Women’s Empowerment in Transition Economies: How Has the Role of Women Changed Since the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and Central Asia?

Last Friday, we celebrated the women in our lives for International Women’s Day and credited the women around us for both their role in our own personal development and global economic development. The growth in global celebrations of this day is a fantastic testament to the steps we are making towards SDG #5: Gender Equality, and our process towards a more equal world. Women are the backbone of society, building communities, and raising the next generation of world changers leaders. Women are also multi-faceted beings, whose empowerment is pivotal in poverty reduction, community development and alleviating worldwide social and economic disparities. However, across the world still, women are systematically denied their human rights based upon their gender, giving them less decision-making power, restricted access to resources and basic services, such as money, protection from violence, healthcare and education. Women in transition economies, such as former-Yugoslav states and former-USSR states, are still disadvantaged in their day-to-day life based upon their gender, with very little relief funding aiding empowerment projects due to differing global priorities.

Following the collapse of the communist regimes in the 1990s, women’s empowerment programmes began to spring up everywhere in the region, aiming to increase women’s autonomy and political power. However, nearly thirty years on, these programmes have failed and faltered, with little continued support in empowering women’s rights and alleviating poverty. Due to this, inequality has grown in the region, poverty levels are still higher than anticipated, unemployment is rife and gender-based violence is still a common occurrence. We assume that when countries transition to more capitalistic models and enter our ‘Western-ideals’, that poverty will reduce, inequality will reduce, and women will partake more in the global economy. Whilst there has been some progress, with Croatia boasting a female President and Serbia a female Prime Minister, Eastern European and Central Asian women are still neglected in the global fight for women’s empowerment. In order for the Western Balkans to ascend to the EU, gender equality must be a vocal policy point to meet the outlined criteria, with Serbia and Montenegro both active candidates for ascension. To comprehend how exactly women have been empowered in these regions in the past thirty years, we can look at labour force participation and education attainment as vital signifiers of empowerment.

One of the leading EU priorities in enabling the ascension of the Western Balkans into the EU is the guarantees of women’s economic and social rights. Whilst the EU average employment rate for females is 65.3%, the highest female employment rate in the Western Balkans is 55%, in Albania (Lilyanova, 2018). On the other end of the spectrum, the ladies of Kosovo have only 14.6% employment rate and those from BiH have an employment rate of 32%. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung identifies the key challenges in the region are predominantly based in the labour market, with labour market insecurity for females, an increasing share of unpaid care work, gender pay and pension gaps widening as well as uneven job progress and sexual harassment and violence (Lilyanova, 2017). Women in the Western Balkans are more likely to see a wage gap in the private sector, which could be why more women are employed in the public sector in most Balkan countries. Women also do a significantly higher share of unpaid labour, such as raising children, running the household and maintaining the community, which keeps women out of the workplace. With lack of access to childcare and elderly care due to lack of financial support, this keeps women in a weaker economic position in men than women, with which can only change with either increased public spending on child and elderly care, or cultural attitudes change towards men undertaking more unpaid labour in the household (Batkovic, 2013). However, there is much hope for the next few years, with many civic groups and feminist uprising advocating and encouraging change in their local communities.

Similarly, women in former-USSR states are also protesting for change, with Marianna Grigoryan stating that “slowly, change is coming” (Grigoryan, 2015). According to the ILO, one of the main countries where women’s pay differs from what would be is expected in Russia, with women earning approximately 32.8% less than men. When considering factors that may affect this, such as education, experience and job role, they should make 11.1% more, which has led to a female labour force participation rate of 56.64%, in comparison to that of 59.28% in 1990. Women in former Soviet states also receive fewer child benefits than those in Europe, meaning they both take on a higher share of unpaid household labour than their partner, earn significantly less than their partner and are poorly compensated by the state for doing so. In Tajikistan, women’s rights are written into the constitution in a way that demonstrates ‘western values’ on paper, yet realistically these rules are scarcely applied, with a women’s rights predominantly depending on her social status (Lillis, 2015). In contrast in Georgia, women are predominantly the household’s sole breadwinner, yet men remain in decision-making roles outside their home.

According to DFID’s 2017 Report on the Western Balkans, the biggest challenge towards achieving gender equality is shifting mentalities in the community regarding traditional gender roles. Across the Balkans, women are more likely to leave education early than men, in comparison to the EU average of 12.2% of men leaving education earlier compared to 9.6% of females. Whilst there are many theories surrounding this, the leading ideologies surrounding this are due to child marriage/ pregnancy, taking up unpaid labour in the home or taking up low-paid work in the community. Serbia is the only Western Balkan state which reported women has having a higher rate of education attainment rate, with every other state having a higher male education attainment rate. Serbia has seen a significant rise in women graduating from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) disciplines, with 18.9% of every 1,000 female inhabitants graduating from STEM fields in 2016 – higher than the EU average. Females from ethnic minority groups, such as Roma groups, had the lowest education attainment of all young people in the region – due to both cultural attitudes towards educating females and ethnic discrimination in schooling. Boys are more likely to be privately educated than females in the region, demonstrating a higher monetary value placed on a boy’s education than girls. However, this is slowly changing, with Kosovan females slowly catching up to their male counterparts in the battle for private education.

Interestingly, the Soviet Union had a much better record of training women in STEM than developed countries such as the US have today (Lillis, 2015). The Soviet Union placed significant importance on the education of its citizen, which has shown a remarkable decline since the collapse of the communist regime. In the -stan countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, women’s education has significantly dropped on the political agenda due to the revival of conservative norms, leaving women in the home and men in the workplace (Turdieva & Hellborg, 2016). Rather than attending classes, women are expected to take care of the household, whilst men predominantly migrate to Russia in pursuit of work. Rising poverty levels have also reduced educational opportunities for girls, with a rise in protectionism from international trade further heightening the negative implications of poverty on girls. A lack of urbanisation in these states has also led to a decline in the provision of education to girls from rural communities, making travelling to and from school more and more expensive. Due to these constraints, families prioritize their son’s education over females, due to the idea that women are ‘temporary’ members of the family until marriage when they live with their husband’s family.

Whilst we often assume that the developed, middle to high-income countries surrounding us are on the forefront of women’s empowerment due to our own assumptions based upon our lived experience, it’s somewhat sad to see the opposite. Fly 3-4 hours outside of the UK, and a women’s access to education and paid employment seems to drop by the minute. When we talk about countries that struggle with female empowerment, at the forefront of our mind are those ‘developing’ countries based in Sub-Saharan Africa. We don’t tend to think of countries such as Montenegro or Georgia as having these issues, due to a lack of representation of these problems in the news. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, with many female campaigners and activists within these regions slowly but surely making positive changes for females in their regions. So, for this IWD, and the next ones to follow, I’ll be celebrating those women at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights in the countries surrounding me, near and far. I’ll be advocating for genuinely empowering programmes for these women, and not just service-skills training programmes set to help women make a few pounds here or there. We need to stop making women beacons of victimhood, and instead, empower them to help develop their community in a way which suits them, empowers them, and doesn’t just appeal to our western ideals of empowerment.

Works Cited
Batkovic, Z., 2013. BALKANS Evidence of Change in Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, Geneva: CARE International.
Grigoryan, M., 2015. Slowly, Change is Coming: Life for Women in the Post-Soviet World. The Guardian, 08 04.
Lillis, J., 2015. ‘We Want a Voice’: Women Fight For Their Rights in the Former-USSR. The Guardian, 08 04.
Lilyanova, V., 2017. Rights and Empowerment of Women in Western Balkans, s.l.: European Parliament.
Lilyanova, V., 2018. Women in the Western Balkans, s.l.: European Parliamentary Research Service.
Turdieva, Z. & Hellborg, M., 2016. Losing Out: Barriers to Girls’ Education in Tajikistan, s.l.: Institute for Security & Development Policy.

Published by Development Perspectives Ireland

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