Women on the verge

2012. november

Andrea Alföldi, President of Hungarian Women’s Association

Lajos Kiss describes the life of goose-herds, cooks, fallen maidens, feather-picker women, merchants, foster mothers, hosts and beggar women in his 1943 book The life of the poor woman: “In the old days, when a poor family walked on the street, the man would go first, then the woman would follow three steps behind him, with the children. Even history forgot to put down the life-story of poor women. Our sources tell us about the life of rich women; there is practically no data on how poor women lived. This is striking and unfortunate because women’s work is more ancient than men’s.” It is an undeniable fact that women’s life, social status and education underwent a significant change at the turn of the 19th and 20th century in Hungary.

Social-democrats explained already then that women’s disadvantageous situation had to do with the different biological characteristics of the sexes: in time, biological differences and the ensuing maternal tasks had resulted in social expectations which had transformed into gender inequality. The injustice and inequality that women suffer from can be remedied via socially centralized redistribution. An adequate indicator of women’s status in society is poverty. For the beginning of the 21st century, feminisation of poverty has not stopped; on the contrary, women represent a bigger proportion of people living in extreme poverty, on the verge of society. The groups more likely to be in danger of poverty are those where women are over-represented: parents, poorly educated, people living on a low pension. From a territorial point of view, this includes people living in disadvantaged regions without employment opportunities. These tendencies have become stronger for the last two decades but no party and no government has had enough political will to find a solution. Or, we can say that due to insufficient institutions of women’s interest-representation, gender-related issues have been left out of the governments’ scope of attention.

Zsuzsa Szelényi, sociologist wrote in 2011: “The Hungarian political and societal elite must take up a new approach vis-à-vis women. The last decade has shown that only those countries are capable of dynamic growth where women’s and men’s talent is utilized and gender issues are treated democratically.” She added that “Increasing women’s employment is of paramount importance for the fight against poverty but unfortunately things have gone differently in Hungary for the last decades. Women’s role has not evolved according to their education and emancipation but according to ideological programs: the full employment of the 40s’, then the introduction of the three-year long maternity leave in 1967. Due to unclear roles and the economic recession of the democratic transition, many women were forced to take up a more traditional role. Steps taken by conservative governments have contributed to the fact that Hungarian women’s social status has developed in a way opposite to global trends. Women had more difficulty finding their way back to the labour market after the big unemployment-boom following the democratic transition. Traditional women’s roles, reinforced by conservative public policies, contributed to the impoverishment of families and to gender inequality. It has become clear that public policy reinforcing traditional women’s roles is destined to fail. It is probably most obvious in the population policy: the number of births has been steadily decreasing in Hungary since 1990.”

Some data on women’s employment: the trends that can be observed following the democratic transition are mostly different from the expectations defined in EU employment strategies. Women are in a disadvantaged position in the labour market compared to men, starting from their entry and lasting until the end of their career.

  • The employment rate of 16-54 year old women increased in the EU between 2000 and 2010, by 2.3% (from 53.6% to 55.7%). The Hungarian growth fell short of this number (by 0.9%).
  • Women’s economic activity and employment rate was lower than the EU average in 2010. There were only six Member States where women’s employment rate was lower, and it can be only partially explained by the different level of economic development.
  • The employment rate of Roma woman remains on a low level; it was 15% in 2003, the same as in 1993. However, it was only 9.5% in 2010!
  • The employment rate of people living with disabilities remains very much below the EU average. There is no available data on women living with disabilities.
  • The Hungarian (female) labour market is characterized by a paradox: while according to EU requirements increasing the employment of the older generation shall be a key part in the overall increase in employment, Hungarian employers are forced to decrease the number of their employees and the least painful way to do this is early-retirement.
  • The Hungarian (female) labour market is extremely rigid. Doubly so: there is no leeway to apply different employee strategies on short or long-term and the obligation of full-time employment prevails. There are very few women on a part-time contract. While the EU average for part-time work was 37.4% in 2010, it was only 6.3% in Hungary.
  • OECD-data tells us that Hungarian women’s comparative situation worsened between 2005 and 2010, when it comes to unemployment, long-term unemployment and especially young (15-24 years old) women.
  • The lack of employment for young women is striking; their unemployment rate has increased by 40.2%. Domestic work is a socially accepted temporary solution for unemployed women and women between the end of their academic career and the beginning of their professional career. The unfavourable changes (in their comparative unemployment situation) make women more vulnerable to unemployment and thus to poverty.
  • 38.6% of the working-age female population was inactive in 2005. This number was at 43.4% in 2010.

Factors contributing to women’s disadvantaged position in the labour market:

Lack of profitable education and training, the incapacity to convert education into a valuable asset in the labour-market: this is related to women’s weaker competitiveness, flexibility, less information and weaker social network. These have to do with women’s overall role in society and their care-giving tasks performed in family.

There are eight pillars to tackling poverty and exclusion:

  1. An inclusive labour-market, making employment a right and opportunity
  2. Decent income and resources
  3. Fighting educational inequalities
  4. Protecting children’s rights and preserving family solidarity
  5. Decent living conditions
  6. Equal access to quality services (health, transport, social, cultural, etc.)
  7. Supporting multi-level community development, women’s empowerment in public life
  8. Supporting regions with multiple disadvantages

The sad conclusion is the fact that different roles re-create hierarchical relations between women and men in public and private life and women are in a disadvantaged position in both worlds. The gender question is a question of era and in the everyday life, gender is a question of human liberties as well. Modern electric appliances, results of the past and article 23 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, proclaiming that “equality between men and women must be ensured” are no real consolation for today’s women.

What is common for a cashier working three shifts, a woman forced to become entrepreneur, an employee fearing for her job, an unemployed woman with three degrees and a woman living in a mortar hut on the outskirts of her village? Not the ideology but their feeling of uselessness, their misery of powerlessness, due to their exclusion from the labour market.

Meanwhile, laws are born amongst litanies on the crisis of families to categorize women who are not homogenous. What happens to women who are victims of physical and mental abuse? They are called “infanticides” and they are accused of being the cause of the nation’s demise. They don’t get help via social institutions; the generation suffering most from abortion doesn’t get sexual education. We could continue detailing the beauties of constitutional rape by the state.

In reality, it is not the family who is in danger: it is only a reflection of the distorted mentality, insufficient emotional maturity, and manipulated values of the whole society. Families’ everyday struggles force women to face more and more challenges. It is enough to only think about recent legislative changes: women can be fired, therefore they can be unable to benefit from the maternity leave or unpaid parental leave. The new Labour code undoubtedly worsens the situation of workers, especially women. Household charges are growing; changes in the tax and pension regime, decreasing net salaries, the burden of the foreign currency credits push hundreds of thousand families to the verge. And they won’t be able to cope, not even with the help of the home-made liquor-induced stupor.

The democracy of poverty is dictatorship and there is no real democracy without women. The rise of Hungary today depends on self-assured women, active in private and public life. Even if they are demeaned in the Parliament, by unworthy Members.

The biggest future social challenge is not the pointless, boring, fight-for-fight-sake struggle for power. The challenge lies within the masses of vulnerable women, the mothers fighting for their children. Make no mistake, there is no left-right division here, only the division between sufferers and the cause of this misery. Human dignity, freedom, including women’s right to self-determination have been hurt multiple times and deeply during the last decades. The power for social change is largely in women’s solidarity and activity.

Andrea Alföldi on Wikipedia

Magyar Nők Szövetsége
1062 Budapest, Andrássy út 124. www.nokszovetsege.hu, Email: elnok@nokszovetsege.hu