Triage in Eastern Europe

Perdita Huston

November 27, 1990|By Perdita Huston

YESTERDAY a letter arrived from a woman friend. "I left the GDR with my children via Hungary in August 1989. My decision was caused by differences with the SED government, particularly concerning environmental policies and the repressive working style at the university. Some months later, things changed dramatically, as you know. I asked the university if I could return, hoping to continue my work in environmental health in the Dresden area, an extremely polluted region which urgently needs experts in environmental health. I've received no reply, but in September I learned that a man who has no experience in such work has been named to my post." Renate Walter, a single mother who holds a doctorate in public health, is no longer wanted in her homeland.

As Europe collapses into a common East-West home, there will be victims, that we know. Struggling to keep out-dated infrastructures afloat, unemployment to an "acceptable level" and food supplies regular, fledgling democratic governments will have to make some tough, even triage-like, decisions.

Triage requires the "sorting out" of the weakest in order to favor the strong. Will the so-called weaker sex be selected to sacrifice their economic rights, and dignity, to the strong of the new Europe?

The signs are there. The erosion of women's employment rights, child care and maternity benefits which aided the working woman, of reproductive rights and even of the media's portrayal of women's worth is increasingly evident. Soft-porn magazines arrived with perestroika.

Olga Lipovskaya, a Leningrad journalist, says, "In a recent issue of the new liberal magazine Horizon, there was an article called "A Naked Girl," in which the male author tries to convince us that Soviet men love pin-up girls because of their charming, kind, appreciative and clever looks. That's just what you can't find in real Soviet women, he complains. He blames us for all the faults and problems of the Soviet system . . . And not only him, all the system works against women . . . The official media are widely supporting the idea that women should stay home, 'get back to the natural woman's destiny!' So we have beauty contests, nude posters and an increase in violence against women."

From Latvia comes a news article announcing that the Town Council of Ventspils plans to open hitherto illegal bordellos. The article states that the intent is to earn "hard currencies." But, of course, the prostitutes shall register, pay taxes and have a continuous medical record.

Government with a male face has become the norm throughout Eastern Europe in the past year; the percentage of women in parliaments has declined everywhere. Parliamentarian Zsuszanna Szelenyi points out that in Hungary, "None of the parties had a women's program. Not even my own, the Federation of Young Democrats. As a result, only 5 percent of winning candidates were women, compared to 25 percent before."

In Poland, conservative religious forces are attempting to replace the communist structure. Women's reproductive rights -- access all forms of contraception and to abortion -- are likely to disappear. Yet it is well documented that the legalization of abortion in Poland contributed to the elimination of infanticide and of suicides by pregnant women and a decrease in abortion-related deaths. Nonetheless, the leading vote-getter in Sunday's presidential election, Lech Walesa, took the position that as a practicing Catholic he could not oppose the views of the church in these matters.

Throughout the centuries -- and in the building of the communist system -- women's work has been essential to economic survival. Under communism, women had equal rights with men and the equal duty to work. That duty was supported by child care facilities, maternity leave and longer-paid vacations for mothers. Will a market economy find such "frills" too expensive and, thus, the employment of women "unprofitable."

If history teaches women anything it is that when female labor is needed, fine; let women work and praise them. When men need employment, when babies or consumers are needed, not fine. It is then that the woman-myth of docile, idle, well-shaped women is created. The patriotic woman worker is deprived of her dignity.

The woman who has worked 8-10 hour shifts, stood in line for bread and vegetables for another hour and a half and who has come home to cook for a poorly housed, heated and clothed family, is tired, to be sure. She has worked double and triple time for over 40 years. Does she now deserve to be the victim of the new Europe, deprived of her livelihood in favor of her brother? And do her daughters deserve to be served up in the media as bare-breasted celebrants of democracy? Certainly this cannot be the reason Renate Walter chose freedom.

Perdita Huston is a free-lance writer based in London.

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