Women in Eastern Europe finding democracy a struggle

December 31, 1990|By Boston Globe

One year after crowds swept through the streets of Eastern Europe toppling communist dictators with demands for more freedom, the region's women have found democracy a less than liberating experience.

"The cause is lost," said Jolanta Plakwicz, a feminist in Warsaw, Poland. "There is no sex education in the schools. The new Parliament canceled all subsidies for family planning. The new abortion law will allow no exceptions for abortions unless the mother's life is endangered or it is rape. Under the Communist regime we had no rights, but all of us had no rights. Now there is no way to defend women."

"The pornography is terrible," said Marta Szigeti, a top-ranking woman at Hungary's Environment Ministry. "Peep shows! Massage parlors! We are becoming the Thailand of Europe. I have two children, 9 and 6. They go to the newsstand and there, right next to the Mickey Mouse books, is this pornographic thing you have to explain to them."

"I was at a party in the west of Germany with a lot of very educated people," said Christine Hein, an eastern German documentary film maker who makes movies for children. "All the women were educated, but it was the old ritual: When a man spoke he was not to be interrupted. And his share in the conversation was regarded as more important than a woman's."

Across Eastern Europe, women are complaining about cuts in subsidies and child care, which hit women and families hardest. Subsidies for children's clothing were among the first to be reduced in Czechoslovakia this fall when the government began its transition to a market economy.

In what used to be East Germany, a woman with a child at home used to get 40 days of sick leave when the child got sick. As a citizen of a new, unified Germany, a woman worker now gets just five days, plus five more days that can be used by her husband. In both Poland and eastern Germany, the right to abortion has come under attack.

Even more troubling to many Eastern European women is the resurgence of traditional -- some would say sexist -- attitudes in societies that once enshrined at least a patina of equal rights for women in their propaganda and official statements. Violence against women is up in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and what used to be East Germany, according to government officials in all these countries.

"The social control" of communism "had a great impact on the behavior of men in regard to women," said Johanna Kurz of the Center for Women's Studies at the Free University in Berlin. "The women in East Germany worked. They were part of the party. There was a special concept of emancipation. This is now seen as old-fashioned."

In Poland, the abortion issue has stirred the most anxiety among women. Like most East bloc countries, Poland for decades guaranteed abortion on demand.

In the past year, the new Solidarity-led government, under heavy pressure from the Catholic Church, has drawn up tighter restrictions on abortion.

As Plakwicz suggests, part of the reason many women feel let down by their revolutions is the emergence of conservative forces, including the Catholic Church, following the toppling of communist regimes.

Over the long run, many women agree, the economic changes transforming their countries will make their lives easier by offering them more goods and modern conveniences.

Still, over the short term, women are bearing the brunt of economic hard times. In both Poland and eastern Germany, women have come under pressure at factories to give up their jobs so that men can be kept on.

"There was always a base of traditional thinking in these countries, like the belief that women should raise the children," Kurz said.

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