Reforms leave women behind in East Europe


VIENNA, Austria -- Eastern Europe's liberation has yet to liberate women.

Sexual equality, in fact, appears as elusive after the revolution as before.

The Communist claim to have achieved equality of the sexes sounded fine. In practice, it was largely spurious. It ignored the fact that most married women worked simply to augment their husbands' pitiable pay. Jobs open to them were usually in dead-end categories where male labor was short.

In addition, most of these women had an inescapable and unpaid second job every day after work -- standing in line for hours to shop for food, usually scarce. When they finally got home, they had to attend to housework and the children.

So far, neither the situation nor the mentality behind it seems to have changed. Governments, with so many new problems, seem to have no time for such reform.

Discrimination continues. In some areas, it has worsened. There is no sign of legislative action to correct disparities in pay. Nor do the few openly articulate feminists seem able to generate support for political changes.

Former leaders used to point out that women held one-third of the seats in parliament. Nothing was said of the fact that few made it to government and Cabinet rank. Those women who did were either career Communist Party stalwarts or wives of leaders, such as the spouse of Nicolae Ceausescu, the late Romanian dictator. Rank-and-file female members of parliament were the party's public relations fodder.

But even this share in parliament has shrunk. In the post-revolution elections, fewer than 4 percent of seats in Romania went to women, compared with one-third before. Figures for the other countries are only marginally higher.

In the executive branch, women have fared no better than before. The few who are in the new administrations are ministers for social affairs or the arts. None holds a major policy-making portfolio.

Eastern Europe's feminists are also disturbed by the inundation of pornography, largely Western, which they say reinforces women's long-standing inferior status.

The open display of such material on newsstands and in bookstores is often at least as blatant as in some Western capitals. It is worst in Budapest, Hungary, followed by Prague, Czechoslovakia, and Warsaw, Poland. The problem seems not to have hit the other capitals so hard.

In the view of formerly staid, state-licensed newspapers, pictures of scantily clad women are as essential a weapon in their new circulation wars as they are among the worst Western tabloids.

Sex parlors and shops abound; their owners, many of them newly emerging entrepreneurs, boast openly of "making fortunes," unhindered by official or legal restraints.

Many people welcomed an end to such primness. Many also would like governments to act to keep this new industry within bounds.

Feminists complain that the minimal news media debate on women's problems completely ignores their view -- one long propagated by their Western counterparts -- that this flaunting of pornography is deeply offensive to women.

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