Women’s Groups Gather In Kyiv To Decry Gender Discrimination

KYIV, Ukraine -- Kyiv became the venue last week for a six-day international women’s rights conference, which drew attention to gender discrimination in the workplace, abuse at home and other problems that continue to plague Ukrainian women, though keynote speakers also praised recent legislative efforts to eliminate some of these problems.

Dr. Anamah Tan (C), head of the International Council of Women

The International Council of Women, which calls itself the world’s largest and oldest women’s rights organization, met for the first time in Ukraine’s capital for its 31st session between Sept. 5 and 11 to focus on the global issues of poverty, women’s and children’s healthcare, education, gender discrimination, labor migration and family violence.

The organization boasts gains for women with respect to voting rights, elections to public office and holding managerial positions in companies around the world since it was founded in 1888.

Ukrainian women’s rights and equality issues in the workplace and society became the special focus of the Assembly, which convenes its sessions once every three years.

Attending the session were representatives from women’s rights organizations from around 40 countries, including 200 women’s rights activists from Ukraine, largely represented by the National Council of Women, which unites 22 of the largest women’s organizations in the country.

The National Council of Women was founded in 1999 and joined the International Council of Women the following year.

The head of the International Council of Women, Singaporean-born Anamah Tan, told the Post Sept. 6 that today the main task for women’s rights advocates is to strengthen the position of women in politics, in addition to continuing efforts to prevent all forms of violence and discrimination against women around the world.

With her 35 years of experience in promoting women’s issues, Tan said she was pleased with Ukraine’s work in the area of women’s rights, citing recently implemented legislation.

“Ukraine is an old member of the Council, and we are proud to see positive tendencies, firstly with respect to the adoption of a law on equal rights [and opportunities] in 2005,” Tan said.

The equal rights and opportunities law, which in part provides for the elimination of all occupational discrimination against women in Ukraine, was adopted by Ukraine’s parliament last September, and went into force at the start of this year.

“Your women have a strong will and are famous for it worldwide, but to maintain the ability to defend their own rights, they need to increase their legal awareness,” she said.

Ukraine’s Family, Youth and Sports Minister Yuriy Pavlenko told the women’s rights session in a speech on Sept. 6 that while Ukrainian legislation provides for the elimination of discrimination against women, problems continue.

Pavlenko cited inequality between the genders in political and bureaucratic decision-making processes in the country due to women’s poor representation on the state and regional levels of power.

“After parliamentary elections in March 2006, only 39 women became parliament members out of 450 available seats, which is only 8.7 percent,” Pavlenko said.

According to him, this percentage was low compared with an average figure of 14.3 percent for women lawmakers around the world, with women in countries like Norway, Denmark and Finland, and as much as 47 percent in Sweden, comprising up to 30 percent of their legislatures.

According to Pavlenko, this shows that Ukrainian women tend to have fewer options to develop their careers working in government offices, except at the lowest levels.

“Of the total number of government officials, women constitute 75.1 percent; meanwhile, only 7.8 percent of them hold high-ranking positions,” Pavlenko said, adding that 68.4 percent of all women employed by the government occupy its lowest positions.

As a result, Pavlenko said, women make an average salary that is 38.7 percent lower than men among government employees in Ukraine.

He said that while the difficulty of a job determines the salary for it, in Ukraine, what is considered difficult is often viewed in terms of gender, leading to employment discrimination against women and thus their lower salaries.

According to Pavlenko, employers often refuse to take women for jobs that they consider dangerous, even if those jobs are not proscribed for women by Ukraine’s Labor Code.

He said another reason why women face discrimination in their pay levels is because salaries are lower in occupations traditionally considered female, such as jobs in light industry, medicine and customer services.

Pavlenko added that while Ukraine’s women are well educated and around 80 percent of them hold a higher academic degree, they are often not treated as professionals.

“It is very common among employers to give preference according to [a woman’s] looks, family status or the age of her children, if any, but not to [her] professional skills,” he said.

“There is also the big problem of sexual harassment at work, which today is frequent, but hidden.”

He said that the Ukrainian government has not developed further legislation on combating sex discrimination, since it has not thoroughly studied all of its aspects yet.

Oleksandra Rudnyeva, the president of the Kharkiv Women’s Research Center, a non-governmental think tank that has been working on gender policy problems for the last 12 years, said there are two areas where women’s rights have been the most widely violated – the family and labor.

According to Rudnyeva, one of the biggest problems Ukrainian women face today is violence in their families, and being unable to prevent it from occurring and repeating.

“It [aggression] may appear in different forms – not only in its physical form, but in economic or psychological forms, too,” Rudnyeva said.

“This problem is very much hidden from the public and women prefer to bear it,” Rudnyeva said, adding that keeping their families together or the fear of starting divorce proceedings are among the reasons why women refrain from making their problems known.

“In most cases women keep the children after a divorce. Later, they don’t get alimony payments from their husbands and are forced to use the courts as a last resort,” she said, adding that the courts don’t always improve a woman’s situation for the better.

“Normally, a court sets alimony payments at the lowest level allowed by law, which is 30 percent of the official minimum living wage for one child, which is never enough,” she said.

The current average minimum living wage in the country, set in April 2006, is Hr 496 (less than $100) a month.

Rudnyeva said that for children younger than six, the minimum living wage is Hr 410 (around $80) a month, while for children aged six to 18, it is Hr 527 (around $105).

According to Rudnyeva, another problem with calculating alimony payments is that men typically provide a court with their official salary figures, which most times is lower – sometimes substantially – from their real earnings.

According to Ukraine’s labor and pension legislation, Rudnyeva said, women have the right to retire at the age of 55, meaning they are not obligated to do so when they reach that age, while the retirement age set for men is 60. However, she said that employers often use women’s voluntary retirement age as a reason to push them out of their jobs.

“It is especially common in the state service sector, when 55-year-old women are forced to retire, with the reason given that her space is needed for other workers, or any other reason,” she said.

While Rudnyeva considers the passage of the law on equal rights and opportunities last year a positive step for equal rights in the country, she said its effectiveness would depend on its “proper implementation, which is vital.”

“Maybe the best thing that this law managed to accomplish so far is that we were able to observe a stir-up of women taking part in parliamentary elections [in March 2006],” Rudnyeva said, referring to public debate provoked by the law that led to more political parties including women among their top five candidates for seats in parliament.

Source: Kyiv Post