International Women's Day-conference highlights post-communist reality

March 8th was International Women's Day. This year women from around the Czech Republic and abroad gathered for a conference in Prague. A variety of topics were discussed ranging from the lack of women in politics to the role of the European Union in promoting gender equality.

Photo: European CommissionPhoto: European Commission To kick off the conference, Michaela Marks-Tominova, the head of the Czech Labour Ministry's department for Family Affairs and Social Policy, addressed the negative connotations that sometimes accompany International Women's Day in the Czech Republic:

"International women's day is still perceived as something that is connected to communist times because communists used this day for their ideology. I tried to explain that the history of international women's day which goes back to the beginning of the 20th century."

"Of course, it should not be celebrated as the communists did, which meant that men got drunk and women got flowers. It should be organized as a commemoration of past and present violations of women's rights."

I asked Mrs. Marks-Tominova what she saw as the major issues faced by women in post-communist countries:

"First of all there's the discrimination faced on the labour market. Since the early 90's the salary gap has been increasing. Or it increased until 2000 and now it has stopped. The other thing is that the unemployment of women has been increasing and again the gap between men and women has been growing. The other problem I see is that not enough women are involved in decision making processes."

Lack of political participation was a central topic of discussion. Senator Alena Gajduskova noted that women's political participation did not reflect the proportion of men and women in the population at all:

"When we look at the numbers in the parliament of the Czech Republic, women make up 15%, and in the government there are even less. There is not a single woman regional governor: all 14 regions have a man at their head."

Senator Gajduskova spoke about raising women's confidence and improving conditions so that politics would be more accessible to women.

"You have to start in the political parties. It is a question of how they support their women and how open they are to women. Then it is also a question of work shifts because being a politician is a public office and requires a great deal of one's free time and of course it can't be at the cost of the family. Very few women are willing to neglect their family to fill a public office."

I was curious to know how she herself balanced the demands of family and politics:

"I am married and have two full grown daughters, so I don't have that problem anymore, I can put all my time into politics now. I worked in politics for a long time when the children were little and we simply had to share the time with my husband."

Lenka Simerska, the coordinator of the Women's Networking Support Program spoke about the problems faced by women in former communist countries in an international context. I asked her if joining the EU had improved the lives of women the former Eastern Bloc:

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK "Women still live their same lives and not very much has changed for them. But what has changed are the legal mechanisms that they can use and the allies that they have in their struggle in for equal rights and gender equality."

"The European Union has established institutions and mechanism to secure the equal position of men and women and equal opportunities, so these are very good gains that we got after joining the EU. But I am afraid that most of the women living in the new states of the European Union are not aware that these things are available for them."

At the conference, the concept of gender mainstreaming was widely discussed. This strategy means applying gender analysis and policy to all levels of government. Monica Silvell from the Swedish Ministry of Industry and Employment explained how gender mainstreaming was being applied in her country. I asked her what was needed to implement this strategy successfully:

"First of all and most important one is you need political will. You have to have the government and the politicians saying that this is an important thing to do. Secondly, you need knowledge of gender equality but you also need knowledge in the special area where you are going to implement the gender perspective."