ENDING POVERTY – AN OPPORTUNITY FOR ECONOMIC INDEPENDENCE OF BALKAN WOMEN

The title of this speech “Ending poverty – an opportunity for economic independence of Balkan Women” indicates at the same time a challenge and a program.

Independence stands for autonomy, ability, self-determination, including the own personal responsibility. Independence can change a person’s world and is a goal to strive for. The end of poverty will lead the path for independence now and in the future.

Strengthening the role of women on the Balkans and supporting them in the next 100 is not just a time frame. It refers to the Zonta International Centennial and the path to be taken for the next 100 years.

Zonta was founded in Buffalo, New York, USA, November 8, 1919. At the first convention of Zonta clubs in Syracuse, New York, in May 1921 “Aims and Objects” were decided on. The primary service focus clarified, “Zonta clubs will take for their specific aim educational and constructive work for young girls and young women”. Zonta has been following this goal ever since. Today the mission statement defines Zonta International as a leading organization of professionals empowering women worldwide through service and advocacy.

Pursuing this goal, at the District 30 conference in Heidelberg, Germany, in 2017, participants from eight countries discussed the questions “What empowers women” and “What can Zonta do to counteract adverse moments preventing women from succeeding both in their business and their private life”.

The answers from Zontians, among others, from Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Romania highlighted certain conditions necessary to empower women: democracy and the rule of law should be guaranteed; humanitarian values respected. The freedom of professional choice and financial independence including equal pay should be granted. As equally important were underlined the avoidance of gender stereotypes and gender neutrality in education and for all jobs.

To foster the success of women strong and powerful female networks are characterized as vital to provide strong support for women to obtain leadership positions and to give potent back up for women running for a political mandate.

The demands described lead to ending poverty and give the opportunity for independence. The prerequisite is to end poverty. Poverty is defined as a condition where people's basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter are not being met. The international standard of extreme poverty is set at living on less than 1$US a day.

Relative poverty occurs when people do not enjoy a certain minimum level of living standards as determined by a government. Under this standard they are deemed to be poor if they fall below prevailing standards of living in a given societal context; meaning under the level of 60% average income. Consequently, the threshold for poverty will be increasing and may never be eradicated.

Nevertheless that goal and substantial changes in all other aspects of life are pursued by the UN Millennium Development Goals of September 2000 were replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by all UN member States in 2015. The 17 SDGs call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.

Ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and be combined with economic growth – thus offering opportunities to change lives.

Women are especially vulnerable to poverty. To avoid that fate it is important to ensure equal access of girls and women to a thorough education. Giving the foundation in knowledge and supporting that path on all levels for further qualification leads to meaningful and equal participation of women in the work force. It helps to combat women’s poverty and overcome inequality between genders.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 highlights the importance of education by aiming to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. It demands for all girls – just as all boys – to have free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education as well as access to early childhood development, care and pre-primary education. An affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university, is also called for. Education and training in all parts of life have to be available.

The European Pillar of Social Rights is a strong instrument as well. It defines 20 key principles and rights that will have an impact on equal opportunities and access to the labor market, fair working conditions and social protection and inclusion.

There should not be gender based limits or a preselection regarding the professional choice based on the expectations of society. On the contrary, the complete participation must be aimed for in order to avoid obstacles in the course of life that accompany work-life-balance decisions.

Sadly, gender equality in education is not a given in many regions of the world. While the number of girls receiving thorough education might be increasing, there is still a long way to go.

Often women’s education ends after primary school and only a minimum limit of education is legally required for girls. The result is the difficulty of getting a job that will support the woman, and in many cases, also family members dependent on the income. It is vital to hold on to a job.

However, while a job might help to avoid poverty, it does not necessarily give financial security. In-work poverty affects 8% of the working-age population – mainly single parents and of those mainly women – in OECD countries. It becomes even more notable as temporary and part-time jobs have increased in a majority of the EU countries.

For various reasons women are more strongly affected by the danger of in-work poverty than men. They suffer under the gender pay gap, that is, they earn less than men, in

addition, motherhood makes part-time work for them much more likely and they lack progress in their careers.

A significant reason for women’s increased risk of suffering from poverty is the gender pay gap. It does not only affect the annual pay but has grave long-term consequences for retirement pay and pension. One aspect of this income inequality derives from the fact that many of the jobs where women are statistically overrepresented are paid badly. Often these jobs are thought to be more “fitting” for women and are held in low esteem. Such jobs include, among others, the care in a hospital, a kindergarten or a retirement home or professions like a primary school teacher. Even in high paying jobs “typical female” subsegments suffer from lower pay. A higher percentage of women who choose to become pediatricians or veterinarians changes the gender composition in that field of work has been noted to result in a lower pay of the women. In consequence men often abstain from choosing that field of work; e.g. veterinarian female students have by far outnumbered male students.

Motherhood is often another reason for women’s in-work-poverty. Often working mothers decide on part-time employment, because in many countries, the child care is generally up to the mother. Women who cut back in her profession after giving birth, earn less money, have less on-the-job experience, fewer upgrade training courses, resulting in a lower future income and lower future retirement pay. In the first year after giving birth the pay of women declines. The women are sliding into motherhood penalty without a chance to recover from the difference in wages. The motherhood penalty long-term is calculated as the medium difference of the income of women and men between the 5th and the 10th year after the birth of the first child.

Society has to work on those issues to realize women’s opportunities for economic independence. The measures to be taken will be discussed in one of the following chapters.

Fortunately, the number of women working full-time has increased lately, while the number of stay-at-home women without paid work has decreased. In many countries the number of men working part-time is rising every year. One of the factors in a woman’s decision on whether to continue working after childbirth is the cost of child care relative to her income. The share of part-time work in total female employment is greater in countries with significantly higher childcare costs.

Women are affected more by in-work poverty because of a lack of progress in their careers. Worth mentioning is the phenomenon of “sticky floors” where somehow women hold themselves back, wait longer for promotions and pay rises. E.g. they expect to be recognized for hard work, let perfection get into their way, do not speak up when necessary, and often lack mentors and a support network. They are also often caught in the challenge of work / life balance. The phenomenon of “glass ceilings” on the other hand makes women hit a certain level in the professional hierarchy after which further progress does not occur or tends to be very wearisome.

The question is whether it is inherent to the system and a failure of the organizations or a failure of the women themselves? What can be done to fight these phenomena and to help discontinue the pattern. Women should not accept the situation but aim to change it.

The aspects considered here illustrate why women are in danger of ending in the trap of pay gap, care gap and retirement gap. Women have to be aware of the risks and not allow disadvantages in the labor market to accumulate. They have to understand the time and situation in which their decisions have to be made and the possible consequences thereof. Realizing the danger will help to redirect and ensure more independence.

Summing up, women ought to consider the following aspects:

 Professions that are mainly chosen by women often are not well paid, because society holds stereotypically “male” work in a higher esteem than “female” work.

 More women are in professions with low wages than men and more men are in professions with high wages than women.

 Women with the same qualifications and in the same position as men on average earn less money. The difference increases for married women.

 Women receive less training than men; though this is mainly true for the older generations.

 Women tend to choose part-time work to be able to combine profession and family. Often part-time jobs tend to be paid less pro rata than full time jobs.

 Women interrupt their gainful employment to care for their children; that way their work experience is limited.

 Women with small children have worse chances and more difficulties to return to the work force.

It is often claimed that some of these circumstances are based on women’s own choices and preferences. However, in many cases women have no substantive freedom of choice, as their choice is partly determined by a multitude of factors beyond their influence.

Seizing their opportunity for independence women and must thoroughly consider the consequences of their decision for the future including their financial sustainability.

The solutions will be a combination of decisions of women, their families and the existing or required support through government and law makers in financial and legal matters. To a great extent though the result depends on the willingness of the women to address the subject, have trust in themselves and the courage to take on something new.

Social policy is another factor in reducing women’s risk of poverty and moderating the effects of poverty. Social protection and inclusion in society are specifically important for women as statistics show.

The part of society regarding the rule of law and a favorable legal environment is as crucial as providing social benefits.

Social benefits (or social transfers) are transfers made – in cash or in kind – to persons or families to lighten the financial burden of protection from various risks. In the absence of all social transfers, the overall poverty risk in the EU would increase from 16% to 40%, or 25% excluding pension payments. Of course, the numbers differ in EU Member States.

Old age and survival will be supported through pension, survivor’s benefit pension and dependency care. Health care needs to be subsidized by total or partial coverage of costs

related to illness, disability, occupational accidents and illnesses. Maternity and family demand benefits, maternity-related benefits, family allowances and aid for child care. In case of loss of employment unemployment benefit must be granted and difficulties related to professional integration or re-integration diminished. Support in housing with benefits in case of difficulties should be available.

A combination of these measures is needed to avoid poverty and social exclusion. It is important for women to take a stand on these matters and demand efforts for an adequate social policy. Social benefits are an important pillar for women’s independence.

In conclusion, institutions and organizations world-wide, on EU level and in the Balkans must combine their efforts. International programs promoting social rights and demands for legal protection need to be coordinated. Adequate social policy will improve the quality of life for women and their independence. Governments, unions and businesses should apply concerted actions on the different aspects. Required is an incentive for ideas, plans, innovative measures, cooperation among diverse global and domestic partners is needed.

Females represent half of the population but have fewer opportunities than men. They need to become a true part of and a presence in their societies the same way as the other half of the population that is male. What has to be done to achieve that?

 Raise awareness of unequal treatment.

 Look at the relevance of gender stereotypes and how it affects both women and men.

 Give women opportunities to pursue a thorough education. That includes good child care, primary and secondary school education plus opportunities for tertiary education.

 Make available good care of children and the elder.

 Give access to all parts of the workforce

 Find ways to avoid pay gap, care gap and retirement gap.

There is still a long way to go. However, after this conference I am convinced that the women on the Balkans are determined in and committed to their pursuit of economic independence. With your strong network of women you can seize the opportunity and you will achieve great success in your quest.