Women's Vital Voices: The Costs of Exclusion in Eastern Europe

Courtesy Reuters

The advent of democracy in the former communist states of Europe brings both much promise and, as we are learning, much peril. For millions, the complexion of life has evolved from red to rose-colored to raw. A monolithic nemesis has been replaced by a perplexing variety of threats to stability in this fragile region, with expressions of democracy frequently drowned out by the noises of intolerance and repression.

In this brave new world, the voices of women are vital to healthy social and political discourse. The dramatically low status of women in post-communist Europe is an issue that goes beyond the well-being of women per se to the fostering of economic development and democracy. American interests require that we help the region's women carve out their rightful place in the mainstream of society.


Life under communism was a far cry from the auspicious pronouncements of fair treatment for all comrades. After all, equal access to parliamentary charades, empty shelves, and substandard health services was hardly a boon. With the fall of communism, the trappings of gender parity fell away, exposing discrimination against women that had persisted in the totalitarian state. The transition to capitalism has been difficult for most, but especially for women.

While the particulars of women's status differ from country to country, patterns of marginalization exist: diminished labor market access, increasing vulnerability to crime, loss of family-oriented social benefits, and exceedingly low parliamentary representation. In many countries in transition the feminization of poverty has been striking. In Russia, 87 percent of employed urban residents with incomes under $21 a month are female; above earnings of $315 a month, the figure nose-dives to 32 percent. To an even greater extent than in the West, Eastern European women tend to be clustered in the low-paying professions. But during this period of transition, ever-more-blatant gender-biased hiring and promotion practices are becoming deeply entrenched; job advertisements frequently specify "attractive female receptionist" or "male manager." In most of the new democracies, regulations prescribe

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