussels could play a powerful role by bridging this EU-member state divide. There must be an inclusive approach at the civil and political levels; all men and women—not just politicians—need to be a part of this conversation.

A hopeful spark has been lit in Slovakia, which could inspire other CEE countries. With the election of Zuzana Čaputová in 2019 as the first female president in the region, change has been ignited through progressive voting resulting in progressive, female leadership. A female perspective lends a different approach to civil society, society’s mentality towards women, and the opportunities that should exist for women. Female perspectives must be welcomed in the CEE region where the threats of populism, corruption, and shrinking civil liberties still loom.

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Photo Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock


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