On 8th March this year, women in Central and Eastern Europe were once again offered flowers and chocolates from male colleagues and friends. It is a “not-very-feminist” gesture preserved for 45 years by the communist regime in Hungary. But with the lowest rate of women in political office in all of Europe, it’s hardly surprising.

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I found it very odd, not to mention awkward, four years ago when a male professor at Warsaw university started his classes by saying, “First of all, I’d like to wish all women attending this course a very happy Women’s day.” Yeah, it was Women’s day, and so what? Shall I feel privileged? And no, sorry… I hate being offered flowers.

Being back in Central Europe this year – living now in Budapest – I found the Hungarian way of celebrating 8th of March very similar to the Polish one, in regards to the everyday aspect of it. I could mention the fact that Poland has been holding ‘Manifa’ (successful feminist demonstrations) for eleven years now. Hungary doesn’t have an analogue for these.

EU Rankings-Percentage of women in elected office

European Union 34.9%
European Commission 33.3%

Sweden 46.1%
Finland 40%
Netherlands 40%
Belgium 39.3%
Denmark 37.4%
Spain 36.6%
Germany 32.8%

Austria 27.9%
Portugal 27.8%
Estonia 22.8%
Czech Republic 22%
United Kingdom 21.9%
Bulgaria 21.3%
Italy 21.3%
Poland 20.4%
Latvia 20%
Luxemburg 20%

Lithuania 19.2%
France 18.9%
Greece 17.3%
Slovak Republic 15.3%
Ireland 13.3%
Slovenia 13.3%
Cyprus 12.5%
Romania 11.4%

Hungary 9.1%
Malta 8.7%

March 8th is obviously a day to remember women by being nice to them, but it’s certainly not an occasion to talk about pay distortion, inequality, lack of childcare facilities, or an absence of women in the highest decision-making spheres. I don’t consider myself a feminist, however I don’t see why we women haven’t reached equality in such important fields as politics, jobs or even the academic sector here.

France (where I’m from) may not be a paradise for women either, but at least the French celebrations for 8th of March have nothing to do with another stupid Valentine’s Day. It’s an occasion to discuss our underrepresentation in the fields above, and bring key issues to public attention and wide discussion in the media.

For 8th March this year I wrote an article for a French daily newspaper about Women in Politics in Central and Eastern Europe, giving me the chance to do deeper research. Here are some hints on the subject. First of all, one might have a glimpse at The Global Gender Gap Report. Written under the supervision of the World Economic Forum (considered a reference when it comes to gender issues), the ranking of women’s representation in politics makes it clear only that the situation varies from one state to another in post-communist Europe.

The winner is clearly Latvia, ranked 31st among 131 states in the report. Latvians had a woman as a head of state – Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga – from 1999 until 2007. Of Latvian MPs, 22% are currently women. The two other Baltic republics score a bit more poorly, though their national assemblies count roughly the same proportion of women. And Lithuania has a woman president. Elected in 2009, Dalia Grybauskaitė, an ex-EU Budget commissioner, enjoys a popularity rate of 80%.

This single woman in her 50’s “is quite a phenomenon,” according to Lithuanian journalist, Daiva Repeckaite. “She is seen as a very rational and impartial person who can steer the economy well during the crisis, although economy is not the president's job.”

Ranked better (41st) than Estonia and Lithuania, Poland, recently adopted a quota for polling lists, assuring a minimum 35% of candidates will be women. Strong feminist personalities are particularly active in the public life. It’s a woman who runs Warsaw municipality, Hanna Beata Gronkiewicz-Waltz, since 2006 (a former head of the Polish National Bank). I’m amazed by how Poland is performing on women’s issues, breaking many conservative stereotypes one might hold.

In Slovakia (ranked 89th), it’s also a woman, Iveta Radičová, who has been the prime minister since July, 2010. But, according to Lucia Najslova, researcher at Europeum – a Prague based European think tank – it doesn’t mean Slovakian women are better off.

Going for Radičová Najslova said, was “rather a result of people's political preferences, a switch from centre-left to right-right, and, a ‘no’ to the style and political culture of the previous government.”

Her election and ability to form a government was also a result of internal changes in the SDKU party. Radičová, with her skills, experience, and public opinion ratings, was the best alternative to previous leader.

“Moreover, her style of politics is less divisive and more consensual than the style of her opponent from the opposing political bloc” Lucia related, nothing that does not mean women are progressing in general. “There is only one woman minister in the current government, none of the mayors of 8 regional capitals is a woman, out of 13 Slovak Europarliament members 5 are women. In the Slovak parliament, there are 23 women (and 127 men)”.

Here in Hungary, the situation is even more alarming. The current Orbán government counts no women among its 8 “super” ministers and the Hungarian parliament is 91% male.

LMP (Lehet más a politika, the young ‘Green and liberal’ party) decided to apply a 1/3 quota of women for themselves. As a result LMP has 5 female MPs out of 15. According to Katalin Ertsey, an LMP MP, politics remain a matter for men here,
I t seems the country hasn’t reach any form of political maturity in that field, as Katalin notes, “Many women become aggressive, copying the male model, but with perfect hairdos, make up and clothes, even big, dramatic hats.”

The MszP didn’t do well either… as underlined by professor Gabriella Ilonszki (Institute of Political Science, Corvinus University of Budapest):

“The gender perspective is missing from nowadays political agenda. It was largely absent during former governments and parliamentary periods as well but as of now in addition to the low numbers, the advocated values, slogans, vocabulary warn that the conservative turn further diminished the importance of gender equality issues. Those few women who can be seen in top politics do not regard gender (and their own gender) an "issue". This is not surprising amongst the given conditions, party values and selection criteria.”

Hungary is ranked 126th out of 131 in the gender gap report, and last in Europe. So why is Hungary so far behind all the other Central and Eastern European countries?

According to Ilonszki, “In Hungary, after the democratic transition, the political class got cemented very quickly. Until 2010 (the last elections) hardly any change took place. The cemented elite and the frozen institutional structure – most importantly the party system – made the entry of new, or rather latecomers hard or sometimes impossible. This is a big difference between Hungary and the other post-communist countries. There is quite some way to go before Hungary even equals the neighbours…”

– French-born Hélène Bienvenu is a professional photojournalist. When not wandering Europe in search of stories, she calls Budapest home.

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