Putting Women's Issues on Russia's Map

No one has been hit harder by the collapse of communism than Russia's women, who make up the bulk of the nation's unemployed and feel the price of soaring inflation every time they try to shop for dinner.

Though women comprise less than 50 percent of Russia's work force, they now make up from 70 to 75 percent of the nation's unemployed.

Those who still have jobs have seen their earnings fall even further behind those of men. During the Soviet era women's wages averaged 70 percent of men's. Today that figure is 40 percent.

"The last few years feel like one, long difficult day," said Marina Kiyenya, 33, a single mother who juggles teaching Spanish classes, tutoring private students, freelance translation and caring for her 8-year-old daughter, Natasha. Her monthly income is 90,000 rubles ($53).

But against this relentlessly bleak outlook, there is at least one cause for optimism: Women's issues are emerging in a genuine form here for the first time since the early days of Soviet rule, when the Communists began to manipulate the idea of "women's emancipation" for political and economic ends.

Out of hardship, many Russian women are being forced to take matters into their own hands. Moscow alone now has more than 150 grassroots women's organizations, everything from the "Conversion and Women Society" to "Only Mothers," a support and networking group for single mothers.

The most visible sign of the emergence of women's issues into the mainstream is Women of Russia, the political movement that unexpectedly placed fourth in last year's parliamentary elections -- after Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, Russia's Choice and the Communist Party.In addition to the 23 deputies in Women of Russia, there were 31 other women elected in other parties. That was seen as a victory for Russia's women, even though they make up just 13.5 percent of the State Duma's 444 deputies.

"For the first time in Russian history we have women winning as an electoral block," said Yelena Yershova, director of the Gaia Women's Center in Moscow. But she was also cautious about how much Women of Russia would be able to achieve.

"We have a great opportunity, but it's only a promise of victory, not a victory itself," said Yershova. "A lot depends on their program and their concept of women's issues."

Indeed, the women's faction in the State Duma could hardly be a more diverse group, coming from three different organizations: the Women's Union, the Association of Business Women and the Russian Navy Women's Association.

Though the party describes itself as "centrist," many of the deputies are former Communists whose sweeping campaign promises to restore social guarantees and "ban crime and pornography" appealed to voters frustrated with reforms.

But their program is no more concrete than to evaluate how proposed laws might affect women and families. It remains to be seen how effective they will be as a voting block or, more specifically, how they will reconcile the interests of business with social support for families.

"The main conflict within the faction is between women as employers and women as homemakers," said Vera Soboleva, head of international programs for the Women's Union.

The women's faction also faces considerable resistance from their male colleagues in parliament to recognize the validity of women's issues.

Though the Soviet authorities promoted women's emancipation as an ideal, in practice they manipulated women as a labor force more than they provided opportunities. When workers were needed in industry, the media extolled the working woman and denounced "idle" housewives as a burden on society; when jobs were scarce, new posters praised the ideal wife and mother.

Through it all, male chauvinism has continued to run deep in Russian society.

The Women's Union encountered indifference last fall when it sent out letters seeking the positions on women's issues of all 25 potential parties in the legislative elections. Only 3 parties responded, Soboleva said.

Alevtina Fedulova, the president of the Women's Union and now deputy speaker of the State Duma, recognizes that the women's faction's success is still only symbolic.

"Our main success is that we made Russian men pronounce the phrase 'Women of Russia,'" said Fedulova, who formerly headed the Soviet Women's Committee. "Our next step is to make them think about what women will say and think about their behavior."

Though Fedulova sees the faction as a potentially strong swing vote, Women of Russia's power is relatively limited in the State Duma, where only one committee is chaired by a woman -- not surprisingly, the "Committee on the Problems of Families, Women and Youth."

Even naming that committee was a struggle. The men wanted to call it "The Committee on Problems of Family, Motherhood and Childhood." The women wanted to call it the "Committee on Equal Rights and Opportunity for Men and Women." They compromised.

The faction is drafting a law on equal rights and opportunities in hiring and firing and wants to remove current laws prohibiting women from working in dangerous jobs or working late-night shifts, according to Lyudmila Zavadskaya, a deputy. Although these laws are largely ignored, she said they can easily be used to keep women out of certain jobs.

"When we had an extensive and healthy economy, no one worried about such rules, but now it's dangerous," said Zavadskaya, 44, a lawyer. "We're not in favor of women working in dangerous places, but we want women to decide for themselves. The state does not have the right to determine where women can and cannot work."

Other women's groups are looking outside of government to forge opportunities for women in the workplace.

Irina Khakamada, a well-known economist who was elected to the State Duma as an independent candidate, recently joined with five other women to found the Women's Liberal Fund to help professional women who want to start businesses or get involved in politics.

Anastasia Posadskaya, director of the Center for Gender Studies, has been encouraged by the number of women starting nonprofit organizations to answer needs such as improving maternity and child care and protecting women from violence.

Gradually, she hopes, attitudes of both men and women toward women's rights will change as well.

"The divergence between men and women is growing," she said. "But at the same time there is perhaps a new motivation for women to value the importance of being independent."