Women after Socialism: "After the Fall, Traffic in Flesh, NotDreams"
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Sun Jun 11 17:37:56 MDT 2000
June 11, 2000 _The New York Times_
After the Fall, Traffic in Flesh, Not Dreams
By ALISON SMALE
IF anybody has borne the brunt of the changes in Eastern Europe and
the former Soviet Union since the fall of Communism, it has been
women. While the picture varies wildly from the relatively developed
countries of central Europe to the huge, impoverished swaths of the
Balkans, Russia and central Asia, women have not benefited from any
economic gains as men have. At the same time, they appear to have
disproportionately shouldered the stresses brought by a total change
of life style.
Health care and child care have all but collapsed in many places. In
some, fewer girls are finishing high school than 10 years ago.
Between 1985 and 1997, a recently released United Nations study
found, the transition to a market economy meant that the number of
working women fell by 40 percent in Hungary, 21 percent in Russia and
24 to 31 percent in the Baltic states. Of course, men have lost jobs,
too, and they often sink into apathy and alcoholism, women say.
Women who might have hoped for a clerical or professional job under
Communism find themselves forced into menial work -- frequently in
the unprotected realm of the black economy -- to make ends meet while
caring for children and keeping their family together. Some, indeed,
are forced into prostitution, often after being trafficked abroad on
the pretense that they will work as a maid or waitress.
"Women take the role of savior -- they try to save themselves, their
family," said Olga Gerasymyuk, the host of a popular television
program on social affairs in Ukraine.
Women's magazines there promote what may seem to the West an
idiosyncratic message of empowerment: "They teach them to save the
gentle spirit of their husbands, who are at a loss," Ms. Gerasymyuk
Zina Mounla, who coordinates programs across the former Soviet bloc
for the United Nations Development Fund for Women, said that
statistics are hard to come by on how poorly women are doing compared
to men in this shifting environment.
One area in which east European women have clearly regressed is in
political representation. Under Communism, quotas ensured that
one-third of the seats in the often nominal parliaments went to
women. "Even now," said Gulmira Asanbayeva, an activist from
Kyrgyzstan who promotes women's leadership, "we remember the names of
famous women from the Soviet period," women who had the kind of
political sway now exercised almost exclusively by men.
Ms. Asanbayeva, 22, was one of the 10,000 women estimated to have
attended a conference in New York last week titled Beijing Plus Five,
which examined the worldwide status of women five years after a giant
gathering in Beijing that was attended by, among others, Hillary
Rodham Clinton, who inspired heated debate in the United States over
the wisdom of a first lady visiting China, with its poor human rights
record. In hundreds of meetings, formally and informally, women
discussed the gains made toward equality and set goals for the future.
Although Ms. Asanbayeva and several other eastern Europeans spoke out
on women's causes, there was little indication that they would
succeed at home any time soon. Lenka Simerska, 24, who works with the
Gender Studies Center in Prague, said she feels far removed from the
stresses of poverty described by women from the Balkans or the former
Soviet Union. In the Czech Republic, she said, men were so long
frustrated by the deadening hand of Communism that they took over
everything after its fall in 1989. As a result, educated women
seeking a good job often fall prey to chauvinist prejudices about
leaving work to have children (paid maternity leave in the Czech
Republic lasts up to three years) or taking time off to rear them;
above all they lack mechanisms for righting perceived wrongs.
"Women's consciousness and solidarity are not great," Ms. Simerska
said, predicting change only when "young women will slowly get angry,
and something will happen."
For some women and girls, particularly the poor and undereducated,
notions of power are unimaginable. Indeed the poorer and more
uneducated the women are, the more likely it is that they will become
involved in prostitution. Irene Freudenschuss-Reichl, Austria's
delegate to Beijing Plus Five, estimated that half a million women
from central and Eastern Europe are shipped abroad each year as part
of the worldwide trafficking in prostitutes. A recent American study
shows that an increasing share of the 45,000 to 50,000 such women
traveling to the United States each year come from the former Soviet
Selma Gasi, 20, an activist with the Women to Women group in Bosnia,
tells a particularly chilling tale of pimps, accompanied by older
women, scouring the war-devastated villages, ostensibly for sitters
or housemaids, and taking girls as young as 14 to strip-dancing bars
where they become prostitutes.
Ms. Mounla said this is not unique to the Balkans; it is seen in
Ukraine and Russia, where pimps have been known to take teenagers
from orphanages that release them at age 16. Some women know they are
going to work as prostitutes, she said, but that doesn't mean they
should forfeit all their rights.
Yasmina Dimiskovska, of the Union of Women in Macedonia, said Russian
and Ukrainian women are trafficked through her country to Italy, or
their passports seized locally and they are sent to strip-dancing
bars. Again, statistics are hard to come by, but 40 women came from
Ukraine last month alone, she said.
"We can talk to them, go to the police," Ms. Dimiskovska said. But
"there is no shelter willing to help" women who lack official
identity papers. If they are shipped home, she added, they risk
repercussions from the criminals who first sent them abroad. "It's a
circle which can't be stopped," she said. "I think they cannot do
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