Women in Russia: what the research shows


By Irina Glushchenko

MOSCOW — To know their conditions of life are bad and getting worse, women in today's Russia do not need graphs, maps or statistical tables. Nevertheless, the newspaper Segodnya performed a useful service recently when it published a special supplement containing detailed information on the lives and problems of Russian women.

Despite its right-wing politics, Segodnya has devoted more attention to women's issues than any other newspaper in Russia. Women's issues often remain outside the field of view of opposition and even left-wing publications.

The picture described by Segodnya is not a happy one. As might be expected, the position of women in Russia is best in Moscow and in a few other major centres. In provincial areas, women have fared better in regions which have put up clear resistance to Moscow, "resolutely opposing the reforms coming from the capital and defending socialist values".

The research showed that despite stereotypes, the position of women in two "Muslim" autonomous territories, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaev-Cherkesia, is better in many respects than the Russian average. The worst regions are Siberia and the Urals, and in the European part of the country, Kostroma and Ivanovo provinces, where the textile industry has traditionally been centred.

The economic situation in the latter regions is so appalling that even the local authorities speak of these provinces as disaster zones. A recent report from Ivanovo described how a jobless mother took her two children with her to the office of a factory director and committed suicide before their eyes. Journalists describe such incidents, but nothing changes in provincial life.

The eastern regions also rate far worse than average in the number of recorded cases of alcoholism and tuberculosis in women, with more than 25 cases per 100,000. In the northern and north-eastern provinces, as many as 3.5% of women are employed doing heavy physical labour, while in European Russia this figure is not usually more than 1%.

In general, the position of women has deteriorated most sharply in the zones that have suffered most from the current economic policies. Unemployment is also higher among women than among men.

Women have suffered more than men from the collapse of social welfare provisions, from the decline of state child-care facilities and from the crisis in education. While it may be no strain for wealthy "new Russians" to engage a full-time child-care nurse for $100-200 a week, this is more than the monthly wage of an average worker. Child-care centres for the offspring of "good families" cost $100 a month or more, and are quite inaccessible to most parents.

All this leads on the one hand to a decline in the birth rate, and on the other, to increased subjugation for women. The rise in women's unemployment has not meant that fewer women are having to perform heavy physical labour. Meanwhile, discrimination against women in hiring is becoming more widespread.

These problems are meeting with only an insignificant response from the parliamentary deputies of the "Women of Russia" bloc. This formation, based on women who held influential posts in the old party-state apparatus, enjoyed considerable success in the December elections for the State Duma. But in the year since then the bloc has remained virtually out of sight, except when its members have been campaigning for prestigious posts in parliamentary commissions.

The disappointment with the performance of the "women's party" was not hard to predict. The bloc's success in the elections was achieved through television advertisements, not as a result of support from the women's movement. Winning the votes of a proportion of the voters who were dissatisfied with the "official" politicians, Women of Russia went on to show that it did not differ from these politicians in any meaningful way.

Few people would now disagree that even if the Women of Russia bloc survives until the next election, it will not be able to repeat its electoral success. Meanwhile, the real problems of Russian women demand urgent solutions. Leftists will be making a serious error if they fail to see this.