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Women's issues still getting short shrift

Despite submission of an Equal Opportunities Concept [KRPŽM] to cabinet by the Equal Opportunties department of the Ministry for Labour, Family and Social Affairs, at the end of last year, sociologists, NGO's and women at work have said that the concept itself cannot be expected to bring about major changes unless it is followed by immediate concrete steps, and accompanied by active public discussion of the equality issue in what they say is a traditionally patriarchal society.
KRPŽM, a 30 page long concept document which summarises the present situation for women in professional, social, and family spheres, provides recommendations for individual state ministries on how to improve the situation for Slovak women.

Despite submission of an Equal Opportunities Concept [KRPŽM] to cabinet by the Equal Opportunties department of the Ministry for Labour, Family and Social Affairs, at the end of last year, sociologists, NGO's and women at work have said that the concept itself cannot be expected to bring about major changes unless it is followed by immediate concrete steps, and accompanied by active public discussion of the equality issue in what they say is a traditionally patriarchal society.

KRPŽM, a 30 page long concept document which summarises the present situation for women in professional, social, and family spheres, provides recommendations for individual state ministries on how to improve the situation for Slovak women.

But although the ministry's initiative has been welcomed by women's organisations, they and foreign experts have warned against the document's vagueness and a lack of publicity which they said could make the whole concept merely a forma,l rather than concrete, matter

"Little is known in public about these [the ministry's] activities which makes their efforts weak and lacking real impact on society," said Dagmar Šimúnková, president of the independent women's organisation Professional Women, an association of professional women's clubs in major Slovak towns across the country.

"Individual ministerial bureaucrats are not very sensitive to the issue, which subsequently results in small interest in pushing through necessary changes in different spheres of life," she added.

"We also need to get this issue outside, into the open, so that it's present in everyday political and social discourse. Not only women need to learn about their rights but the wider society has to change some of its obsolete views on gender roles. If this is not done, little or no change at all will occur."

Many experts in the field have said that concepts such as the KRPŽM, while well-meaning, do little to change a problematic gender situation in society. They argue that rather than repeating vague equality concepts it is essential for government departments to concentrate on introducing concrete legal measures.

According to Lee Adler, professor of employment law at Cornell University of Industrial Labour Relations in New York, "legislation helped in America. Whenever you have the official written word, it doesn't eradicate problems but it changes everything. Certain people who were discriminating before will stop, certain companies will pause and think and troublemakers will have to do things in a more secretive manner."

Adler added: "Passing legislation doesn't mean that society will change automatically, and especially not quickly."

That some legal changes have already been taken, but that the situation is still far from ideal, was confirmed by Mária Chaloupková, head of the Labour Ministry's Equal Opportunities department, author of the KRPŽM.

"Last year we saw a law prohibiting discriminatory job ads take effect. We also planned to have the re-written labour law passed last December introducing some changes to protect women from discriminatory behaviour in the workplace. The law also introduces the term sexual harassment into Slovak legal terminology. However, it still hasn't been passed," Chaloupková said.

The law is expected to be passed in the next few months, but the KRPŽM will have no legislative status, and there is no real onus on the ministries to carry through the recommendations of the document because, Chaloupková says, the relevant body for control is the Economic and Social Treaty Council (RHSD), and not the Labour Ministry itself.

"We will be able to control whether measures were taken annually at meetings of the Economic and Social Treaty Council (RHSD). But if the Labour Ministry was given the status of a supervisor in equal treatment matters the control would be more direct," she said, adding that at present if a state institution fails to take the recommended measures, they are accountable only to the RSHD at the annual meeting.

Chaloupková explained that an amended Competence Law which suggested that the Labour Ministry is authorised to control the actual fulfillment of KRPŽM 's recommended measures has still not been passed by the Government.

A problem of tradition

Sociologists have charcterised Slovakia's society as a patriarchal one, with a set of gender stereotypes having been created and perpetuated through this same patriarchy. Although the younger generation, they say, is more aware of a philosophy of equality, gender stereotypes have survived.

"I expect my wife to take care of our little child. I work very hard so I can't spend much time as a family man. But women are better suited for household jobs anyway," said 30 year-old manager Rastislav C. from Banská Bystrica.

According to sociologist with the International Centre for Family Studies (MSŠR) Jarmila Filadelfiová, views like Rastislav's have survived because of a patriarchal tradition and a lack of open public discussion on the subject.

"Unfortunately, the majority of Slovak men think similarly [to Rastislav C.]. They are repeating the typical Slovak family model which encourages this stereotype. School textbooks also encourage the image of the woman as the home-maker and the man as the breadwinner," she said.

The past has also played its part in creating what Filadelfiová says is a poor situation for women in work.

"The emancipation model under communism did a lot of harm to women, too," Filadelfiová said. "It was seen as sending all women to work, but real emancipation never took place. Instead, aversion grew to the issue of feminism."

Statistics show that Slovak women earn on average 25% less than men, and are disproportionately represented at managerial, political or leading state posts. The experiences of many Slovak women show that employers tend to behave in a discriminatory way toward their female employees, beginning with interviews for jobs and ending in the fact that they are the first to lose their jobs if a company has to cut its staff.

According to labour experts, women still have to face discrimination in the workplace due to their perceived, and existing, load of duties within the family disqualifying them almost automatically from attaining higher posts, or preventing them from getting certain jobs.

Darina Malová, labour policy expert with Comenius University in Bratislava, explained: "It begins with newspaper ads, which still advertise a majority of posts as suited for men. The chances for Slovak women to get leading posts are very low, and even if a woman gets such a job, she has to work twice as hard as her male colleagues to prove that she deserves and can handle the post," she said, adding that other forms of discrimination include discriminatory questions at job interviews.

Twenty-nine year-old Jana Hálková's experiences are an illustration of Malová's point. "I've been to many interviews and had to answer questions like what my family plans were and whether I wanted to have more children in the near future. These [questions] are normal here," she said. "The fact that I had a little daughter also played strongly against me."

One of the recommendations listed in the ministry's KRPŽM is a proposal to introduce a 30% quota for representation of women in politics to promote the concept of women holding equal positions to men even at the highest level. Parliament is heavily dominated by men, with only 21 women out of 150 deputies - 14% - while the European standard is 26.8%.

Cornell's Adler said a quota strategy is not ideal but sometimes needed to produce a change when nothing else works "to remedy the horrors of discrimination".

"It's sometimes effective, sometimes not. To really work it needs courageous people to make a real change, not just to be puppets," Adler said.

The Labour Ministry's Chaloupková noted that the Labour Law will introduce a helping tool for women like Hálková enabling them to sue an employer for discriminatory behaviour. "Slovakia hasn't had a single case of a woman suing her employer for discrimination. This is because if she went to court she had to prove that she was discriminated. The Labour Law transfers the burden of proof on the employer. We think this will be a considerable help for women."

Additional reporting by Matthew J. Reynolds

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