Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The systematic decline of women's rights in Macedonia





In recent years Macedonia has undergone a very subtle, yet dreadfully pervasive deterioration of the situation with women's rights. Mainly unnoticed or overlooked, the government latched on the popular, deeply misogynist sentiment of the suffering mother (a metaphor often used for the country itself) and after the initial surge of promise with the introduction of the gender quotas in 2006 and the adoption of the Law on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, which paired with the history of equal treatment from the previous system led to even higher percentages in female representation in certain areas compared to the EU average[1], things started moving downwards steadily, without sufficient public resistance.

It can arguably be claimed that the ploy began with the anti-abortion posters and newspaper ads which started littering the public space out of nowhere circa 2006-2007 without anyone claiming responsibility for them. The ads depicted graphic images of babies, fetuses in-utero and aborted fetuses making use of the age-long tactic of instilling and heightening the feeling of guilt in women faced with abortion. The condemnation and the several guerilla actions organized by NGOs and informal groups aimed at neutralizing the negative influence of these actions did not manage to eradicate the propaganda which later progressed into different forms, such as the launch of the website Say No to Abortion or the Government's campaign aimed at raising awareness about the harmful consequences of abortion. Little did we know or suspect at the time that exactly those materials served as introduction to the additional restrictions on the Law on Abortion adopted in the summer of 2013.

This went hand in hand with the start of the Government's campaign for an increase in the birth rate in 2008 consisting of programs for increased government financial support for a third and  a fourth child in a family - a measure which was planned to be offered solely in those regions with lower birth-rates that "accidentally" turned out to be regions populated predominantly with ethnic Macedonians, which is the reason why it was overturned by the Constitutional Court and hence started to apply everywhere in the country. The TV advertisements from this campaign, which runs to date, heavily rely on the traditional patriarchal male and female roles featuring a young unemployed couple in which the woman convinces the seemingly uninterested man to keep the baby because "it is going to be a boy, and he will have your eyes", and, even more prominently, older men, alpha-males, self-assuredly telling the story of their lives against background footage presenting them as wealthy gentlemen and authoritatively claiming that "family is the greatest treasure". One of the ads goes as far as congratulating a father in a hospital for the "murder of a healthy child", which, due to the fierce reaction of the civil society and the public, was censored and at present the full version is only aired at night.  The campaign was also boosted with the broadcasting of a TV show, "It's Time for a Baby", on the publicly-funded broadcasting service, often featuring lower-class, prematurely aged women and men, nearly socially-deprived, who claim that having lots of kids is always a good idea and that they may not have jobs, but they are happy with their children, although in reality most of them resort to having three or four children simply in order to qualify for the financial assistance because they rarely have access to any other means of survival.

This anti-female discourse has traditionally found a great supporter in the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Thus, while giving a statement for a national television on the occasion of the Easter Holidays, the Metropolitan Petar from the Bitola Diocese reiterated the stance that abortion is absolutely unacceptable to the Church, blamed women for the high rate of divorce, and also added that women are the ones to either save or destroy the country, proceeding  to quote one of Saint Paul's biblical misogynist quotes. The fierce public reaction by the feminist and women's rights organizations prompted an explanation on the part of the Metropolitan in which he, naturally, further elaborated on the traditional role of the woman as a child-bearer and home-maker who must be subservient to the man, yet somehow, paradoxically, has even greater rights then he does.

What went parallel with all these transgressions was a consistent exercise of the "traditional female obedience" portrayed and explicitly encouraged in all the areas of public life, starting from the female politicians from the ruling party pleading "submissiveness" to the Prime Minister; the increased aspect of the "family comes first" and "how to balance a career and family" in the rhetoric concerning prominent businesswomen; the systematically ignored situation with the seamstresses who are the main breadwinners in some of the eastern parts of the country, yet work in substandard conditions for less than minimum wages and are constantly subject to molestation and harassment; the media, which in the race for increased sales and hits, have resorted to even more blatant sexism and unashamed objectification and exploitation of the female body; slut-shaming on the social media and in the media (the most popular hashtags on twitter usually ridicule, or condemn "excessive" female sexuality or promiscuity - slut is one of the most frequent trending topics, while newspaper articles, often muse over the "immorality" of the new generation of young girls who offer sexual services for a simple smart phone, or a dinner out a few drinks). Women are shamed for dressing provocatively, for asking for free access to means of contraception or for getting involved in non-committing sexual intercourse.  

Even the Prime Minister himself felt the urge to address the issue in 2012 on VMRO's Day, urging women to have more children in order to "save the nation", qualifying the fight against low representation of women in business and politics as "...some sort of women's rights... men's rights..." - a part of his speech which was not translated in the English version of the address on the official web-portal of the PM.

All of this fit very well with the traditional, patriarchal idea of the "role of a woman" within the Balkan societies and gradually led to the culmination in 2013 when the new restrictions to the law on abortion were published and then expressly adopted without sufficient public debate during the summer holidays in order to avoid a fiercer reaction from the public. The restrictions introduced a mandatory written request for abortion, consultative sessions about the possible advantages of the proceeding with the pregnancy, and a waiting period of three working days before the actual intervention is performed. Among the consequences of the measures could be a delay in the procedure, possibly leading to the expiry of the legal deadline for abortion which is 10 gestational weeks, as well as the additional burden on the socially and economically most disadvantaged women, especially those not living in the few towns where the clinical centers offering termination of pregnancies are located, as well as them being exposed to additional travel expenses. The law also stipulated that the woman's partner had to be informed about the termination of the pregnancy - a provision which was severely opposed by the public and the civil sector in the country and consequently withdrawn. 

The NGOs and informal organizations dealing with women's rights united in a single civil front called Matka - a platform for free access to safe abortion that organized events and published a newspaper and videos to raise awareness about the consequences of the law. Unfortunately, they were not able to stop it from being adopted.  What's worse, the bylaws dealing wit h urgent procedures and atypical cases have not yet been passed, thus putting a strain on the lives of women who are in need of urgent procedures due to intrauterine death or anomalous fetuses. The only bylaws that have been adopted are those concerning the counseling sessions stipulating that prior to an abortion, a woman is bound to listen to the fetus's heartbeat and have a mandatory ultrasound screening.

At present, the many transgressions against the fundamental human rights of women that  triggered gradual, but ever-increasing articulation of anger, have finally resulted in the establishing of the Gender Equality Platform in December 2014, uniting NGOs and informal feminist and leftist organizations. The Gender Equality Platform has already managed to thwart the attempt of the Health Insurance Fund to shift the responsibility for payment of the maternity allowance to the employers (money that the Fund planned to later compensate for). This by no means marks an end of the struggle, and the prospects are definitely not very bright; however, the recent student protests and social unrest in Macedonia leave space for hope that, if they occur, the long-awaited changes would finally take into consideration the specific situation of women in society and on the labour market.

Published in http://www.bilten.org/?p=4932
photo: Vancho Dzambaski




[1] http://www.sobranie.mk/WBStorage/Files/KEMBroshura.pdf

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