Greek Crisis Hits Women Especially Hard
Disproportionately affected by public sector cuts and expected to step into caring roles, women also face rising domestic violence.
Fanning herself in the midday heat, Mary Trifonopoulou sits patiently in the jobcentre and waits. It is not her first time here, and it will almost certainly not be her last. A qualified nurse with a big smile and cheerful demeanour, the 30-year-old lost her job in a children's hospital in October and has been looking for work ever since. For nursing jobs? "For anything." Meanwhile, she is living with her mother, surviving on €360 a month in unemployment benefit, and learning English as a last-resort exit strategy. Life, she says simply, "is very hard".
With record joblessness, slashed wages and receding public services, Greece is not an easy place for anyone to live at the moment. But, for women, it is particularly hard. Faced with what experts call a "double burden" familiar the world over but particularly acute in societies with more traditional gender roles, they have not only been disproportionately affected by public sector cuts but are also still expected to do the lion's share of care work. Experts say domestic violence is on the rise, discrimination is rife and legislation designed to further equality has been put on the back-burner.
For Titina Pantazi, the 70-year-old chair of the Women's Union of Greece who has lived through her country's civil war and dictatorship, it is a period of intense fear and trepidation that makes her worry for her daughter and for all Greek women. "It's time to go out and fight in order to safeguard the rights we have gained," she says. "They are … in danger because of the crisis. It's our duty." According to the national statistical authority, more than a quarter of women – 26% – were out of work in March, compared to 19% of men. Austerity-imposed hiring freezes in the female-dominated public sector have hit women hard and led to a contraction in the number of jobs available with maximum maternity cover.
Even for those in work, the going is tough: wage cuts hit the lower-paid hardest, and Greece's pay gap is 20% in the private sector and 7% in the public sector. Pantazi says young women are often grilled by potential employers about whether they intend to have a family, and that the wrong answer can lead to a swift – and illegal – about-turn. "In the private sector if you look for a job and you are of reproductive age the first thing you have to do is give your word of honour that you will not get pregnant," she says.
On top of all this, says Lois Woestman, a Greek American feminist academic, women are still under pressure to conform to the profile of the nikokira – the ever-giving homemaker, whose duties are now growing because of less money for childcare, healthcare and home help. "Many Greek women, even if they're not losing their jobs, are taking on all of this unpaid work that's been handed down from cuts in the state," says Woestman, who describes some of her female colleagues as "the ultimate rubber bands – stretching, stretching, stretching, but the very last to snap".
As jobs become harder to get and the domestic responsibilities pile up, might the crisis cause more young women to ditch thoughts of a career in favour of becoming full-time carers and mothers? Stella Kasdagli, deputy editor of Cosmopolitan Greece and co-founder of Women on Top, a new project designed to connect women with female mentors in their professional field, thinks some women are being tempted down that path when struggling to know or get what they want from work. "There's a sort of going back in time," she says. "It's now … sold as a kind of revelation: 'I don't have to work in order to be happy; I can have a baby instead!' Which is just a way justifying women's bewilderment [in the workforce]."
Such rose-tinted views of motherhood do not often make it into George Protopapas's office in downtown Athens. As the director of SOS Children's Villages Greece, he has seen first-hand how the pressure of parenthood is pushing some women to do what for most of them would have been unthinkable before the crisis: give up their child. Until 2008, he says, families coming to him were caught up in social problems such as drug abuse. Then, as austerity started to bite, came the first parents driven by economic necessity. Last year demand doubled, with two-thirds of families saying they could not afford to keep their child. 20% of the cases were single-parent families – and, of those, all were single mothers.
"Even now these cases are women because usually the man in Greece will seek out family [to help]," says Protopapas. Aged between 25 and 32, the single mothers he has seen have "battled" to be with their children, he says. They are desperate, but responsible. "They extend their financial loans, try to save money, borrow money from relatives … anything to keep their child." The organisation is working with a woman who recently lost both her job and her mother, whose pension, as is standard practice in Greece, had been helping supplement the family income. They are trying to help her, he says, but fear the child will be handed over in September.
Experts fear that another grim byproduct of the crisis is rising gender-based violence – which made a sudden and shocking foray into the election campaign last week when Ilias Kasidiaris of the far-right Golden Dawn party struck a female politician on live television. The act, at once deeply shocking and barely surprising from a neo-Nazi with a lengthy charge sheet, was harshly condemned by Maria Stratigaki, Greece's secretary general for gender equality. She uses the term "gender-based violence" to include domestic abuse, rape, sexual harassment and human trafficking.
Quantifying the phenomenon is difficult, she admits, as there are no official statistics to back up anecdotal evidence. A 24-hour helpline set up in March 2011 received more than 6,000 calls in its first year and the numbers grow "from month to month" – an increase which could, however, be due to more people finding out about the helpline. Still, Stratigaki, who has focused her efforts on opening a network of shelters and counselling centres for abused women, insists it is a growing problem. "We have more gender-based violence under the crisis," she says. The Greeks, says Pantazi, have an old saying about domestic abuse: "When poverty enters from the door, love jumps out of the window."
Despite these issues, Woestman says there has been a noticeable lack of attention drawn to the particular difficulties of women as the crisis deepens, which she attributes to the lack of a powerful and independent women's movement. Much of Greece's feminism goes on within trade unions and political parties, she explains; for instance, Syriza, the leftwing coalition vying for first place with the rightwing New Democracy in Sunday's crucial election, has an active women's movement. But, in terms of a general move to highlight women's suffering, Woestman says, the action has been "piecemeal".
Stratigaki, a lifelong feminist who has a recent front-page of Libération proclaiming François Hollande's government of parity pinned to her office wall, says there are radical groups, long-established organisations such as the Women's Union who played a huge role in the blossoming of Greek feminism in the early 1980s – and not much communication between the two. "They are not really renewed with new people," she says of the bigger organisations. "I am part of them … but they are not very active."
Asked if she identifies as a feminist, Kasdagli, a 30-year-old whose Women on Top project is by women, for women, betrays a telling uncertainty. "Not really," she says, then pauses. "I mean, yes, I am, in that I believe in equal rights and I believe that what we perceive as differences between the sexes are constructed. But I would say I'm not asserting that; I'm not an aggressive feminist." Feminism in Greece, she explains, does not have a very appealing image. To many it still smacks still of bra-burning and no makeup. More importantly, she adds: "Nobody talks about feminist policy so I think there is a real gap between our actual problems and what the organised feminists are trying to do."
Meanwhile, female representation at the top of business and politics remains low, and the media's treatment of women is often problematic – as seen days before the last election in May when the names and addresses of some allegedly HIV-positive prostitutes were released to newspapers and television stations. Stratigaki was forced, on that occasion, too, to issue a stark condemnation of what she saw as a flagrant example of discrimination. She has three pieces of legislation waiting to go through parliament, but what with the crisis and political paralysis of the past few months, they haven't had much of a chance. Ahead of another election which could prove just as inconclusive as the last, they may have to wait a while yet.
For Pantazi, a former MEP for the leftwing Pasok party who remembers with pride the pushing through of the modernised 1983 family code, this is a period with potential for immense damage – both to her country and to its women. But she has faith in the strength of her sisters. "What we in women's organisations are doing is to try to raise the feeling and the sentiment that Greeks have always had in difficult times – of solidarity; that we must not succumb," she says, breaking down in tears in her living room.
Quietly, she goes on. "I remember the civil war like a dream. I remember the poverty that followed in the 50s. I have met people exiled because they were communists. I have lived through the junta. I have lived through earthquakes. I have never seen such fear and disappointment. But we women are saying: 'We will survive.' We have experienced so much in the past … and we survived. We rebuilt our country. And we will do it again."