Women's day in Russia: showers of flowers

March 8 became a tradition here, like Valentine's Day. Women now want more.

Today, women here will be showered with flowers, chocolates, and "aren't you lovely" from their menfolk to celebrate what became a tradition in Soviet times - International Women's Day.

But for women today, that just doesn't cut it. They say they've borne the brunt of harsh post-Soviet social adjustments and are running out of patience. And a women's movement is gradually evolving - some 50 groups have been formed in the past decade to deal with women's issues.

"Even on Women's Day, I do the cooking and cleaning, and I'm getting fed up with it," says Svetlana Kovalyova, a 30-something book editor. "Somehow the real needs of women have been forgotten in this country."

March 8 was a key holiday on the Soviet calendar, an occasion to trot out socialism's achievements - like more than 90 percent of Soviet women worked full time, and 55 percent of those with higher educations in the USSR were female.

Never discussed was Ms. Kovalyova's complaint, that Soviet women bore the "double burden" of working outside the home plus all the household chores.

"We have not yet reached the frontiers of women's liberation in this country," says Galina Bondarenko, an interpreter. "The Soviet authorities who invented this holiday were ready to concede that women should feel like women, but wanted to make sure it would only be for one day."

Little has changed. A nationwide survey conducted by the online Monitoring.Ru public opinion agency this week uncovered the happy news that 73 percent of Russian men believe Russian women to be "the world's most beautiful." The same poll asked mixed male and female respondents to name a woman's main function in modern Russia: 48 percent answered "mother," 17 percent "wife," and 11 percent "housekeeper." The only two non-traditional images that hit the survey's radar screen were "businesswoman," mentioned by 18 percent, and "politician," supported by 1 percent.

This year there is much discussion of Russia's demographic crisis, and the subtext is that women are chiefly to blame for it. The country's population is shrinking by about 1 million people annually, largely due to a post-Soviet cocktail of bad news, including war, alcoholism, drug addiction, industrial accidents, disease, and stress. The birthrate has plummeted from a healthy 2.6 kids per woman in 1958 to just 1.1 last year.

"The widespread view today is that women should return to the home and have children," says Marina Malesheva, a sociologist with the official Institute of Population Demographics in Moscow. "Working women are seen as almost unpatriotic. There is little sympathy for the ideas of equal rights in the labor market."

"Women are not having children because they lack confidence in the future," says Zhanna Zionchovskaya, a demography specialist with the independent Institute of Economic Forecasting in Moscow. "Why do they lack confidence? Well, that's the social debate that must begin one day."

Any survey of Russian women's troubled post-Soviet status begins in the increasingly hostile job market and ends in strife-ridden homes, experts say.

"Unemployment in Russia wears a woman's face," says Sergei Rogachev, deputy director of the official Institute of Social and Political Research in Moscow. "The more educated and qualified a woman, the more likely she is to have been pushed down or squeezed out altogether from her place in the past 10 years."

Two-thirds of Russia's jobless are female. As in Soviet times, the majority of working women are trapped in low-wage ghettos, such as medicine, education, and clerical jobs. The difference is that Soviet-era perks, such as accessible day care and child allowances, have evaporated.

"Market reforms have benefited a handful of wealthy women, who are much more mobile than ever before," says Mr. Rogachev. "But far more women have fallen into poverty than men. For them, this tends to offset gains the country has made, such as eliminating shortages of consumer goods."

Galina Sillaste, head of Women and Development, a Moscow-based academic group, estimates about 15,000 Russian women die annually as a result of violence in the home. "It is a huge and growing threat," she says. "Men are not adjusting to the changes in society, they are turning to alcohol and wife beating. It's women who suffer and then have to pick up the pieces of broken families."

"Women are learning from experience, and many of us are much more impatient than we were even a few years ago," says Ms. Malesheva. "The main thing we need right now is not another hypocritical Women's Day holiday, but some open social discussion of our problems. That's got to come."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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