The Role of Women

The Role of Women

In the post-Soviet era, the position of women in Russian society remains at least as problematic as it was in previous decades. In both cases, a number of nominal legal protections for women either have failed to address the existing conditions or have failed to supply adequate support. In the 1990s, increasing economic pressures and shrinking government programs left women with little choice but to seek employment, although most available positions were as substandard as in the Soviet period, and generally jobs of any sort were more difficult to obtain. Such conditions contribute heavily to Russia's declining birthrate and the general deterioration of the family. At the same time, feminist groups and social organizations have begun advancing the cause of women's rights in what remains a strongly traditional society.

The Soviet constitution of 1977 stipulated that men and women have equal rights, and that women have equal access to education and training, employment, promotions, remuneration, and participation in social, cultural, and political activity. The Soviet government also provided women special medical and workplace protection, including incentives for mothers to work outside the home and legal and material support of their maternal role. In the 1980s, that support included 112 days of maternity leave at full pay. When that allowance ended, a woman could take as much as one year of additional leave without pay without losing her position. Employer discrimination against pregnant and nursing women was prohibited, and mothers with small children had the right to work part-time. Because of such provisions, as many as 92 percent of women were employed at least part-time, Soviet statistics showed.

Despite official ideology, Soviet women did not enjoy the same position as men in society or within the family. Average pay for women in all fields was below the overall national average, and the vaunted high percentage of women in various fields, especially health care, medicine, education, and economics, did not hold true in the most prestigious and high-paying areas such as the upper management of organizations in any of those fields. Women were conspicuously underrepresented in the leadership of the CPSU; in the 1980s, they constituted less than 30 percent of party membership and less than 5 percent of the party Central Committee, and no woman ever achieved full membership in the Politburo.

Most of the nominal state benefit programs for women continued into the post-Soviet era (see Social Welfare, this ch.). However, as in the Soviet era, Russian women in the 1990s predominate in economic sectors where pay is low, and they continue to receive less pay than men for comparable positions. In 1995 men in health care earned an average of 50 percent more than women in that field, and male engineers received an average of 40 percent more than their female colleagues. Despite the fact that, on average, women are better educated than men, women remain in the minority in senior management positions. In the Soviet era, women's wages averaged 70 percent of men's; by 1995 the figure was 40 percent, according to the Moscow-based Center for Gender Studies. According to a 1996 report, 87 percent of employed urban Russians earning less than 100,000 rubles a month (for value of the ruble--see Glossary) were women, and the percentage of women decreased consistently in the higher wage categories.

According to reports, women generally are the first to be fired, and they face other forms of on-the-job discrimination as well. Struggling companies often fire women to avoid paying child care benefits or granting maternity leave, as the law still requires. In 1995 women constituted an estimated 70 percent of Russia's unemployed, and as much as 90 percent in some areas.

Sociological surveys show that sexual harassment and violence against women have increased at all levels of society in the 1990s. More than 13,000 rapes were reported in 1994, meaning that several times that number of that often-unreported crime probably were committed. In 1993 an estimated 14,000 women were murdered by their husbands or lovers, about twenty times the figure in the United States and several times the figure in Russia five years earlier. More than 300,000 other types of crimes, including spousal abuse, were committed against women in 1994; in 1996 the State Duma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly, Russia's parliament) drafted a law against domestic violence.

Working women continue to bear the "double burden" of a job and family-raising responsibilities, in which Russian husbands generally participate little. In a 1994 survey, about two-thirds of women said that the state should help families by paying one spouse enough to permit the other to stay at home. Most women also consider their role in the family more difficult than that of their husband. Such dissatisfaction is a factor in Russia's accelerating divorce rate and declining marriage rate. In 1993 the divorce rate was 4.5 per 1,000 population, compared with 4.1 ten years earlier, and the marriage rate declined from 10.5 per 1,000 population in 1983 to 7.5 in 1993. In 1992 some 17.2 percent of births were to unmarried women. According to 1994 government statistics, about 20 percent of families were run by a single parent--the mother in 94 percent of cases.

Often women with families are forced to work because of insufficient state child allowances and unemployment benefits. Economic hardship has driven some women into prostitution. In the Soviet period, prostitution was viewed officially as a form of social deviancy that was dying out as the Soviet Union advanced toward communism. In the 1990s, organized crime has become heavily involved in prostitution, both in Russia and in the cities of Central and Western Europe, to which Russian women often are lured by bogus advertisements for match-making services or modeling agencies. According to one estimate, 10,000 women from Central Europe, including a high proportion of Russians, have been lured or forced into prostitution in Germany alone.

Independent women's organizations--a form of activity that was suppressed in the Soviet era--have been formed in large numbers in the 1990s at the local, regional, and national levels. One such group is the Center for Gender Studies, a private research institute. The center analyzes demographic and social problems of women and acts as a link between Russian and Western feminist groups. A traveling group called Feminist Alternative offers women assertiveness training. Many local groups have emerged to engage in court actions on behalf of women, to set up rape and domestic violence awareness programs (about a dozen of which were active in 1995), and to aid women in establishing businesses. Another prominent organization is the Women's Union of Russia, which focuses on job-training programs, career counseling, and the development of entrepreneurial skills that will enable women to compete more successfully in Russia's emerging market economy. Despite the proliferation of such groups and programs, in the mid-1990s most Russians (including many women) remain contemptuous of their efforts, which many regard as a kind of Western subversion of traditional social values.

The rapidly expanding private sector offers women new employment opportunities, but many of the Soviet stereotypes remain; the most frequently offered job in new businesses is that of secretary, and advertisements often specify physical attractiveness as a primary requirement. Russian law provides for as much as three years' imprisonment for sexual harassment, but the law rarely is enforced. Although the Fund for Protection from Sexual Harassment has blacklisted 300 Moscow firms where sexual harassment is known to have taken place, demands for sex and even rape still are common on-the-job occurrences.

Women's higher profile in post-Soviet Russia also has extended to politics. At the national level, the most notable manifestation of women's newfound political success has been the Women of Russia party, which won 11 percent of the vote and twenty-five seats in the 1993 national parliamentary elections. Subsequently, the party became active in a number of issues, including the opposition to the military campaign in Chechnya that began in 1994. In the 1995 national parliamentary elections, the Women of Russia chose to maintain its platform unchanged, emphasizing social issues such as the protection of children and women rather than entering into a coalition with other liberal parties. As a result, the party failed to reach the 5 percent threshold of votes required for proportional representation in the new State Duma, gaining only three seats in the single-seat portion of the elections (see The Elections of 1995, ch. 7). The party considered running a candidate in the 1996 presidential election but remained outside the crowded field.

A smaller organization, the Russian Women's Party, ran as part of an unsuccessful coalition with several other splinter parties in the 1995 elections. A few women, such as Ella Pamfilova of the Republican Party, Socialist Workers' Party chief Lyudmila Vartazarova, and Valeriya Novodvorskaya, leader of the Democratic Union, have established themselves as influential political figures. Pamfilova has gained particular stature as an advocate on behalf of women and elderly people.

The Soldiers' Mothers Movement was formed in 1989 to expose human rights violations in the armed forces and to help youths resist the draft. The movement has gained national prominence through its opposition to the war in Chechnya. Numerous protests have been organized, and representatives have gone to the Chechen capital, Groznyy, to demand the release of Russian prisoners and locate missing soldiers. The group, which claimed 10,000 members in 1995, also has lobbied against extending the term of mandatory military service.

Women have occupied few positions of influence in the executive branch of Russia's national government. One post in the Government (cabinet), that of minister of social protection, has become a "traditional" women's position; in 1994 Ella Pamfilova was followed in that position by Lyudmila Bezlepkina, who headed the ministry until the end of President Boris N. Yeltsin's first term in mid-1996. Tat'yana Paramanova was acting chairman of the Russian Central Bank for one year before Yeltsin replaced her in November 1995, and Tat'yana Regent has been head of the Federal Migration Service since its inception in 1992. Prior to the 1995 elections, women held about 10 percent of the seats in parliament: fifty-seven of 450 seats in the State Duma and nine of 178 seats in the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council. The Soviet system of mandating legislative seats generally allocated about one-third of the seats in republic-level legislatures and one-half of the seats in local soviets to women, but those proportions shrank drastically with the first multiparty elections of 1990.

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