Working women in Central and Eastern Europe have been told they have to be everything for everyone. This narrative goes back to the Communist period and has transformed women from Romania, Hungary and Poland in Superwomen who are doing what they know best: providing for their families, while waiting for better working policies from the international community. In spite of instability and a continuous struggle for financial security, they tenaciously follow their dreams and thrive and helping each other.
Lorena (not her real name), a Romanian woman is 45, married for 24 and spent her last 10 years working abroad, mainly in Italy. She is one of the more than 600.000 women in Romania who chose to get a job abroad in the last 15 years.
“My husband doesn’t like working although he has more degrees than I do. I’m a simple woman, you know? I have two boys and I have to raise them. They have their needs – like Nike shoes, good food on the table and somebody has to provide for them. Even now my husband is saying that I didn’t do anything, that I am nobody, but I will show him he’s not right: I’m an honest person, I didn’t sleep with anybody else, I didn’t find myself a rich Italian lover. No. All I’m doing is working. To be honest, is the exact same thing that I’ve done at home: cleaning, washing, ironing, making breakfasts and the bed, serving everyone, but unless like home, here I get paid for all of my work!”, she says.
Women still do the majority of the unpaid housework and care in the E.U. This is why Lorena and other working females like her chose earning their own money outside their households, abroad. Although the conditions are tough, she prefers working close to Saint Moritz, because the salaries are higher.
“We’re like slaves, I’m telling you. Last time we were 20 women in a room in the basement, no windows. We didn’t have one day off, only 1 hour break in which we could barely take a shower and eat. That’s why I am always asking for the working conditions, the room, how many are we, what’s the schedule, and I never go without having my contract! I’ve seen a lot in life and I am the only one who I can depend upon. My boys need me and I don’t have any time to waste!”, explains.
By “wasting time” she gently refers to the human trafficking problem that Romanian women are facing in the Southern part of Italy. According to the latest report on human trafficking of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in C.E.E. countries, 54% of the victims are women. 65% of them are used as sex workers.
Lorena says is okay to work and provide for one’s family, but at some point you’d have to look at the costs and benefits. Does it worth the sacrifice? Is it safe? Ms. Magdalena (not her real name), 57, is working as a cleaning person in one of the hotels in Cluj (city in Northern Romania) and now, since she has two days off, has some free time and has promised her son, who is working in Spain, she will look after his granddad. The woman agrees with everything Lorena is saying and keeps on reminding us the calvary of Romanian women in Sicily, that the Guardian wrote about. Now she was wondering about what could have happened to one of her goddaughters who got a job in Italy, but never returned to her husband.
“Imagine that it was her last summer there, she just made a phone call, talked to her husband, said she has had enough of her life in Cluj and she explicitly asked not to be disturbed again. She didn’t have any argument with her husband, nothing. It all came all of a sudden. Her husband said `Okay` and that was it. Nobody saw her after that. Her telephone is shut off… It’s been two years already… My husband told her husband to go and see with his own eyes if she’s okay, but no. He refused and that’s that”, she recalls.
600 kilometers away, in the beautiful Budapest, Hungary, Juliska, 54, is cleaning houses. She has to work because she is the only bread winner in the household. She’s from Romania, and usually goes to Budapest 4 times a year: before each holliday and whenever she needs money. Juliska earns 10.000 HUF (around 30 euros) per day. A Hungarian female friend is helping her out.
“She stays at my place, she doesn’t have to pay for anything. I am helping her because I am a woman and I know how hard it is to earn decent money and she is in a safe environment”, confesses Juliska’s friend, a 61 year old woman from Budapest.
The Hungarian lady who is helping Juliska is recently retired, but with a pension of 100.000 HUF (around 300 euros) she needs to work extra as a physical therapist to help one of her sons, Robert (not his real name), who is unemployed at 27. He tried to work in the United Kingdom, but doesn’t speak English so it’s been “really difficult for him to get a job there”, his mom explains.
“I helped him for half a year, I sent him every month like 500 euros, which there in pounds is nothing, but for me here was much money. He spent it all, found no job and came back home, empty-handed. I sold a house and I bought him a new one close to Budapest, in the place where he wanted to, but he doesn’t like it anymore, cause he has to work to put the house in order… So now I still have to provide for him…”, underlines, arguing that her son’s situation is due to his poor education.
According to Eurostat, Hungary has one of the largest gender pay gaps among managers, and has one of the lowest employment rates by education level in the European Union, 7.7% less than the European average.
For working women in Poland, the fight for equality gets personal: their reproductive rights are a battlefield. Now, in Poland old times are back and women are facing the impossibility of deciding over their own health. It was the case of Alicja Tysiąc, a Polish woman forced to bear a pregnancy even though her health was in danger. Suffering from severe myopia she was denied the right to decide over her own health and opt for an abortion. Today she is permanently disabled, due to the pregnancy, yet she won a case in the European Court of Human Rights against Poland. Why is this happening?
“It is a deep Conservative and Catholic society. I remember a case of a friend, she’s been raped and she didn’t tell it to the parents. She got pregnant at a young age and she had to cross the border to Germany to have the procedure (abortion). It’s outrageous! And now it might get worse!”, an outraged Polish woman said.
Women worldwide rallied against the Polish Government in October 2016, February 2017 and this March and set the limit for future questionable health policies: Women’s bodies are not public property!
For now, for European women like Lorena, Magdalena and Juliska are transforming the United Nation’s He for She slogan, into the reality of she for he! Empowering women depends exclusively on other women stepping up for each other, without realizing that in the process they are becoming Superwomen.