Gender equality policy development in post-communist Central- and Eastern Europe. Good or bad for women?

By Andrea Spehar

Economic, political and social transition has led to a reconsideration of gender roles and gender policies in post-Communist countries. In this article I will summarise the primary tendencies of these changes the way they have been presented in previous research. To aid understanding of the process of forming gender equality policies in the context of transition, I will first give a short description of the guidelines of gender equality policies which marked the Communist period.

Gender equality policies under communism

It is often claimed that gender equality was one of the major achievements of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Under the communist system, Constitutional regulations provided women and men with equal rights in all areas of state, political, economical, social and cultural life. The constitutions prohibited any form of discrimination, gave women the right to work, required equal pay for equal work and guaranteed social security during sickness and after retirement. Government policies such as relatively high minimum wages, generous maternity leave and child care benefits encouraged women to work, and the number of women participating in the labour force often exceeded those of the OECD countries. Under communism, benefits and taxation were, in most cases, attached to women’s own employment rather than treating wives as their husbands’ dependents. Childcare was widely available and widely used, although there was more variation between countries than has commonly been presumed. Women’s presence in communist parliaments was ensured through quota system.

However, much of the progress in the area of gender equality under communism remained ambiguous and contradictory. Some scholars claim that the communist experiment was nothing more than an instance of “forced emancipation” and that women’s incorporation into public life was “insincere” because it was motivated by economical interests, rather than by gender equality concerns (Ashwin 2006). In spite of the heavily propagandised gender equality in the sphere of paid employment, the reality of the labour market was far from gender-neutral. For example, the state socialist system did not manage to challenge gendered job segregation and wage gaps. Although different laws contained an explicit provision prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender, at the same time there were legislative provisions that aimed to protect motherhood (e.g. shorter working hours, longer maternity leaves, restriction on work at nights and performing jobs involving hard manual labour). While such legislation was intended as a privilege and reward for bearing children, it ensured women’s rights only through the virtue of motherhood and ended up being discriminatory. In addition, under communism, the gender-neutral stipulations in different laws (e.g. family laws) were completely absent. Fathers, for example, were not encouraged to share responsibilities for raising children and there was no official notion of the paternity leave (Paci 2002). The lack of gender-neutral legislation contributed to the strong legacy of traditionalism in attitudes towards the family and gender roles. Furthermore, some gender equality and women’s rights questions, such as sexual harassment and domestic violence, were not regulated by law and were absent from public discussions (Spehar 2007). Thus, in communist countries, women were empowered and disempowered at the same time by gender policies and cultural praxis.

Gender policies and gender equality in transition

Most research on the position of women and gender policy development after the fall of communism is pessimistic about the influence of the transition on the position of women in various spheres of social life (e.g. Einhorn 1993; Funk & Muller 1993; Watson 1993; Moghadam 1995; Gal & Kligman 2000; LaFont 2001). According to Rueschmeyer, women are “the losers in the recent transformations”, because they have lost socially and economically in post-communist societies (1994:226). Einhorn argues that “despite clear empowerments in the civil and political rights associated with democratic citizenship, in the short run at least, women in East Central Europe stand to lose economic, social welfare and reproductive rights” (1993:1). Moghadam claims that Eastern and Central European democracies suffer the “resurgence of patriarchal discourses” and have a “male face” (1995: 348). According to Pascal and Lewis, “the dual worker model of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has been undermined since the collapse of communism by economic insecurity, with higher unemployment bringing an increase in women’s dependence on men’s incomes, and by changes in the state, especially reductions in legitimacy and in collective spending” (Pascal and Lewis 2004:374).

It seems as if the chief effort of many scholars has been to document how a majority of Eastern European women have been negatively affected by the post-communist transformation due to the rescinding of former communist rights to political representation, employment, public services and different forms of social assistance. How can we explain the pessimism of this research and to what extent is it justified? If we consider the political context at the beginning of transition it may not be so surprising that the studies published in the first half of the 1990s focus on the negative consequences of transition. The experience of many countries in the region is that the nationalistic and conservative authorities that were in power during the first years of transition advocated traditional family and social relations. There were, for example, arguments that women should be liberated from their ‘forced’ participation in the labour market under communism and retreat to domesticity. Those kinds of arguments were most often advocated by the extreme right-wing political parties and supported by fundamentalist wings of organised religion. It is therefore no wonder that this conservative political rhetoric was interpreted by scholars as threatening to reduce rights granted to women under Communism (such as the right to work and the right to certain social benefits). However, the mere presence of a rhetorical threat of a reduction of women’s rights does not necessarily mean that these rights were actually reduced.1

If we shift focus from academic research to other studies, mostly reports published by various international organizations, we get a more complex picture of the position of women and the development of gender equality policies after the fall of Communism.2 Some areas show changes compared to the Communist period but in others the situation of women has remained more or less the same. Furthermore, generalizations are difficult because post-Communist countries have significantly different attitudes towards the position of women in society and the development of gender policies. The following examples—one concerning the position of women in the labour market and the other development of gender equality policies within the sphere of family policies—will serve to illustrate these issues.

Two illustrative examples

Given the presence of nationalist and conservative political forces, many scholars have assumed that in new democratic systems women are more likely to become unemployed and that women’s participation in the labour force may decline. In the perhaps most widely read and cited book on women’s situation in post-communist countries Barbara Einhorn states: “Paid employment has been the norm for women in East Central Europe for the past forty years. Now they are the first to be dismissed” (Einhorn 1993:113). However, according to several reports the gender gap in labour participation has not shown a great shift with the emergence of market economies. The proportion of employed women remains in the range of 40-50 percent across the region (UNECE 2002). According to data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) female unemployment rates in the first half of the 1990s were not uniformly higher than male unemployment rates across the region; in fact there was no systematic pattern of unemployment by gender in the post-communist countries.3 Apart from women’s participation in the work force, wages are another important indicator of women’s financial well-being. Several studies suggest that the gender gap in salaries has become considerably smaller in a majority of the Central European countries (e.g. the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, and Hungary) (Jolliffe and Campos 2005). On the other hand, women’s salaries have decreased dramatically in Russia and Ukraine.

As far as the development of gender equality policies within the sphere of family policies is concerned, not only are there conspicuous differences between countries but also the fact that (some modifications aside) women and families have not lost all the rights that they had during communism (e.g. the right to maternity and parental leaves and childcare services). The transition to market economy did provide, however, a radically new context for the development of family policies. The seemingly strong network of family support was particularly vulnerable to transitional factors because it was financed and operated by the state and because many of the benefits and services were delivered through the workplace. Reduced GDPs, public revenue and market pressures on employers made these provisions hard to sustain. The percentage of declining GDPs spent on family allowances, maternity and childcare and pre-primary education has increased in the majority of post-communist countries.4 It is nonetheless important to underline that after the transition to democracy most countries continue to offer various family support programs, although in most cases the benefits have been reduced.5 Maternity and parental entitlements have remained relatively untouched and are still generous by international standards (Rostgaard 2004).6 In addition, over the last few years, some countries have extended the right of the parental leave (e.g. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Croatia).

Under communism different types of benefits and taxation were linked to women’s employment rather than to their status as spouses. A review of existing tax arrangements in the region suggests that current tax systems are friendly to women’s participation in the labour force and tend to offer concessions to families with children (Paci 2002). Taxation and benefit systems are still based on individuals rather than on bread-winner/dependant relationships. Enrolment rates in nurseries have declined throughout the region, most notably in the countries of the former Soviet Union, but enrolment rates in kindergartens (for children aged 3-6) seem to have been much less affected. Kindergarten enrolments are still high compared to international rates and, according to data from UNICEF, enrolment rates stabilised or improved in most Central European countries in 1996-1997 (UNICEF 1999). In the transition period kindergarten enrolment rates ranged from 85% in Hungary, 65% in Romania, to only 35% in Croatia. It is important to point out that these differences were present during the Communist period and can therefore be considered part of Communism’s legacy.

Gender policy innovations

The transition period is not characterized merely by the modification of family policy inherited from the Communist period. Certain segments of the deficiencies of the Communist gender equality policy were re-examined during the transition period and this led to certain legislative changes. For example, over the past few years there has been considerable progress in addressing this issue of violence against women. The issue was put on the public agenda and some significant legislative changes have taken place (Council of Europe 2005).7 In the area of employment, new legal frameworks have been adopted for prohibition of gender discrimination. Most countries already had provisions in their constitutions and labour codes for equal treatment in the workplace but there were, for example, no specific regulations for the reversal of the burden of proof in cases of sex discrimination or sexual harassment at work. In the transition period most countries passed supplementary legislation to clarify and strengthen those deficiencies.8 In the transition period many countries also passed entirely new legislation to strengthen equal pay provisions. It is also important to point out that during the 1990s several countries (e.g. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia) added stipulations in their family laws that encouraged sharing the responsibilities of raising children. For example, legal maternity leave has been extended to men as well as to women and is now referred to as “parental leave”. Under communism, there was no official notion of paternity leave in the region. Despite some differences, recent national reforms show an increasing emphasis on fathers’ rights, which is a new phenomenon in all countries. Indeed, the new policy instruments indicate a change of national discourse towards a more gender-neutral society, as focus has moved from purely mothers’ rights to maternity and parental leave to include similar rights for fathers (Spehar 2007).


Even 18 years after the fall of Communism gender equality policy development and the position of women in society has still not been sufficiently explored to enable us to make valid conclusions about the directions of certain changes. On the one hand there are academic studies which make conclusions about negative development of the gender equality policy and the position of women in society. On the other hand, reports from international organizations point to a more complex picture in which both the positive and the negative aspects of policy development and differences between countries are manifested. It is obvious that positive and negative conditions in both communist and post-communist periods make it difficult to draw unambiguous conclusions about the wins and losses that women have experienced during the transition.


Ashwin, Sarah (2006). Adopting to Russia’s New Labour Market: Gender and Employment Behaviour. New York: Routledge.

Council of Europe (2005). Implementation of and Follow-up to Recommendation Rec (2002)5 on the Protection of Women against Violence. Strasbourg: Directorate General of Human Rights.

Einhorn, Barbara (1993). Cinderella Goes to the Market. Citizenship, Gender and Women’s Movements in Central Europe. London and New York: Verso.

Funk, Nanette and Magda Mueller (eds.) (1993). Gender and Politics and Post-Communism. Reflections from Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. New York and London: Routledge

Gal, Susan and Gail Kligman (eds.) (2000). Reproducing Gender: Politics, Publics and Everyday Life After Socialism. Princeton; Princeton University Press

ILO, International Labour Organisation (1998). Key Indicators of the Labour Market. Geneva: ILO

International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) (2000). Women 2000 – An Investigation into the Status of Women’s Rights in Central and South-Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States.

Jolliffe, Dean and Campos Nauro (2005). “Does Market Liberalisation Reduce Gender Discrimination? Econometric Evidence from Hungary, 1986–1998.” Labour Economics 12(1) –22.

LaFont, Suzanne (2001). “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Women in the Post-Communist States.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 34: 203-220.

Moghadam, Valentine (ed.) (1995). “Gender and Revolutionary Transformation. Iran 1979 and East Central Europe 1989” In Gender & Society 9(3): 328-358.

Paci, Pierella (2002). Gender in Transition. Washington D.C: World Bank.

Pascall, Gillian and Jane Lewis (2004). “Emerging Gender Regimes and Policies for Gender Equality in a Wider Europe”. Journal of Social Policy 33(3):373-394.

Rostgaard, Tine (2004). Family Support Policy in Central and Eastern Europe – A Decade and a Half of Transition. Unesco Education Sector.

Spehar, Andrea (2007). “How Women’s Movements Matter. Women’s Movements’ Strategies and Influence on Gender Policy Formation in Post-Communist Croatia and Slovenia”. Göteborg: Livrena (

UNECE (2002). Labour Markets in Transition Countries: Gender Aspects Need More Attention. UNECE: Geneva.

UNICEF (1999). Women in transition. Regional Monitoring Report no. 6. Florence, Italy: UNICEF.

UNDP (1999). Human Development Report. Various Issues. New York: Oxford University Press.

Watson, Peggy (1993). “The Rise of Masculinism in Eastern Europe.” New Left Review 198:71-82


1Reduced reproductive rights in post-communist countries certainly constitute another area frequently used to illustrate losses for Eastern European women after the fall of communism. Under communism abortion was, on the whole, available throughout Eastern Europe. During the first few years of transition when the nationalists came to power in a majority of the countries, programmes were launched to increase birth rates and to fight abortion. Restrictions were discussed in Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia, but in most cases women’s reproductive rights have been sustained; abortion remains legal in all countries except Poland (IHF 2000). Bearing this fact in mind, it is very surprising that some scholars still argue that women in post-communist countries have lost ground regarding their reproductive rights (e.g. Lafont 2001:217).

2These are reports published by international organizations such as Unicef, World Bank, The Council of Europe and EU.

3In the first half of the 1990s male and female unemployment rates were roughly equal in four countries (Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, and the Slovak Republic); women’s unemployment rates exceeded those of men in two countries (Poland and the Czech Republic); and male rates of unemployment were higher in two countries (Hungary and Slovenia) (ILO 1998:473-80). In the second half of the 1990s, the pattern of unemployment does, therefore, not indicate consistently higher unemployment rates for women. The review in the Economic Survey of Europe, 1999 showed that in 1997, only 5 of 11 transitional countries reported higher unemployment rates among women. Unemployment rates among women were lower than among men in Hungary, Latvia, the Russian Federation and Slovenia but higher in the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania. This is confirmed by data from the Economic Survey of Europe (UNECE 2002). In 2001, unemployment among women was higher in 4 of 10 countries (the Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia and Slovenia), and only in the first two was the difference substantial. The decline in the ratio of female to male unemployment in the period between 1998 and 2001 also indicates a relative improvement in women’s situation in the labour market. There is also some evidence that during between 2000 and 2002 men were more affected by employment cuts in all countries except Armenia, Slovakia and Slovenia. Comprehensive research is needed to explain these trends.

4The effectiveness of family policies depends, for the most part, on the amount of benefits granted. In Bulgaria and Romania, for instance, the dramatic economic crisis has negatively influenced the level of benefits at disposal for the population, which remains usually very low and does not permit sufficient protection. In Hungary and Slovenia, on the other hand, the situation seems to be slightly different with families having access to an extensive and relatively effective family benefit system (Rostgaard, 2004)

5If researchers simply analyse the financial level of family policies in Eastern Europe without considering the dramatic economic crisis, which has resulted in an erosion of social benefits, they would probably conclude that family support in these countries is minimal. However, if one compares the level of family benefits to poor economic development in certain countries (the GDP drop, unemployment, inflation), then it is no wonder that benefits do not exceed the (financial) means of a country. It seems plausible that different policy outcomes have been the result of the countries’ different economic performance, rather than the consequence of voluntary gender-segregating policy-making. Furthermore, despite poor economic performance many states in post-communist Eastern Europe showed the will to establish comprehensive and extensive family benefits. For example, according to data from UNDP almost all of the Countries in the region, specially does in Central Europe, have a higher gender-related development index (GDI) than expected from their per capita income level (see UNDP 1999).

6Maternity leave varies in length from a total of 16-18 weeks in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania and Ukraine to 24-28 weeks in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Russia. Slovenia offers only 11 weeks with a benefit for the mother but on the other hand offers 90 days of paternity leave and 260 days of parental leave. All countries apply a principle of earnings-related benefits and social insurance entitlement. Benefits are relatively high, often set at 100% of wages, and have stayed at this level even after the transition. Only the Czech Republic and Hungary have recently trimmed benefits, from 90% to 69%, and 100% to 70% respectively (Council of Europe 2005). In the pre-transition years, the entitlement to maternity leave and benefit was mostly limited to employed persons and was (in the late 1980s and in the 1990s) gradually extended to cover the large agricultural population, the self-employed and the unemployed.

7On the national level significant advancements have been made through the drafting and passage of domestic violence laws and the creation of policies and protocols altering law enforcement, judicial, prosecutorial, or medical response to domestic violence. For example, Bulgaria and Croatia enacted special Laws on Domestic Violence which among other things provide immediate protection to victims of domestic violence without requiring that they pursue criminal remedies against or divorce from their abusers. Some countries amended their Criminal and Penal Codes in the way that they specifically criminalizes domestic violence (i.e. Slovenia, Czech republic, Hungary)

8Significant advancements have been made through the drafting and passage of sex discrimination laws deemed to prohibit sexually harassing conduct in the workplace. For example, Estonia passed the Gender Equality Act in 2004, which defines direct and indirect discrimination as well as sexual harassment; it also requires the promotion of gender equality by state institutions, local governments, and employers. Similar laws were also passed in Latvia (Labour Law, 2001) in Slovenia (Employment Relationship Act, 2002) and in Bulgaria (Anti-discrimination Bill 2003). Despite their diversity, these laws can serve as useful models for new legislative and policy reform efforts.


Om Andrea Spehar 1 artikel
Andrea Spehar is researcher and teacher at the Department of Political Science, Gothenburg University. In her doctoral thesis "How Women's Movements Matter. Women's Movements' Strategies and Influence on Gender Policy Formation in Post-communist Croatia and Slovenia" (2007), she analyse the strategies of women's movements in Croatia and Slovenia attempting to influence four gender policy areas: violence against women, anti-discrimination policy, parental leave and pension reform