The Taste of Disillusionment: Women's Perspectives in Hungary before Beijing

by Judit Acsady, Feminist Network, Hungary

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Right in the middle of political and economic transition Hungarian people have to chew what is cooked for them by decision makers. And it tastes disillusioning. Of coarse, those who found their places easily in market economy as successful businessmen or those who could transfer their political power in the previous system into economic one today do not have a reason to complain. Those who were employed in the state sector before and all what they can feel of the transition is that they are losing their jobs or those who do not feel like becoming enterpreneurs or those who have hoped that market economy and pluralism will bring democracy at once are rather disappointed now.

As for women, strangly enough, all the dark prophecies of feminist voices seem to become true. The foretellers told that unless women get organized they are going to lose all those rights and "privileges" they had in the state socialist systems.

Economics and What is Behind It

To understand why is it happening we have to have a short look at changes in the field of economics. I am usually reluctant to believe that man decision makers want to minimalize women's liberties just because they are men and their interest is necesserily opposite to that of women. But what I saw in the processes of structural changes here is that once, for one reason or another, there are financial cutbacks and restrictions in a system usually those groups of society will suffer from it the most who have the less strength in defending their interests. That is, untill women do not have their efficient means to pressure decision makers their concerns will not be taken into account.

The reasons why Hungary started to introduce restrictive policies on social expences have to do with the preferences of such omnipotent agents as the World Bank and the IMF. They suggest that it is wrong to devote money for e.g. maternaty leave from the national budget once the given country is in debt. The media here is full with references to the necessity of Hungary's better economic performance, increasing the GDP etc. You can not really hear alternative voices which would wonder about this eternal and global economic growth...

The withdrawal of state support from the social sector is I think the basic source of problems women will have to face in the near future in Hungary. As the civil sector is not developed enogh to be able to substitute quickly the state services with alternative self- organized forms, these services will not be performed at all. That is, if a day care center will have to close because of financial reasons or the services will be unpayably expensive, a large number of women woill not have any other choice than staying home with young kids. Just add to it that according to a new bill (in march 1995) which got nearly passed, the old system of payed maternity leave was also to be abandoned. That is a woman will be "forced" to stay at home having no income, depending only on her husband salary. Havent't I heard about this model before? Is it not the one that the western feminist movements were to alter in the past twenty years? Well, this is the one which will spread in Hungary soon in the name of economic modernization...

A culture which did not bother too much with women's emancipation, except formulating nice sentences in the Constitution about equality and employing women under the need of the state socialist economy will not get bothered too much when formal garantees disappear. Everyday sexism was just as widespread before as it is now. The only difference is that now the word emancipation can not be used. Speaking about women's equal right people think you are an agent of the ex state socialist system.

What Statistics Show

Having a look at some statistics and results of researches it will be clear that the question of gender relations in Hungary is a rather troublesome one. Demographic data show that the number of births is decreasing radically, there are less and less marriages every year and the divorce rate is really high. Nearly every third marriages end up with a divorce. Even though there are these controvercies about family life (I would say patriarchal family) when people are asked they can not see any other alternative than getting married. People get married rather young,and women at the age 25 are likely to have already their second babies. The life expectancy is lower than in other Eurpean countries. (64.5 years for men, 73.8 for women).

The registered unemployment rate from zero in 1987 raised to 12% last year. Employment of women from almost 90% fell now to 63,5% but in fact unemployment rate is higher among men. The family in the state socialist system was designed for two earners. Usually women's staying at home as unemployed is not reported to be such a serious case but it is said that men often have difficulties with accepting the woman to be the breadwinner.

In fact if in Hungary someone starts to speak about economic difficulties they hardly ever mention the gender specific elements. They usually argue that women are not homogenious they belong to different social strata, one is richer the other is poorer and they do not have a common interest. Maybe this can be the reason for the low participation of women in parliament (11% of the MP's are women), because if there is not anything like women's interest than what to represent?

Going back to economics and women's salaries the difference of wages for the very same job can be more than 30% between men and women. Women keep occupying certain fields, like healthcare, education, white collar work. These fields unfortunatelly keep staying very badly payed.

One does not have a difficult job if he/she wants to find traces of enequalities between men and women in Hungary. Obviously the top management positions are still mostly occupied by men, as ever before and the new elit of enterpreneurs are mostly men too. Political representation of women is rather poor, even though their rate in local government bodies is much better than on governmental level.

There is one more problem which needs mentioning and which is in fact fully neglected from the national report to Beijing. This is the question of Hungary's largest minority group, the different groups of ethnic gypsies (roma people). Beyond the everyday mechanisms of discrimination a large part of the gypsy population lives under the poverty line and very often have no income at all. Their acces for education and health services are rather problematic, often because they live in remote isloated villages among extremely poor circumstances. As for women within these communities they have to face on the one hand the hatred of the majority society but also have to struggle with the ancient patriarchal law within the community which does not let them basically any individual liberty at all.

Women's Organizations

The question is how newly formed groups and organization react to all these. The majority of women's organizations in Hungary are not NGO's in the classical meaning. They are female sections of parties (e.g. Women's Section of the Smallholders' Party or the Socialist Party etc. ). There is also a number of organizations which is organized around one profession or a trade union. (e.g.women doctors, lawyers, policewomen etc.) Very few of the groups are independent and grassroot. I guess both the institutionalized and both the more loose grassroots have their very important function. What is disappointing though is the conservative, patriarchal way of thinking which is predominant among members of institutional women's organizations. They do not think about organizing as a movement they do not intend to fight against sexism, they might even agree with women's staying at home and being devoted to the household only.

This general lack of feminist thinking might be one of the reasons why the preparations for Beijing do not generate any enthusiasm at all. The national report of Hungary has still not been completed. The procedure about this report is the only form of communication between women experts and activists about Beijing. Interestingly enough the governmental level include NGO's in the preparation and they asked their opinions about the report. Some of the criticism was considered and added to the text.

Towards the larger community of society Beijing is unvisable. There is no media coverage of the preparations so the majority of women in Hungary has got no idea at all, that the UN is having its fourth international women's gathering and that 5o ooo women from all over the world are to meet in a few month in China. Also there is no discussions about the political doubts some women raised internationally about participating or boycotting.

I think Beijing in general is handled with the same apathy here in Hungary than any other question of politics that people think they have nothing to do with. Can the reason behind this apathy be that no matter how many UN agreements were signed by government officials, Hungarian people never saw the benefits from them.

Recently I saw a funny statistics which compared to which degree people are content with the governments' work in different countries. Hungary was at the bottom with the large majority of people not being content at all with the government. At the same time Hungary is the country where the activity of civil society is very law, people look down on movement activists and are cynical about doing anything for a change.

So, this is a brief description about how Hungarian women and men chew their everyday bread of disillusionment in transitions.


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