Women in Czech politics

What is the antidote to gender inequality? A good way to start is by strengthening non-governmental organizations that endorse gender equality, advocating women to move to the front lines of politics, and promoting these tenets and positive stories of gender equality in the media to spur dialogue and inspire action until equality is achieved. During World War II, while all eyes in Czechoslovakia were on the German occupation, Czech women found themselves exiting the household and heading for the workplace. While women took on many of the same roles as men, their salaries lagged greatly behind. Despite playing a less recognized role in society after the war, as educators, or heads of households, Czech women have slowly raised their status in the past half a century, elevating to higher managerial and political positions. Yet, there is still a long way to go before Czech women are fully recognized and respected in society and politics.

Czech politics is still the one arena where gender equality advocates have not made their mark just yet. In the decades after the fall of Communism, the presence of women in politics was a non-issue in Central and Eastern Europe. UNICEF’s 1999 Regional Monitoring Report of Central and Eastern Europe showed that men were much more likely to be elected into office than their female colleagues. A decade later, the 2009 European elections confirmed this, when according to the non-profit organization Forum 50% the representation of Czech women in the European Parliament dropped from previous term. In fact, within Europe, the Czech Republic has one of the fewest number of women in parliament – 18 – ranking just above Malta which has no female representation.
The greatest number of women in the cabinet was in former Prime Minister Jan Fischer’s 2009 caretaker government with a mere 23.5 percent holding legislative office. The number of women in government further dropped a year later to 22 percent. Currently, there are only two women in the sixteen-member government.

Out of the eight major political parties, last year, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia had the highest proportion of women on electoral ballots and the highest number elected in municipal elections, followed, although not very closely, by the Social Democrats (ČSSD). One of the newest parties, TOP 09, has yet to implement any gender equality policies within their party program.
According to Dr. Jana Valdrová, Professor of Gender Education at the University of South Bohemia, the Czech political scene is a “strongly masculine domain”. One of the largest obstacles women must overcome, she says, is being able to influence decisions amidst a legion of male politicians.

Institutional changes have been discussed to improve the place of women in politics. In 2008, an article in The Prague Post questioned the propriety of bringing quotas into mainstreamed politics. In the article, Jana Hybášková, a Czech and European politician, argued that regulation, such as introduction of quotas is needed to initiate change in favor of gender equality. Although quotas are not ideal, Hybášková argued, “We haven’t yet invented anything better or more effective.” Forum 50% supports this approach which would provide women and men the equal opportunity to influence public affairs. The Social Democratic party (ČSSD), for example, implemented quotas for their party in 1996, requiring at least one quarter of their deputies to be female. However, due to the party’s inability to decide on the candidates, many positions remained unfilled.

When asked if a prospective all-women’s party would be a possibility as an alternative to the quota system, Dr. Hana Havelková, Professor of Gender Politics in Central Europe and Feminism Theories at Charles University in Prague, comments that it would not be a good idea seeing as that it would be purely an interest-based-party, meaning the emphasis would probably be on women in politics and not on current political issues. Moreover, Havelková says that an all-women’s party would essentially be encouraging segregation.

In 2010, a provocative calendar was put out by top female members of the Public Affairs party (VV) to highlight the party’s victory in the parliamentary elections and the resulting strong female presence in the parliament. Although made partially in jest, the photographs in the calendar overtly sexualized the female subjects. Former candidate for Prague mayor, Marketa Reedová who participated in the making of the calendar tried to justify the idea. “Women’s political influence is growing. Why not show that women aren’t afraid of being sexy?” commented Reedová. Many critics, though, claimed that this instead reaffirmed the stereotype that only looks can help a woman rise in the work place.

If women gain greater respect and representation in politics, the Czech Republic will be several steps closer to eradicating the distasteful connotation that women’s rights, often equated with radical feminism, has won in the public discourse in the post-communist decades. According to the Central Europe Review, feminism in the Czech Republic is associated by many with women’s superiority to men and anti-family values. Feminist associations are often viewed as “radical women” with “useless ideas.”
UNICEF’s regional monitoring report Women in Transition suggests that now is as good a time as ever for women’s organizations to better integrate gender issues into the public and political agenda in order to shift negativity away from feminism. Dr. Valdrová supports this view, adding that gender equality should also become part of the education system and highlight strong female figures in Czech society.

Women’s equality and recognition in Czech society has been approached from a number of angles – rights and empowerment by the non-governmental sector, employment parity, political representation and even education reform – but none has made a large enough dent in the post-communist mentality that still sets a double standard, expecting women to work and care for the family simultaneous, while not securing for them equal pay and opportunities or a voice in the public discourse.

About the author:

Adrienne Zulueta is a student at New York University. She spent her study-abroad semester at NYU in Prague in the Spring of 2012.

published: 24. 6. 2012