Feminist Politics in Times of EU Austerity: Challenges and Strategies in a New Political Landscape.
Contribution by Sissy Vovou, member of the collective TO MOV (tomov.gr) – Greece
A two day meeting at the Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands on 17-18 of September. Twenty eight women were invited.
Our collective was also invited and had agreed to participate, but sweeping political developments in Greece and the proclamation of elections did not allow us to do so, thus we notified the organisers that we would “participate” through a written contribution on the subject. More about the meeting, when the results are published by the organising committee.
Continuing the travel in the austerity tunnel
The case of Greece is well known to the European public, whereby as from 2010 there was a terrifying program of “reforms” and “restructuring” of the economy, that followed the loans provided by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the infamous “troika”. The result of this restructuring was disastrous for the economy, for women and men, for the vast majority of the population. It plunged the Greek economy 25% to recession, the greatest in peace time, it plunged the incomes to a loss of about 25%, and raised employment from 9% that was in 2009, to 27% by 2014, with a small improvement in 2015. More particularly, in the last year unemployment fell by 2%, and in May it was 1.200.981 persons, of who 22,4% men and 28,2% women. Of the unemployed persons, 51,8% were 15-24 years old. Greece has a population up to 11 million people.
We are faced with great austerity, of dismantling of a large part of the public sector and of stifling and suffocating the private sector.
In the beginning of January 2015 the great hope of getting out of this tunnel come true, through the election of a left government, committed to an economic and social paradigm that would start reversing the situation.
Despite the wonderful measures taken by this government in many fields, the negotiations with the “partners” in Europe and the IMF which concluded on the 12th of July, brought us back to the old course, which is even more painful today, as it is building over the previous agreements, austerity policies and the results of these policies. It was more than clear that the agreements were imposed on the government that was negotiating, with the threat of the infamous Grexit, which would mean throwing Greece out of the Euro and a sudden collapse of the economy. At the same time, the European Central Bank had imposed capital controls in the banks in Greece, which stifled the economy even further, and was like a phantom haunting the negotiating government of mr. Tsipras. This pressure was considered by all progressive forces or movements in Europe and was condemned as a dictatorial imposition. A very good statement about it was produced by the Feminist economists of Europe (link at the end of my contribution).
Women have had their share in the regression of society, and gender equality policies were the last priority of the previous governments as well as for the government of the left which made some declarations, unfortunately weak, but was rather unwilling to deal with such matters. The government of the left or of “national salvation” as it used to call itself, since it was governing in coalition with a small ultra nationalist party, resigned on the 22nd of August, after 7 months in political power. In a matter of a few days, according to constitutional provisions, elections were declared for the
20th of September, so we are now in the last days of the electoral period. It seems that the left party of SYRIZA will be again first, and it also seems that it will not be able to form a government by itself, but it will govern together with other parties, more than in the previous period. In any case, the agreements with the European institutions will be followed by any party or parties in government, since four more parties other than the majority of SYRIZA MPs voted in parliament in favor of the agreements, and they are all committed to their application.
Austerity matters for everyone in the middle and lower classes, it affects women, though, in a different way than men. In terms of unemployment, women’s unemployment initially increased less than men’s unemployment. In the pre-2010 period, women’s unemployment was 1/3 more than men’s, now the difference is smaller, since in the first stages of the crisis the construction sector which was one of the pillars of Greek economy was heavily suppressed, it fell by 63,47% from 2011 until 2014, with hundreds of thousands loosing their jobs, mostly men. The second pillar of the Greek economy is tourism, where women have a majority of work positions, they are on lower pay and hard conditions, and large part are uninsured, since it is to a great extend a seasonal work.
In the public sector, where the majority of employees were women, we had substantially better conditions of equality in relation to the private sector, due to trade union organisation and the regulations about hours, pay, maternity leaves, permanent jobs without the threat of dismissal. Nevertheless, due to the programs for lowering the number of employees, through incentives or early pensions, many women took pensions out of fear for tomorrow, as the frightening scenaria about those who don’t want to take pensions were pressing the older employees, especially the mothers who had the right to leave if the child/children was underage. Thus, a conquest of the working women in the public sector of previous times, turned into a condition for early pension which was not always a choice. Of course there were harsher ways of lessening the personnel, like dismissals of some categories.
Women are over-represented in poverty or threat of poverty in relation to men, especially single parent families, they are paid about 15% less for the same job through various conditions (career opportunities, overtime etc.), they have generally lower pensions following the lower income at work or missing years due family obligations, but these conditions are not due to the austerity policies, they are due to the pre-existing patriarchal structures and mentalities in society. We don’t forget that gender equality is legislated in many fields, according to European directives, so the differences are not due to legislation but to social reality.
To correct these conditions we need targeted policies for improvement, and such policies have weakened in the years of austerity. The women themselves are less conscious about gender equality demands, and their representation in decision making centers, like the boards of the different trades unions is very low, less than 20%. On the contrary, they have played a great role in struggles against the previous governments, most emblematic being the struggle of the 595 cleaning women of the Ministry of Economics, who have now been reinstated to their old jobs.
Women members of Parliament in the last elections were 22% only, with the majority being women MPs of SYRIZA, who were 1/3 of the total of 149. On the other hand, the government of the left included only 14% of women in the ministerial council, with not one of them being a minister, but only alternate-ministers. There was an outcry about this from feminists, from Europe, but the prime minister and his close circle did not listen, they didn’t even want to know.
Austerity brought another social movement in the fore, the solidarity movement. There are about 250 solidarity structures all over the country, like social kitchens, pharmacies, clinics, clothes or assisting lessons for children, assistance to drug addicts or homeless people, women suffering violence, migrant women etc. These are volunteer structures, a very important social net for people in need. There are also NGO’s, who give relevant assistance. The women are the majority of volunteers in such structures, which means they extend the care to the public space, to those in need, and they form the cohesion tissue of a society falling apart. This is a creative transformation of their expected role in the family, in a difficult situation, a reinvention of solidarity that was lost for decades. Many churches offer food and a few offer shelter to homeless people, but this is in the framework of charity rather than solidarity. It is always welcome for people in need, but it is a different concept and has different social function. Even in the church structures, women volunteers are those who cook and work for those in need, in a mixed consciousness of Christian and social obligation.
On the question of violence against women, we must say that we have today in Greece more structures than at any time in the past, based on European programs. These programs are run by the General Secretariat of Equality and/or municipalities and Periferies (prefectures). We also have a SOS hotline, working non stop, which receives thousands of calls. Some of these structures are in danger of closing, due to financial problems, and effort is made for funding through European programs again. Violence against women is on the rise, as is, we must say, every other kind of violence, in this difficult situation. The feminist groups are trying to assist, despite the fact we are weak and without any funds.
Trafficking is now almost free, the police has very few successes in dismantling the circuits and obviously low interest, but we must stress that trafficking is no longer what was in the past, the women (migrants) who want to be free of the circuits find it very hard to have a job for living, thus it is more difficult for them today than in the past. The courts are usually very lenient to traffickers, to the big fish of course. The small fish get higher convictions. The justice system is so slow, that for a case to start you need usually FIVE TO SEVEN years, and by the time it goes to appeals court or even to the high court, it will be more than 11 or 12 years for the final penalty. This makes very easy for the traffickers to “work”, the money is big, the dangers very small. Recently there was a trial of a big circuit of traffickers, with strip-tease night clubs and laundering money through a chain of 40 fine bakery and pastry shops, on heavy and documented charges. 23 persons committed to trial out of the 40 initially arrested, in 2008, the leaders of the circuit got 10 and 12 years in the first degree, which was low anyway, but they walked free pending appeal.
The welfare state is shrinking, with low funding for social insurance, education, social protection and health. These sectors are very closely related to women as they are the majority of workers and the majority of benefited by its services, since they still have the biggest responsibility for the family members, for care more generally, due to patriarchal mentalities and structures. The lowering of social state transfers unpaid work to women and families, whereby many services were offered in the past, despite the social state was never strong in Greece. For example in the hospitals, the lack of nursing personnel, obliges the relatives to care for everything needed by their patients. Naturally, you will find mostly women sitting on a chair next to the patient for days and nights, thus endangering their work if they have one, as they are expected to be responsible for everything related to care. The situations have changed, men also undertake obligations, but to a much lower degree.
Despite not included in the agenda of austerity, we cannot omit to mention the drama of the refugees coming in thousands every day in the Greek Aegean islands in the last few months, to escape war, mostly from Syria, but also from Iraq and Afghanistan, among them also some migrants or poverty refugees. Many of them are sunk in the small and unsafe boats. Many hundreds of volunteers are trying to substitute for the lack of state structures or funds. This should be considered a European problem, and we ask for the progressive movement to exercise pressure in the various governments of Europe to participate in the salvation, in the cover of urgent needs and in their transport to the different countries of Europe. We need a final abolition of Dublin II treaty, and a solidarity policy from the European countries and decision of quotas for hospitality.
We are in a tragedy, since the new memorandum voted in Parliament on the 14 of August foresees the continuation of austerity for three more years at least. The taxes are rising, the pensions are expected to fall, perhaps dramatically, unemployment is expected to persist in this landscape, and any money made by the government will go for servicing of the debt. On top of these, a large part of the public property, like airports, ports are going to be sold, so are large pieces of public land for “investment” and “development”. Electricity will be partly privatized, while the same future is not excluded for public water.
All hopes for quick exit from the crisis are now referred to the future, we don’t know how far. So we can continue talking about women and austerity in Greece, without seeing any sign of improvement of the situation. In this difficult landscape we can and will resist, we can and will fight for women’s rights and gender equality, but with smaller forces, unfortunately.
Member of the feminist collective TO MOV (meaning the purple color)
Member of the editorial board of the daily electronic “newspaper” tomov.gr
Our e-newspaper is in four languages, Greek and English, French, Spanish
Any contribution welcome
Feminist economists for debt moratorium for Greece
See very useful book
Women and Austerity: The Economic Crisis and the Future for Gender Equality (Routledge IAFFE Advances in Feminist Economics)
by Maria Karamessini (Editor), Jill Rubery (Editor)