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Analysis & Opinion
03.03.10 The Day Of A Woman
By Svetlana Kononova

March 8 is a very special day for every female in Russia. Men on the streets and on the metro carry bouquets of yellow mimosas and colorful tulips, congratulating their mothers, wives and female colleagues. Restaurants, bars and strip clubs are crammed with inebriated women celebrating their holiday. Dating Web sites experience an influx of female visitors, and flower, perfume and makeup retailers make extraordinary profits. But in Russia, International Women’s Day is more than just a holiday – for many, it is also an occasion to reflect on the place of women in present-day society.

Women's Day really is an international holiday – it is a day off in some 30 countries, including China, Cuba, Nepal and Poland. However, it is especially popular in Russia and in the former Soviet republics. The holiday originally had socialist political connotations as a celebration of women’s economic, political and social achievements, but it has now become an intrinsic part of Russian culture. Few can remember the events that led to the establishment of International Women’s Day: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, the declaration by the Socialist Party of America and Clara Zetkin’s manifesto no longer matter, since the holiday no longer has any political context. Now it is a day when men must show their love and appreciation for women.

The obligatory nature of this holiday is a controversial subject, and some critics suggest doing away with it. But would Russian women agree to forego their favorite holiday? “We are lucky because we do celebrate International Women's Day, and many countries don’t,” said Ekaterina, a single 32-year-old programmer. “I expect presents, lots of fun and a good mood.” Elena, a 28-year-old housewife, is much less optimistic: “What does March 8 entail for the average Russian woman who has a husband and children? This is the one time per year when you can legally ask your husband to do the dishes. Your children might say a few nice words. Maybe your husband will give you a flower – one flower per year. This day is supposed to remind you that you’re a woman, not a work horse.”

Despite feminist ideas gaining steam over the past few decades, many Russian women still feel undervalued and discriminated against. The average Russian woman has a college degree but still earns less than a man. Data from the Federal State Statistics Service shows that a man’s average salary in Russia is 19,000 rubles per month ($630), while a woman in the same job earns 11,000 rubles ($360). This discrepancy in salaries may amount to anything from 13 to 50 percent depending on the industry.

The average Russian woman marries by the age of 25, but two thirds of marriages in Russia end in divorce, and this is not surprising. Findings by women’s rights organizations show that every third woman endures physical violence on behalf of her spouse or domestic partner, and more than 70 percent face verbal or economic abuse. More than 10,000 women are killed by their domestic partners in Russia annually. About 40 percent of felonies committed in the country are domestic crimes.

So why don’t these women leave their abusive partners? A widespread belief is that there are many more women in the country than men, and a woman should be as tolerant as possible in order to “preserve the relationship” and not end up alone. However, demographic data paints a very different picture. There are fewer women in the 20 to 29 age range than men, and an equal number of men and women aged 30 to 39. The enormous gap in the number of men and women stems from the fact that average life expectancies for men and women are very different: an average man in Russia lives to be 60 years old, while an average woman lives to be 73. Therefore there are three times as many women as men in their 60s and 70s.

The average Russian woman has one child. Despite the different contraception methods available, she has two abortions in her lifetime - the number of abortions in Russia is one of the highest in the world. She lives in a one-bedroom flat with her child and retired mother in a midsize town, works full-time and does not have extra income besides her salary. Despite having endured an unhappy marriage or gone through divorce, she believes that relationships are more important than careers. She is not interested in politics and doesn’t pretend to have any power. She spends her free time reading books, watching television and trying to lose weight.

This picture may look terribly depressing, but the good news is that everything is bound to change. “Russian girls in their 20s and 30s are quite different from theirs mothers,” said Dmitry Zotov, a psychologist at Pro Bono Alliance. “They grew up in a totally different country, not in the Soviet Union. They have different values and different opportunities. They travel and communicate with people from different countries and backgrounds. They have access to every kind of information via the Internet.”

Zotov also said that modern Russian girls have become more independent and emancipated. They often prefer a domestic partnership to an official marriage, and pay much more attention to their careers. These trends are especially prevalent in big cities. At the same time, Russian women continue to play a traditional female role, giving birth and raising children. “It is quite possible that these changes are superficial though. Deep down inside, Russian women still need somebody to care for them,” Zotov added.

But their contemporaries, such as the 27-year-old manager Alexey Sazonov, believe that women have many benefits in modern Russia. “They use today’s opportunities to be successful, to express themselves, to spend time on hobbies, to care for themselves. It makes them very attractive,” he said.
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