For the past few years, Natalia has been working as a kindergarten teacher in her hometown of Chișinău. One day, Natalia informed her boss that she was pregnant, and was soon fired without any compensation or maternity allowance. Losing a job is a tragedy for the average citizen of Moldova: it’s hard to find another, especially if you live outside the city.
The costs are even greater for women. Women’s rights activists point to gender inequality amidst Moldova’s on-going economic, political and social crisis — with devastating results. As the UN special rapporteur wrote in a 2014 report on extreme poverty in Moldova: “Women continue to have limited economic opportunities compared with men, despite important recent progress towards equality in education.”
Natalia did achieve some justice later. In a decision from December 2015, Moldova’s council on the prevention and elimination of discrimination stated that this sacking was an act of discrimination, and demanded that the director respect Natalia’s rights.
Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Gender discrimination is not making it any richer.
The poor and the poorest
Despite a remarkable reduction of poverty (from 30.2% of the population below the absolute poverty line in 2006 to 16.6% in 2012), Moldova continues to rank at lower levels on the global Human Development Index, placing 107 of 187 countries in 2014.
Ninety percent of textile workers in Moldova are women. Still from Moldavie TV / platzforma.md.This structural inequality is now exacerbated by the country’s economic crisis. Over the past two years, the disappearance of a substantial sum from the country’s top three banks — another chain in a series of corruption scandals — has led to currency devaluation and a budget crisis.
“Moldovan women work in the very lowest professions and earn the least
“The economic crisis first hits those who are poor, and Moldovan women are very poor,” Victoria Apostol, a feminist activist, explains to me. “Women earn around 13% less than men for the same job. Moldovan women are paid less because their earnings are not considered a family income. It is as if women don’t have families.”
“Moldovan women work in the very lowest professions and earn the least. Where do women work mostly in Moldova? In education and in the textile industry: the most poorly paid spheres,” she continues.
“We want decent salaries” and “respect the working day” cried striking women workers of a privately-owned textile factory in Bălți, Moldova’s second largest city, at the end of 2015.
The workers were fired after refusing to work longer hours for the same salary. “The supervisor suddenly approached us and said that from then on, the working day will be extended from five o’clock until seven o’clock. We left the working place at five o’clock, for which the boss told us we were to lose our jobs,” said one woman said to local TV.
Ninety percent of textile workers in Moldova are women. They earn just half the salary of a worker in the male-dominated car and electronics industry
Bălți’s textile industry, like many others in Moldova, produces clothes for well-known western brands. A recent study by Corina Ajder, a researcher for Clean Clothes Campaign, suggests that, alongside long working hours and poor working conditions, salaries for textile workers remain among the lowest in Moldova.
Ninety percent of textile workers in Moldova are women. They earn just half the salary of a worker in the male-dominated car and electronics industry. Thus, Moldova is used as a cheap labour market for western European brands like Benetton, Dolce&Gabanna, Trussardi, Max Mara and ZARA.
A woman does quality check at a Moldovan textiles factory. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Michael Jones / World Bank. As Adjer reports, working conditions in Moldovan textile factories have attracted the attention of human rights defenders and media from around the world. In 2014, French TV channel M6 even produced a documentary about the horrific conditions at one of such factory.
Nevertheless, working 10 to 11 hours per day in a textile factory often remains the only alternative to migration for women living outside Chișinău. The industry provides the overwhelming majority of job vacancies for people with secondary education. Those with higher education find work in the health sector.
While women workers in Moldova traditionally occupy both spheres, government data shows that the best-paid positions are in male-dominated economics or engineering.
The double burden
When Elena was 21, she left Basarabeasca, a tiny town in the south of Moldova. Elena moved to Chișinău hoping to find a job and to save money for continuing her studies at university. Elena is from a multiethnic family; her father is Gagauzian and mother is Ukrainian. Like many in her town, Elena’s native language is Russian and, despite 12 years’ study at the local school, she cannot speak Romanian fluently.
The only work Elena could find in Chișinău was as an assistant in a photocopying centre, but that could hardly cover the rent of her small flat. Elena says that a major obstacle was her lack of Romanian language skills. She later followed the example of hundreds of thousands of Moldovan citizens who migrated to Russia. Today, Elena works as a waitress in a Moscow restaurant. She does not plan to return to Moldova.
As Moldovan women are subjected to yet more pressure during the current crisis, those belonging to ethnic minorities seems to be doubly disadvantaged
Elena’s example is not unique. As Moldovan women are subjected to yet more pressure during the current crisis, those belonging to ethnic minorities seems to be doubly disadvantaged, and it is not only a matter of language.
21 January: Riot police officers stand in line in front of protesters outside Moldova's parliament. (c) Roveliu Buga / AP/ Press Association Images. All rights reserved.“If an employer has to fire one of his workers then he would certainly choose somebody who is ‘a bit different’,” says Roma rights activist Natalia Duminica. “This of course includes Roma women. Roma women in Moldova face discrimination not only in the job market but in trying to access public health services, education and in politics.”
According to official data, there are some 14,000 Roma people in Moldova; Roma activists estimate 200,000. The 2004 census found that around 24% of the population belong to an ethnic minority. Amid the current political deadlock, the development of a national strategy for minority integration, much like other social policies, has stalled.
According to recently published official data, around 100,000 Moldovans live abroad. For many of those who remain in Moldova, remittances from relatives abroad are all that stand between them and poverty. The Bureau of Migration states that Moldovan women tend to engage in labour migration more often than men: there are over 12% more female Moldovan migrants than male.
Indeed, Moldovan women working abroad risk a grim fate: kidnapping by traffickers. The general prosecutor’s office identified about 80 victims of human trafficking and 854 potential victims last year alone. The majority of them were women.
Female migrants face additional stigmatisation, discrimination and abuse upon their return from abroad, due to common assumptions that they have been sex workers
Female migrants face additional stigmatisation, discrimination and abuse upon their return from abroad, due to common assumptions that they have been sex workers. “This is a vicious cycle for women. […] These factors and others, such as lack of adequate child care facilities or care support for disabled family members, which usually falls on women’s shoulders, create conditions for the increasing feminisation of poverty,” wrote the UN’s special rapporteur two years ago.
Up to 90% of trafficked Moldovan women report that they have also been victims of domestic violence. There is little concern among political elites over these issues. Human rights lawyer Dumitru Sliusarenco said in an interview to Newsmaker.md that, for two years, the Molodvan parliament has not revised the law preventing domestic violence, as proposed by human rights association Promo-Lex and Moldova’s Ministry of Social Affairs.
Complaints by Promo-Lex to the Supreme Court of Justice on the issue have also gone unanswered for three years. Meanwhile, around 30 Moldovan women die as a result of domestic violence each year.
“Let’s defend our mothers and sisters”
During mass protests in Chișinău last autumn, I took a photo of a little girl doing her homework as her mother protested. The picture soon went viral on social networks, and groups supporting the anti-government protests have since used the photo to encourage others to join them.
Mariana, the young mother in the photo, told me that as she cannot find somebody to leave her daughter with, they come to protest together. “She sits on the ground doing homework while I listen to the speakers,” says Mariana. Pictures of another woman, Maria, have been used in a similar manner; she came from the village in a handmade national costume, holding a traditional musical instrument.
Chisinau, 8 September 2015: a girl does her homework while her mother, Marina, protests. Image from Facebook.Although protest leaders were happy to use pictures of women to advance their cause, they were reluctant to see women as equal participants.
Some leaders called for a “protest in the name of our mothers and sisters”, as mothers and sisters arrived in Chișinău themselves to make their voices heard. When members of the Dignity and Truth protest movement announced a new political party, it was described as “a party of the sons of the nation”. Leaders of the protest later said that as they could not control all the speeches during the protest, woman speakers could be invited as well.
The situation in the current parliament seems less likely to improve. UN Women in Moldova issued a gender audit of the parliament and legislature in February 2016, and found that there was no understanding of gender-sensitive policies among parliamentarians whatsoever.
Similarly, the parliamentary commission on human rights simply it does not consider the situation of women. Representation is poor: there are just 22 female MPs (out of 101) in Moldova’s parliament.
Civil society in action
As the government and opposition fight, civil society has come up with some solutions to questions of poverty and inequality. In 2013, a group of young Moldovan women created a small textile studio in Scoreni village, with the financial help of donations from hundreds of individual supporters and a few companies. The studio, which later transformed into the NGO MARA Woman, aims to empower rural women by providing them with training and a place to work.
The GirlsGoIT program is yet another initiative created by several NGOs and institutions aiming to boost Moldova’s entrepreneurship and innovation capacity by encouraging girls and women to master digital technologies. GirlsGoIT uses technology and education to further career opportunities for girls in the digital economy, empowering them with digital skills to gain greater access to employability and entrepreneurship. The program has lately given a special focus to Roma girls from rural areas of Moldova.
It’s inspiring, but not enough. Women’s rights activists say that while general economic development will, of course, benefit women, there must be gender-specific policies. “Public policies that guarantee equal payment for men and women and equal retirement age are needed. In particular, it is vital to oblige the textile industry to pay an adequate salary to women,” Apostol says.
“The authorities should firstly reduce the level of poverty among socially vulnerable groups. Unfortunately, Roma women are one of such groups. Both discrimination and poverty must be fought,” believes Duminica.