Gender equality situation and initiatives
Despite various government programmes and the introduction of new legislation in recent years, the evidence is that gender inequality persists in many aspects of work in Slovakia. With EU membership since May 2004 placing further emphasis on equality for women and men, this article reviews the current position and a number of recent initiatives.
Social change with a substantial impact on women's lives has been accelerating in Slovakia since the beginning of the 1990s, for example in the form of long-term unemployment, the 'feminisation' of poverty and discrimination against older women. A number of surveys have identified the persistence in Slovakia of such aspects of gender inequality as:
- unequal wages paid to women and men for the same work and work of the same value (SK0401106F);
- concentration of women in low-paid jobs;
- major regional differences in terms of equality of opportunity for women and men (not only in employment);
- a lack of financially and locally accessible services for families with young children, the elderly, the sick and other dependent family members;
- low participation of women in public and political life; and
- insufficient gender equality education and the maintenance of traditional gender stereotypes and prejudices.
These features, according to research, have a strong negative impact on women and manifest themselves both at work and in family life, notably in the form of a lack of leisure time or the resources required for daily life, stress, health problems, domestic violence and excessive consumption of alcohol.
However, the gender equality situation in Slovakia is not entirely negative. The female employment rate in Slovakia has been one of the highest in Europe for decades. The average educational level of women on the labour market is also relatively high and many women are involved in some areas of public life.
Slovakia joined the EU on 1 May 2004 and this has focused attention on proper implementation of equal treatment for men and women at work and on the labour market. Harmonisation of both legislation and practice with EU law has raised new challenges, and EU membership may provide an opportunity for better implementation of existing legislation. Furthermore, equality of opportunity and participation are part of the European employment strategy.
A number of measures have been taken over recent years, aimed at improving the position of women over the medium term.
A National Action Plan for Women, laying down down eight gender equality priorities, was adopted in 1997 as part of the incoming government's programme. These priorities include: creating a suitable environment for individual choices over 'life strategy'; improving women's health; and educating public opinion concerning equality of opportunity for men and women. Subsequent National Action Plans on employment (SK0401110F) prepared by the government in response (prior to accession) to the EU employment strategy included provisions on enhancing gender equality in the labour market (under the fourth 'pillar' of the EU employment guidelines), such as measures on equal pay, access to employment, vocational education and training, careers and working conditions.
The most recent official document concerning the legislative underpinning and practical implementation of equal opportunities for men and women in all areas of life is a 'Concept on equal opportunities for women and men' adopted in 2001 (SK0209102F). This document contains a number of recommendations relating to the labour market, public and family life and establishment of the necessary institutional structures.
Despite these various programmes, experts believe that there is still a gap between formal declarations of gender equality and its actual implementation, notwithstanding undisputed progress in terms of measures taken. The equality of men and women in employment is explicitly defined in labour legislation, especially in the 2002 Labour Code (Act No. 311/2002 as amended) (SK0206101N), which is comparable with legislation in other EU countries. However, research indicates that these legislative standards are often not applied in practice. This is made possible by poor implementation of the law, a lack of awareness of the law and the absence of effective control, including adequate sanctions.
Various recent 'twinning' projects seek to provide an effective means of implementing gender equality. These projects make it possible to take advantage of best practice, know-how and experiences from other countries and also bring to bear a clear external view of the situation. One example is a recent Slovak project under the Dutch government's MATRA project (which is designed to promote social transformation in central and eastern Europe). Two experts from the Royal Tropical Institute (Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen) in Amsterdam helped to establish a group of female volunteer experts from the public administration, research circles, politics and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Slovakia. This group conducted a critical analysis of the present gender equality situation, followed by the development of a strategy to support the establishment of institutional structures to promote gender equality and avoid discrimination within the framework of social dialogue, especially collective bargaining, and politics. The project highlighted the following as areas in which improvement is required:
- the precise determination of the competences of national, regional and local actors;
- the establishment of mechanisms of control, responsibility, coordination and monitoring of gender equality at all levels;
- financial and human resources;
- adherence to gender equality policy in all branches of the state administration;
- the establishment of an authority with transparent legal status and the power to coordinate activities, and implement and monitor gender equality policy, including the preparation of reports on how Slovakia is complying with its commitments to the EU and other international organisations; and
- public information campaigns on key gender equality issues and the need to combat all forms of discrimination.
The gender equality agenda is based on the fundamental principles of democracy, social justice, human rights and human resource management. Gender equality entails reducing barriers based on sex differences and eliminating any form of discrimination based on gender classification, a process requiring definition of the current situation by means of both quantitative and qualitative data.
No society is so rich that it can afford to ignore or not fully utilise all its available human resources. Slovakia is no exception to this. Women's satisfaction, 'self-actualisation' and self-confidence contribute to improving the quality of life for both sexes and for individuals. Slovakia cannot achieve these goals without strengthening and enlarging national institutional structures for gender equality. Options in this regard include a separate parliamentary committee on gender equality and even a government ministry, as well as an ombudsman. The establishment of an overall authority - for example, a governmental council for gender equality - is being considered.
There is a permanent need for consistent monitoring of gender equality issues in employment and other fields. In this regard a number of important first steps have been taken by the trade unions, in cooperation with employers and the government (SK0407103F). The flow of information to the public, civil servants, NGOs and so on, is also important. The ultimate aim is to achieve equality of opportunities, rights and responsibilities for women and men in every area of life, making it possible for everyone to have a satisfactory personal life. (Silvia Porubänová, Bratislava Centre for Work and Family Studies)