A brighter future for Czech women in politics?

Foto: www.padesatprocent.cz

In the second half of the 20th century governments as well as various international organizations decided to pay more attention to low numbers of women involved in politics: today the European parliamentary average is about 16%. The Czech Republic, slightly below the average, follows Uzbekistan, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in 62nd place on the worldwide chart.

Legislation in communist Czechoslovakia before 1989 gave a quota for the number of female politicians in parliament. The target of 30% was however never met. It was abolished after the end of the Cold War and the Velvet Revolution. Numbers fell and although have been slowly rising ever since, the participation of women in politics here is far less significant than it might be. It is widely accepted that, more than anything Czech women struggle with a patriarchal model of family life: balancing a job and a family, simply put politics are too demanding. That was an opinion I encountered numerously in Prague. When asked whether women should be in politics at all, one woman told me.

"Women shouldn't be in politics. There is not enough of them and with so many men around they haven't got a chance. Men will steamroll them."

She proved "right" those who view the 'male principle' as dominant and unbeatable. When I asked her whether there might be a Czech female president one day she laughed ...

"Oh no, that will never happen. It is simply impossible. Men will never let it happen."

Lenka Bennerova is the director of a new non-governmental organization Forum 50%.

"I remember a few cases when women got very disappointed and bitter. They were engaged in politics and spent ten years working for their party. They sacrificed their free time just to realize that their work was not appreciated and that the party placed them so low on their ballots that they had no chance to be elected. Consequently they abandoned the party and politics."

A majority of women - as Lenka Bennerova pointed out - would like to play a greater role in politics; but even when both active and efficient their political party often nominates men to higher posts.

The new organization Forum 50% aims to raise the number of women in politics. One of its ways is to support those already involved, as well as those only considering the option. The organization talks to public and politicians. The first are mainly informed and encouraged to forget about the prejudice that women are "too weak" to handle the pressure. The second group, leaders of political parties is being addressed to involve and appreciate their female members. The organization's dream is women MPs to make up to 30% for 30% in parliament by 2010.

"It is impossible to say that if there is be 30% or 50% of women in politics that it will be better, that there won't be corruption, and there won't be arguments and there will be only agreement. But women view the world from a different perspective. They tend to be more emphatic; they finish their tasks and reach an agreement much more easily. Men view politics as a tool of power while women perceive it as a service to someone. I am sure that a higher number of women in politics would serve it well."

A forum's press release reads "A week after the parliamentary election we have to say that the elections were not successful, especially for women. Men have taken decision-taking posts once again. We would like a change and therefore we have taken part in the workshop that will prepare women who have a will to become politicians". The workshop guides women in giving a speech, negotiations and also creating own political programme. The name "Ceska prezidentka", Mrs. Czech president - is a bit of a joke in Czech, but maybe one day will become a symbol of a change. I met its two participants and asked first of them, Katerina Pankova about her reasons.

"My reasons are very clear. I have two sons and two daughters."

RP:How does it make it a reason?

"I need that each of my children has the same opportunity for a career and enjoying their life. Following my personal experience with my career and all my life I think it is much better to stay active to help my children to get a slightly different balance for their future."

Katerina says she didn't have the same opportunities as men and often felt she lacked equality in the past. Although it is much better now, she wants lives of women to be improved.

"Before the revolution in 1989 the politics was so boring that women were not interested very much in understanding who is who and what is what. To read newspapers every day didn't seem important to them. But men were involved a little bit more. Men were experts and women were usually listening to them. We, as different couples, used to meet at parties and the arrangement of these parties was very simple. Men were designing big ideas and women were serving refreshments and making coffee.'

The life and the parties are long gone and the fall of communism brought big changes. When it finally happened, Katerina who is now in her mid-fifties was pleased for the opportunity to gain information and to think for herself.

"The most important or the most interesting was to see how much it works if you tell information to people. It gives much hope to us. If you find a way about their opportunities they will hold on to them."

RP: Do you think that one day there will more women in politics, in the Parliament, in the government and maybe even that the Czech President will be a female?

"Yes I am sure that the time is coming. And my reason to believe in this is based on the equal approach to education. I think that our society should get prepared for that."

RP:When do you think it will happen?

Photo: European Commission
"It won't take long. As our society at present is full of educated men and women"

Marie Novotna is more than an energetic, petite woman. A former journalist and stewardess, she has been running a family business for over ten years. She doesn't want to enter politics but is very interested in them, especially with regards to women.

"I have been following the politics for a long time. I often discuss the issue of women playing a bigger role in politics with my husband and he used to half jokingly say: "Go and do something about it." When I got involved and interested he told me to pay more attention to work but it was too late I was too much into it already. As soon as I saw adverts for this non-party workshop for women aspiring to take part in politics. I decided to find out what it can offer to me."

As I look through a programme of her fictional political party created at the workshop she explains that women have to be careful and not use words such as Feminism. According to Marie, Czechs don't like feminists and in her view it is much wiser to use female charms and wisdom to maneuver men where you need. They will follow and respect you as long as you are persuasive and clear.

Still, a lack of greater assertivity or seem to be a problem for some Czech women. Brought up in families where women had little to say, many have trouble now making their mark. They were taught to be quiet.

"In my job I mainly work with men but I do communicate with women as well. When women talk to me informally they express very interesting and pushy ideas. Maybe they behave the same also at home. But as soon as they get to talk in front of a few unknown men they fail. They are not self-confident; they don't have an opportunity to say their opinion in public. It might be due to the fact that they are often told to be quiet, not to think and talk about their ideas. Men often tell them "Nobody is interested in that. Nobody is interested in your opinion. And that is the big mistake. "

"Women are talkative since their young age but who do they talk to? Mainly to children and so they talk like children. Secondly they talk to men, a husband. To be honest men are most of the time just like children so women again use the same way of communication. And then when they enter a society of men or even women they are not able to explain things clearly. They can't get rid of that habit of talking to everybody as if they were children."

According to sociologists any minority has to reach 30 percent to gain enough strength to stand up to majority and successfully present its ideas. Although some groups suggest and recommend to recreate the 30 percent quota from communism, active female politicians refuse it as a discrimination. Marie Novotna once more...

"The number of women in politics should be big enough to help other women to sort out issues that are "female" only. For instance issues like when children should start school, school age of children, interruption. Only women can empathize with women and problems that worry them."

As a survey showed 84% of participants think that women in politics are very useful and needed. More than a half, 59% think that men won't let women enter "their world". And 6 out of 10 see the main reason for the low number of females in politics as a result of "lack of interest". Forum 50% definitely disagrees: women were, are, and will be interested in politics they just need a bit of a boost and deserve better treatment from their male colleagues.