Greek crisis hits women hard

Disproportionately affected by public sector cuts, women are expected to step into caring roles.

india Updated: Jun 17, 2012 21:57 IST

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 backburner.

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]."

First Published: Jun 17, 2012 21:50 IST