Czech feminist group comes of age


Prague's Gender Studies Center is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary. Founded in the heady ideological tumult following the Velvet Revolution, the group has grown into a major advocacy organization for women and sexual minorities.

In 1991, Laura Bashaken was a Canadian teaching English in Prague. Somehow, she fell in with a group like-minded Czech feminists. They started meeting regularly at one someone's apartment, to talk about women's issues, and out of those discussions, the Gender Studies Center was born.

"There was no program, there was no board of directors that had days sitting around making vision statements. It was like let's just go, let's do it. We don't know what it is, but we're gonna do it. All kinds of people converged in that little tiny apartment on Klimentska street. And in the meantime we started creating a library. It felt like the first time, the first courses on gender studies, the first time we had this press conference about violence against women."

That press conference, says Bashaken, got a lot of people talking about an issue that had been hushed up during the Communist years. It also raised the organization's profile.

"A lot of journalists came out, a lot of articles came from that 1st press conf about violence against woman because no one was talking about those kinds of things."

In the decade and a half that followed, The Gender Studies Center has expanded from a ragtag collective into a well-known advocacy group which lobbies parliament, and gives advice to individuals and corporations.

Today the Center has a permanent office in Prague, a budget of about 8 million crowns, and 12 full time employees.

The director, Alena Kralikova, is a member of the first generation of women to grow up with the Center as a resource.

Alena Kralikova
"In '91 or when I was in high school it was actually something that which not many people knew about. After '98 when the organization really started its information activities there were many more projects and so on, so the organization has become much better known. And when I was writing my thesis at university, I already knew it very well."

Kralikova says there is lots more for the group to do, especially with regard to getting women into positions of political power.

"After the last election we had this year there are only 15% of women in parliament, while in the previous period, there were 16.5 %. So we have lost some one percent and a half. With the heads of regions, we have 14 regions in the Czech Republic, there is no one woman among those people. Which I think is really sad."

Next year, the organization will kick off a campaign called 50-50, aimed at getting women the same workplace opportunities as men. The Gender Studies Center will also be looking for a new director: Alena Kralikova steps down in February.