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The Civic and Political Participation of Women in Central and Eastern Europe

21 Jun 2004



While the enlargement process of the European Union (EU) has not explicitly emphasized equal opportunities for women and men, the new member states have implemented equality legislation, and now have statutes to deal with gender issues and non-discrimination clauses in their constitutions. They are also paying more attention to the challenge of increasing women’s parliamentary representation. These are among the issues being considered in an EU-funded research project: Enlargement, Gender and Governance (EGG): The Civic and Political Participation of Women in Central and Eastern Europe. This project is managed by Amanda Sloat (Institute of Governance, Public Policy and Social Research) and Yvonne Galligan (Centre for the Advancement of Women in Politics) of Queen’s University Belfast. Sloat was a visiting research fellow at UNRISD from February through April 2004.

The EGG project analyses the extent to which representative institutions and other organizations—such as political parties, trade unions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social movements—enable women’s participation and representation in political decision making and governance in the new EU member states. By looking at how the history of communist rule has affected the current political position of women, the project is providing recommendations to the European Commission and country governments in order to underpin effective future policy making. EGG is unique in that it is the first systematic attempt to analyse gender and enlargement, the civic and political participation of women in new member states, and the effectiveness of attempts by the Commission and new member-state governments to legislate on gender equality.

The research focuses on three questions. How have the twin forces of democratization and preparation for EU accession influenced women’s civic and political participation in candidate countries? How are women’s civic associations embedded in the equality policy framework in candidate countries? Are there specific strategies that could be adopted to enhance women’s contribution to governance?

The first phase of the work developed a theoretical foundation, establishing a common vocabulary among participants and a historical framework within which to consider women’s present civic and political participation; a final six-month dissemination phase will ensure that research results are disseminated locally, as individual country reports, and at European level, as comparative reports.

The project is divided into five substantive “work packages”.
  • Analysing Female Visibility, which collected data on women’s representation in political and civic decision-making bodies, comparing and contrasting the situation pre- and post-1989.
  • Mapping Women’s Campaign for Change, which assessed the state of the women’s movement in the post-1989 period and mapped the issues on which women’s NGOs are lobbying for change.
  • Implementing the Equality “Acquis”, which assessed the extent to which the EU body of legislation on equality issues has been transposed, implemented and enforced.
  • Identifying Barriers to Women’s Participation, which built on previous work packages that identified the sites of women’s under-representation, sought to understand why this has occurred and provided policy recommendations.
  • Gender Mainstreaming, which conducted a full review of the mainstreaming infrastructure across all government departments and examined two specific policy issues (equal opportunities and trafficking) in order to assess the extent to which women’s perspectives are incorporated in policy making.
Prior to 1989, women comprised at least 20 per cent of parliamentarians in all 10 Central and Eastern European countries. In 1980 Lithuania and Latvia had the most women representatives, with 36 per cent and 35 per cent respectively. On the lower end of the spectrum were Poland (23 per cent in 1980), Bulgaria (22 per cent in 1981), and Estonia (21 per cent in 1985). However, this apparent equality was a myth: the Communist Party selected candidates, and weak national parliaments rubber-stamped party proposals. As political institutions regained power and legitimacy following the 1989 transition to democracy, men grabbed positions and pushed women aside. For example, the proportion of women representatives after Hungary’s first free elections in 1990 dropped to 7 per cent (from 30 per cent in 1980); Lithuania’s first democratically elected parliament post-1989 counted 8 per cent women (down from 36 per cent in 1980). Women began to increase their share of parliamentary representation during the 1990s, with Bulgaria, Latvia and Poland breaking 20 per cent and Slovakia close behind. However, women in Hungary, Lithuania and Romania are still finding it more difficult to make a noticeable advance.

The development of a vibrant non-governmental sector is also vital to young democracies. Women took particular advantage of new civic opportunities post-1989, working on areas such as political concerns and rights (increasing parliamentary representation, fighting discrimination), the promotion of business and professional activities, social services (health care, education), and activism to prevent violence against women and domestic abuse. But because women’s NGOs are poorly funded and reliant on foreign donors, many are unable to initiate large-scale projects and concentrate instead on delivering social services formerly provided by the state. A confused understanding of feminism, which is often interpreted as anti-family, anti-children, anti-men and anti-feminine, also handicaps women’s work in the political and civic arenas.

Consequently, gender equality is not seen as a problem in many Central and Eastern European countries. Reinvigorated conservatism post-1989 abolished many social measures that had previously protected and promoted women, and campaigns for gender equality had come to be seen as unnecessary as a result of communist-era propaganda that emphasized women’s (supposed) liberation. The idea that women should support women to achieve common objectives is still not widely held, which may also partly explain the low percentage of women in elected political positions.
During her three-month stay at UNRISD, Sloat took advantage of the Institute’s intellectual resources, including staff expertise and publications; presented some of the initial findings of the EGG research and obtained valuable feedback; acted as a peer referee for several of the papers on Central and Eastern Europe commissioned for the UNRISD Policy Report on Gender and Development (click The Project, on the right); and developed institutional links, providing evidence of wider collaboration between UNRISD and universities.

More information about the EGG project—including executive summaries of each work package—will be found at www.qub.ac.uk/egg.