When my eighth grade teacher asked his class, “What are you going to do when you grow up?”, I told him, “I’m going to be a diplomat and work for the United Nations.” I was a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks in a tiny town of less than 1,000 people in southwestern Wisconsin. My father was a truck driver and my mother a homemaker who had the dreaded disease identified by Betty Friedan and questioned by Peggy Lee – “Is that all there is?”
My teacher hesitatingly said, “Well, Dianne, your personality is not exactly suited to be a diplomat.” He was right. I’m a fighter and switched my schoolyard brawls in which I usually beat the boys to courtroom brawls where I could beat them legally.
I began my legal career working out of a small rented room in a trailer park representing battered women. But I never forgot my desire to do international work. The opportunity arose in 1998. A friend told me about a position as a gender liaison with the American Bar Association Central and East European Initiative (ABACEELI) that was putting American lawyers in all the former Soviet Union countries. I applied for two openings on women’s rights, one in Russia and one in Armenia. I was scared, had little experience abroad, and didn’t speak a word of Russian. But I made up my mind that if they offered me the job, the answer would be yes. And I’m glad I didn’t turn back, as it was the beginning of a series of experiences that have expanded and enriched my life beyond measure.
My work in Russia lead to further work abroad including stints living in Cambodia and Hungary, as well as other short-term consultancies in many other countries in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. Every visit to every country was premised by the employer with an explanation that the conditions for women are different from those in the U.S., and the women don’t accept feminism as American women do, so I must be careful about pushing it on them. These were unnecessary admonitions. While it is true that women’s conditions differ in every country or at least every region, it is not true that the women don’t know about or accept feminism. They may not know the name. They may use a different word. They may never have heard of it. But many of them know the core meaning. They know the theory. They know the underlying need for a new direction that includes women and girls as equal partners in the world but that also changes the focus of the world from violence and war to peace and harmony. Today, more than ever, we need to hear and heed the voices of those women from around the world.
After accepting the position as a gender law specialist, I arrived in Moscow 17 June 1998 and spent two years working directly with women’s grass roots organizations. My charge was to work on issues of violence and discrimination against women, including sexual harassment and trafficking, to help develop indigenous non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), to produce appropriate publications, and to administer a small advocacy grant program. During my two years, I worked with dozens of NGO’s and hundreds of women from the 30 cities I visited. We held 44 seminars, workshops, conferences, and roundtables on various issues relating to women’s rights. We produced and distributed hundreds of books and thousands of brochures.
Before I came to Russia, my new employers advised me not to use the word ‘feminist,’ as it was a dirty word from the communist days. Not so. Many Russian women use it, and the word appears in the articles they write. Yes it’s true that these days many of the women who disappear when they turn sideways are running around in thigh-high, skin-tight skirts, see-through blouses and six-inch spike heels. But I confess that during the 15 minutes that I was skinny in my twenties, I too wore thigh-high skirts and see-through blouses – and was no less a feminist for my fashion. Rather than take the fatalistic view that this development represents a rush back to home, hearth and domesticity, it could just as easily be seen as a rebellion against 75 years of a rigidly enforced, male created sex-role stereotype. Now women are making their own roles. At first glance, it may look like a role we Western feminists don’t like, but a rebellion against male-enforced behavior can only be positive. When the first flush of rebellion is off, and the women new to having such options get a little older, the heels and skirts will likely give way to more sensible clothing. The women will be closer to finding their own roles rather than those forced upon them by communism or grasped in the first rush of freedom.
In fact it’s Russian women, whose lives were harder than men’s under communism, who are leading the charge in creating a civil society. Starting in l990, women’s groups have been the fastest growing and most active of the burgeoning nongovernmental society. In the time that I was there, I witnessed an explosion of grass roots organizing, the creation of national associations, development of sophisticated electronic databases, and publication of high-level research on women’s issues.
In l998, 32 crisis centers existed but a grant solicitation in l999 received 89 applications from crisis centers around the country. Not nearly enough, but impressive in a country facing social and financial upheaval. In Saratov, two young women lawyers, sometimes operating without a telephone, were giving legal advice to battered women. Two lawyers and a psychologist were doing ongoing police training in St. Petersburg. A woman doctor from Tver, whose husband is a police officer, was tired of the broken bones and bruises of her patients, so she started a women’s crisis center. In Moscow, a former communist prosecutor had done over l00 free cases for battered women by 1998.
On the employment front, the AFL-CIO has a free trade institute in Moscow which, along with its “public interest” law firms, has been working with unions for several years. Many unions are comprised mostly of female members – for example, those representing textile workers. Two of the public interest law firms, both headed by young women lawyers, were steadfast in pursuing the rights guaranteed the workers by the Constitution, as well as in challenging the extant aspects of the system from the communist era when unions were simply arms of the government. In 1995, a judge had one of the lawyers arrested and tossed out of court for trying to watch what should have been an open court case. The police officer then charged her civilly with improper conduct (similar to resisting arrest ) and she was fined five million old rubles or approximately $8,343 – when the average person in Russia made $300 a month. In response, she filed over 70 papers on her own case and successfully appealed the judgment. Now, not only she, but also the media are in that same judge’s court and neither gets tossed out.
In general, Russian women are highly educated and have many skills. My particular niche was showing them how to do things they were not allowed to do under communist rule. For example, lobbying was a concept unknown in Russia. You didn’t lobby the communist government in the way we use that term. Lobbying is still not officially accepted, though everyone admits it’s done. So the NGO’s are learning how to use that tool.
Volunteerism, so important in our early battered women’s and rape prevention work, is another concept which hardly exists in Russia. Just as in America, people want to know their work will make a difference. When under communism it didn’t, why bother? However, the women’s groups that have burst into action are changing this aspect of the culture. The crisis centers, hotline counselors, and shelter workers are usually not paid, or are very poorly paid. A complicating problem is that the majority of money for the existing women’s groups comes from foreign pockets. Recently President Putin managed to get a law passed severely restricting access to such foreign funds, claiming they were being used for spying. This will harm women’s groups and other civil society, as intended. However, indigenous fundraising is beginning. For example, a woman in Dubna refurbished an entire hospital wing that had fallen into serious disrepair and staffed it for a drug treatment center, all with local money raised against the wishes of the city mayor. (After all, if someone other than the mayor got it done, then the mayor is not necessarily the most powerful person in the city.)
One problem peculiar to Russia is an unwarranted belief, fed by years of communist trained passivity, that the government will come to the aid of women. Many of the Russian women seem to think that the domestic violence programs that are now in existence in the U.S. sprang full-grown from the head of some government bureaucrat who just opened up the till one day and said, “Here, have some money.” We know that is not what happened. But when Russian women take trips to the U.S. and see the magic-worker teams in Duluth or Minneapolis – where the police work cooperatively with shelters, and the courts put the safety of the child over the rights of the abuser – or they hear that one-third of the Phoenix police force is devoted to domestic violence, they think it happened by government fiat.
Some of that belief is based on the paradox in Russia, and in fact all former Soviet countries, that women were often in a better position before the fall of communism. The Soviets had official national women’s committees and quotas for employment and government positions. Though women did not have parity at the top levels of Soviet governance, they were far more plentiful further down the power structures than they are now. Their percentage in government fell from approximately 35 percent under the Soviets to as low as 3 percent, and is only now slowly climbing back up to 8-11 percent. Women were the first ones fired when businesses were no longer government-owned. Women’s pensions shrank dramatically with the fall of the economy, and I often saw old ladies on the street selling heirlooms and religious medals to stay alive. The worst of capitalism flooded the market with pornography, prostitution and sex trafficking. On the other hand, Russian women are leaned on to save the economy, as they are the new entrepreneurs and the best business people. As Putin continues to consolidate his power and takes the country backward to a more totalitarian regime, women remain Russia’s best hope.
In October 2003, I went to Cambodia to work with an American NGO that received a large USAID grant for human rights work. My specific job was to help the existing legal aid lawyers upgrade their skills. In addition, I had a small portfolio of women’s rights work mainly focusing on anti-trafficking and the draft of the domestic violence law. Many of the attorneys I worked with had cases on trafficking, rape and domestic violence, so I was able to focus specifically on improving that representation as well.
The difficulty of working in the legal system of Cambodia stems from the devastation of that country’s legal infrastructure during the Pol Pot regime. Prior to 1975, Cambodia had 400-600 lawyers, primarily French-trained. By 1980, at the end of the four years of genocide (or autocide as some prefer to call it), only 10 legal professionals remained. Most were dead; the rest fled. In 2004, only 19 of Cambodia’s 117 judges had a law degree. Only one of the nine Supreme Court justices and only six of the 63 prosecutors had law degrees.
The position of women in Cambodia used to be much higher than it is today. From the 8th to the 11th centuries CE, Cambodians ruled South East Asia from Angkor Wat. At that time, women were highly placed advisers to the King in all matters, including military. A woman was (and still is) revered as the founder of the country, and women were highly regarded in and outside the family. When a woman married, the husband moved in with the wife’s family – as is often the case even today. This tradition means that if the husband turns out to be violent or worthless, he is quickly sent packing.
Centuries later, Angkor Wat was lost in the jungle and women’s status had declined significantly. Countrywide nearly 80 percent of women are illiterate, and the rate approaches 100 percent in the rural areas where the majority of the population lives. The fastest growing group of AIDS patients are wives whose husbands bring AIDS home. Many men have second wives, though polygamy is officially illegal. Similar to the lessons I was taught in home economics in 1961, they have an official Srey Chbab – a code of laws for women – that outlines how a woman is to behave. She is to be quiet and submissive, focus on the house and children, support her husband, not speak out, etc. Can you say “Stepford Wives” or “Handmaid’s Tale”? This code was taught in school so every girl child learned it. While it is slowly losing its power, some schools still teach it and certainly families do.
After the destruction wrought on Cambodia by the U.S. during the Viet Nam war, the Khmer Rouge had an easy time of coming to power and wrought their own brand of destruction on the country for four years. The Viet Namese finally invaded and took over from 1979-1990 when a peace treaty was reached. With the advent of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1993, the problem of prostitution of Cambodian women and children and especially sex tourism began to embed itself into the country. Cambodia remains today a haven for trafficking and sex tourism and one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.
Young girls, especially Viet Namese, are often sold to traffickers to pay off a family debt. The girls feel obligated to remain in debt bondage for the family. One girl who was rescued by a local NGO returned to the brothel explaining that if she didn’t do it, the traffickers would just go and get her even younger sister. It is also not unusual for girls as young as seven to accost foreign men on certain streets asking them if they want “boom boom” for $20 or “yum yum” for $10. While a lot of attention is focused on foreign sex tourism, 90% of the abusers are Cambodian males.
Several of the NGO’s working on women’s rights, including a women’s crisis center, have attorneys who work directly for them. But that representation does not always work in the women’s interest. I had heard several negative reports about one particular male attorney and so I went to meet him. He had a case coming up that was quite famous in Cambodia. It involved some 40 Cambodian girls who had been trafficked to Malaysia. One of the girls had jumped out of a second story window to escape. She broke her ankle but crawled to the neighbor who took her to the women’s crisis center. They bypassed the corrupt police and got her home.
Criminal charges were filed against the local traffickers who had tricked the girl into going to Malaysia. At the prosecuting attorney’s request, I went over the case extensively, and outlined a series of questions for him to ask, questions for cross-examination, and the closing argument.
When the girl came to court with her mother, she looked to me to be about 16 years old. The attorney took the three of us into a room where we could all talk, but he himself started to leave. I stopped him and suggested that we go over the questions I had prepared for him. He then admitted he had never even looked at any of the work that I had sent him. He had never even spoken to her before she was to testify – a tremendous gaffe for an attorney. I insisted he sit down and we went through the questions with her.
During the trial, he failed to ask the court to close the room to bystanders. As a consequence, not only those seated in the courtroom were listening with rapt attention to the girl’s testimony of repeated rapes, but a group of men clustered around the back door of the court room – listening and leering at the victim who had to stand facing them as she testified. Fortunately, the local traffickers were convicted, but because of this really shoddy legal representation, the victim was ordered precious little in compensation and she probably didn’t receive any of it.
While rape is common in Cambodia, rape cases are often “settled” through financial compensation paid to the victim, or else through forced marriages, though the law strictly prohibits both. The accused men are often treated as above the law. In one particular case, both the perpetrator and the victim were police officers. The man had thrown the woman from the second story balcony, and the woman managed to take his motorcycle to escape. She was later charged with stealing his motorcycle. The man wasn’t charged with anything.
I went on a field trip to the countryside, where I visited six villages. In each of the villages I talked to the women about their lives and asked them what they would like me to do with the money I had at my disposal. In every single group meeting the most important issue was domestic violence. One woman asked why it was that when he beat her, the police did nothing, but when she fought back, she got arrested. Such a familiar story. They said they wanted their own copies of the divorce law, and books or videos to explain their legal rights and how to use them. I asked, “How many of you can read?” One woman said, “We can’t read but our children can, or some one in the village can, so you just get us the books and we’ll take care of it.” Then I said, “Well, what good is a video, you don’t have electricity?” (Cambodia is the least electrified country in Asia.) They said at least one person in the village has a generator, and now they have a weekly movie watching night so they can just as well watch the video.
Following their suggestions, we printed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Marriage and Family Law in their language (Khmer) and distributed them widely. We also gave grants for picture books and puppet theatre for those who couldn’t read. We produced a book called Knowledge of Law for Women that not only included the actual laws as they are written – such as the Constitution, criminal assault law, divorce law and labor law – but explained them in simple terms and told them what to do to enforce them. The NGO I worked for would print only 100 copies because the male boss thought it would have no audience. The books were gone a few hours after they were delivered to us. Eventually we printed over 5,000, and today it is used in women’s studies courses at a university.
The most telling example of the problems still faced by Cambodian women is the detrimental domestic violence law that was passed in 2005. The law included a major loophole – violence was illegal unless it was for educating the spouse or child to act in the Khmer way. I opposed passage of this law in any form, arguing that the current law had already defined assault as between any people, enabling the state to prosecute batterers. If the new law passed, batterers could easily escape prosecution. Their beatings would simply be for education of their wives to act in accordance with the Srey Chbab. Unfortunately, the law passed with support of many women legislators.
In spite of the many difficulties they faced, I witnessed examples of tremendous dedication among the women. One educated woman who had the opportunity to leave the country instead stayed and worked with the women in the poorest region, teaching them how to make compost and grow mushrooms in the dry season for additional income. By her efforts alone, all 11 of the children in one family are going to school rather than spending their days working just to put food on the table. Another American-educated Cambodian woman heads up the CEDAW committee and has created a network of women entrepreneurs in every area of the country. A Canadian-Khmer woman lawyer, who survived because her family fled the country during the Pol Pot regime, runs a law office for victims of rape and trafficking. Her family fears to set foot in Cambodia and begs her to return to Canada. Her heart binds her to the women of Cambodia.
The conditions of Cambodian women are vastly different from those of Russian women. Russian women are far more educated, urban and technologically advanced. Some of the Cambodian women are living lives much as their foremothers did 500 years ago, while the space age swirls past them. But in both situations, women struggle to support their families and to be free from tyranny, whether it’s domestic violence or exclusion from the political sphere. In both situations, strong and competent women rise to the task, and inevitably change the societies they live in.
Roma Women in Eastern Europe:
From Cambodia, I went to Budapest, Hungary in 2005 to work for Roma rights. My job wasn’t specifically related to women’s rights, but the board of the organization, the European Roma Rights Centre, wanted us to increase the women’s rights portfolio.
Stereotypes are a serious hindrance to Roma women as they try to claim their rights. The blatant prejudice and even hatred against Roma in Europe is astounding – even among lawyers and so-called human rights activists. The intense discrimination creates a “circle the wagons” mentality that puts enormous pressure on Roma women to maintain their loyalty to Roma men, even when the men abuse them. Police often said things like: Roma women like to be beaten, it’s just their culture, they can stand pain better than us. This reminded me of the excuses I sometimes heard in the U.S. in regard to violence against minority women.
There were many Roma women I worked with who were lawyers and journalists, professors and ministers of parliament. But even those with more privileged status don’t escape the ravages of bigotry. My encounter with a principal in a segregated school illustrated how deeply ingrained and socially accepted the prejudice against the Roma is. I was interviewing him in preparation for a lawsuit against the school. The translator was a Roma woman lawyer on my staff. Even though he knew her, and knew she was Roma, he said, “If things continue the way they are, the EU is not going to want Hungary in it. The Roma are reproducing so fast they will take over Hungary. You know, they can’t be lawyers or doctors, and they can’t govern, so we’ll be a disaster of a nation. Do you think the EU wants that?” (The Roma are 5 percent of the population.) He thought nothing of making this hurtful, nonsensical argument in front of a Roma woman attorney. I was astounded but waited until we left the building to talk to her about it. She said that because I was a “gadjo” (non-Roma), he assumed that I would be in agreement with him no matter what – even though I was an attorney working for Roma rights.
One of my biggest cases was representing the Roma in Kosovo who have been living on a toxic waste site filled with poisonous levels of lead for six years. During one visit, I was talking to two young women. They were cousins, both about 13 years old, and lived in a two-story house with 22 people, 14 of them younger siblings. The girls pointed out that I did not have on a wedding ring. They both said they did not want to get married either, and they did not want to have a bunch of children. Both said they wanted to continue in school. Four months later, one had been forced by her father to marry a 35-year-old man who paid a bride price. The other had run away with her boyfriend, perhaps to avoid the fate of her cousin.
For the case, I needed to interview the families who live in the camps. On my third visit, I had an appointment with the leader of one particular camp. When I arrived, he was not there, nor was the assistant. I just started talking to the wife. Soon other women came to join us and we sat in the shade of a tree. I told my driver to go buy drinks and cookies for the kids. Soon I had 15 of 18 families out on the grass. I explained what I was doing and what I needed from them. At first, they said that they needed to check with their husbands before talking to me. I just continued to talk. Then one fiery and very mouthy redhead announced that the lawsuit was a good thing. It was what they needed – justice. And she, for one, was signing up. That broke the ice and one by one I interviewed every one and signed them up as clients. I found out later that one woman was beaten by her husband for signing. I later asked her if she wanted to withdraw but she said no, this was for the kids more than anything and she was going to stick it out.
The lead poisoning continues to negatively impact all the people, but the women have additional concerns because they and the children spend more time in camp, and they are frequently pregnant; the lead damages the fetus so that the infant is often born brain damaged, mentally retarded or with serious medical problems, especially kidney damage. The women could not endure having any more such debilitated children, and since abortions (and even birth control) were not available or approved of, they started drinking lice shampoo or pesticide to abort, or eating yeast and drinking heaps of beer to bring on a miscarriage.
The lives of the Roma women seemed the most difficult of all three groups I worked with. They had little support within or outside of their culture. Education was minimal and childbearing started young. They don’t have a heritage of glory (as in Cambodia) or inclusion (as in Russia) to look back on for inspiration or to build on. But things are beginning to change. Roma women have created international and regional groups that network and support each other. Two European Union parliamentarians from Hungary are Roma women. However, there is a conflict between younger educated Roma women seeking change and older traditional women clinging to the past. This is not a unique power struggle but one that the Roma women have to and will resolve themselves.
In all three countries, women struggle against poverty, against patriarchy, and against stereotypes. But everywhere, the spirit of women persists against great odds. The struggles and challenges of women in Russia, Cambodia and Roma women in Eastern Europe mirror other feminist movements. We have far more in common than we have differences. Virginia Wolf spoke the truth: “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”
Dianne Post has been a lawyer since 1980, and has worked on women’s rights as long as she can remember. She is currently an independent consultant and working in Albania on a protection order law to help victims of domestic violence. She continues to work on cases related to the Roma in Kosovo and domestic violence at home.