Women in eastern Europe: the glamour begins to fade

November 6, 1991

By Angela Matheson

PRAGUE — Ask any east European woman what the future holds for her, and the chances are she'll tell you her vision of a glamorous job with good pay, beautiful clothes and designer brand make-up and the luxury of staying home if she chooses to look after her children.

This Western middle-class ideal, brought tantalisingly to eastern Europeans by glossy magazines, mainstream movies and wealthy Western tourists, has shaped women's expectations.

"Women here want Czechoslovakia to be like the United States", explains Stephan Steiger, a member of Left Alternative, one of the few surviving socialist organisations in the east. "Capitalism is their future, and they're desperate for it to succeed. There is no point telling them life is not like this even for women in the US."

For the Western woman visiting the east equipped with the lessons of the past 20 years' feminism, eastern Europe seems like a 1950s time warp. All of the old sexist assumptions are alive and kicking.

At the Employment Office in Zyrardow in northern Poland, a group of women recently retrenched from the local stocking factory queue to collect unemployment benefits. One woman, Lydia, wears a long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck to conceal bruises from a beating.

"My husband beats me every pay day, but lately more and more because he's going to be laid off. Things are hard for him."

Her friend, Anna, agrees. "When a woman's out of work, it's just as well. She'll stay home and make dinner. But when a man's out of work, he can't deal with it. No wonder they drink."

They are astounded to hear that in Australia married women cannot draw unemployment benefits.

"A woman must have an income, and unemployment benefits are a lifesaver even though the money is peanuts", said Lydia. "Without it a Polish woman cannot make sure there is food for the children. You cannot rely on the men."

Another young woman, Sylwia, sits in the queue making calculations with a pencil. She is working out when to fall pregnant.

"The way I see it, there is no work, and that is not going to change for a while. Unemployment benefits are going to shrink, so it's best if I fall pregnant now, get my maternity benefit and stick things out for the next few years", she said.

Sylwia is sure a job will be available after the country makes its successful transformation to capitalism: "After a few years bringing up a child, things will be better and jobs will be around".

No return

In reality, unemployment is on the rise, with no prospect of a return to full employment.

Before the 1989 revolution, Poland had full employment, but now more than 1.5 million are out of work. Sixty-five per cent of them are women. In Hungary, the situation is similar. In September, half a million women found themselves competing for 9000 blue collar jobs.

Traditionally, women made up the bulk of factory workers across eastern Europe. Now the factories are in trouble. Unable to adapt to the demands of privatisation or to keep afloat since the end of Soviet energy subsidies, factories are laying off staff at alarming rates.

Women like Sylwia and Lydia are bewildered. Zyrardow was known as a women's town, with its flax plant, stocking factory and clothing plant. Here, men had trouble finding work and had to commute to Warsaw.

"If someone told me a few years ago that I wouldn't be able to find work here, I would have thought they were mad", said Lydia.

Even in factories making a successful transition to the private sector, women are the losers.

In eastern Czechoslovakia, at the Bizuterie costume jewellery factory, women stamp out pieces of glass by hand. The work is mindless and monotonous, but they work at their own pace and are surrounded by pot-plants from home; clippings from magazines are stuck on walls to brighten the workshop. Each table has its own coffee making facilities, which the women use as they choose.

Bizuterie employs 2500 people, most of them women. But the company plans to intoduce computer technology later this year, and many jobs will go. The company director, Miroslav Jotov, hopes women can be relocated to higher positions, but adds, "Many of the new jobs will be computer-related, so we will need to employ men".

The children's nursery, previously supplied and subsidised by the state, is being handed over to the nearby Town Hall. Jotov sees child-care as an unjustifiable expense for a company seeking private investors.

Our tour guide, who works for the Press Office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explains, "This is happening everywhere. They are trying to force the women back into the homes."

Sexual exploitation

For some women, the flourishing pornography trade has created the option of earning money unimaginable under the old regime. Nineteen-year-old Ewa Kurek works for Belindz modelling agency in Budapest. She poses for explicit sex magazines and waitresses topless at businessmen's functions. She is planning to open a cafe in a few years.

Does she think she is being exploited?

"No", says Ewa. "Before I would have been expected to do then go home and do all the work for a husband and children. Doing this, I can earn big money and plan my life the way I want."

There are no distinctions drawn between sexual liberation and sexual exploitation. Having suffered decades of "desexualisation" campaigns, which amounted to an expectation that they would be workhorses for the state, women now want to be pretty, glamorous and attractive to men. This means being a sexual object.

Kazimierz Frieske, associate professor at the Institute of Sociology in Warsaw, explains it this way: "The adoption of market philosphy makes many spheres of life dependent on market rules. This concerns the human body and eroticism. The use of erotic themes in publicity has a long tradition in developed countries and is extremely profit-making."

In Prague, one of the most painful results is the resurgence of prostitution. Female students and workers who need more than their wages or unemployment benefits can buy line the main streets and town square, or wait outside the Jazz Club, a new dance club for tourists, for clients who will pay them hard currency.

According to Jirina Vrabkova, of the Women's Committee in Prague, prostitution has increased at a phenomenal rate in two years. The government estimates there are now 30,000 prostitutes in Prague alone. As living standards have dropped by up to 40%, women have been forced onto the streets.

Said Jirina, "You can see with your own eyes how much cheaper and easier it is for German tourists and others to come here on cheap sex tours". She suspects Czechoslovakia may develop as a European equivalent of the Philippines sex trade. She has been told by prostitutes that the going rate is about 50-100 crowns — $2-$5, considerably cheaper than Western prostitutes.

Meanwhile, with right-wing and Christian politics on the rise, women can expect an erosion of their access to contraception and abortion. In Poland, the coalition Catholic Election Action is campaigning under the platform of Christian ethics for all. It is identified with the controversial proposed law banning abortion. The bill was scrapped by the Sejm, but support for the coalition is growing. Coalition chair Jan Lopuszansk stresses the need for "moral purity in the family, the media and in politics, just like we demand clear water from the tap".

And in Czechoslovakia, legislation is being prepared for submission to parliament calling for women to pay for their own abortions, except in the case of rape or a life-endangering pregnancy. The price of an abortion is mooted at between 2000 and 4000 crowns — more than an average monthly salary.

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