International Affairs: The Second Eurasian Women’s Forum* is not too far off. What makes it different from the first forum? Is there much interest in it in the international community?
Valentina Matviyenko: Yes, there is a tremendous amount of interest. This is understandable. Women play a dynamically increasing role in all spheres of public life. It is a global trend that nobody seriously denies. We women are not just an inseparable part but an increasingly significant motive force of the historical process. Just try to leave women out of the range of factors that drive humankind forward – you’ll get a negative number, not movement but stagnation, even reverse movement. Unlike what was the case between 100 and 150 years ago, in the present-day world the essence of relations between men and women is not subordination but partnership. This is a historic change representing a new phase of civilization.
But this doesn’t happen automatically. Even countries that have indisputably made great progress toward gender equality haven’t fully gotten rid of sexism and gender discrimination in employment, education, wage levels, job promotion opportunities and politics, and haven’t been able to fully prevent violence in families. And that not to mention quite many countries that, at best, are only taking their first steps toward women’s equality.
There still are quite many problems, and to solve them, women and women’s organizations in all countries need to combine forces. The First Eurasian Women’s Forum, which was held in St. Petersburg three years ago, made clear that the initiative of the Federation Council for women all over the world to join forces to address this objective need had fallen on fertile ground. The response exceeded our expectations. The forum participants were unanimous that there should be regular forums in this format. They also put forward a proposal for setting up a permanent venue for women to openly discuss problems they were concerned about. This proposal materialized as the Eurasian Women’s Community website. Over its three years of existence, the website has become a popular and influential venue for bringing together international women’s movement activists.
The Second Eurasian Women’s Forum is a continuation of the first forum as regards the range of issues to be raised, its spirit, and its organizational form. But it isn’t a replica or clone of the first forum. A lot has changed in the world over the past three years, and this has included changes in the status of women. Moreover, we organizers have drawn some conclusions from the experience of the first forum. So, the second forum won’t be a mechanical replica of the first one as regards either its architecture or the range of issues to be raised during it.
I can say with all due responsibility that there are imperative issues on the forum agenda. Most importantly, in terms of its priority items, the agenda perfectly reflects challenges that face the international community as a whole. Because, if we genuinely want practical improvements to the status of women, we need to put our search for solutions in the context of world politics, the world economy, scientific and technological progress, and the social effects of this progress.
This is why the forum agenda is divided into four main parts – “Women for the Sustainable Development of the Global World,” “Women for Balanced Economic Growth,” “Women for Social Progress,” and “Women for the Energy of the Future.” These are particularly important matters not only for women but for humankind as a whole, they are key conditions for its future well-being. The global state of affairs doesn’t guarantee such well-being, let’s face it. It would take a lot of work to build a prosperous and secure future for all countries. Women have a very significant role to play in this work. We expect that the forum will map out ways for women to make maximum contributions to building peace and security, and to social progress.
It is yet another distinguishing mark of the forum that leading international organizations will take part in it. For instance, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), UNESCO, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Bank are planning to hold panel sessions. The Women 20 (W20) will hold a meeting, and there will be a seminar organized by Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and entitled “Women and the Technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in APEC Economies,” and a meeting of the BRICS Women’s Business Club. All this will enable countries and international organizations to share their best methods of dealing with problems facing women and the international community.
It's expected that about 2,000 people will attend the forum, although the history of events of this kind suggests that there will be more attendees. Quite many people register at the last moment.
IA: You said it was the organizers’ aim to compile an agenda that reflected key problems facing women across the world. Which of these problems do you see as priorities that need urgent action by national governments and international organizations?
V.M.: You are actually asking me to speak on behalf of all the attendees. I’m not authorized to do that, but I can state my own opinion.
In my view, in the early 1990s, women’s movements in what one normally calls developed countries entered a new phase. Since then, these countries have brought out laws and set up institutions to ensure practically complete legal equality between men and women. Officially, discrimination against women is eliminated. Naturally, there still is work underway on supplementary legislation to prevent any violations of this formal equality. Such work is being done in our country as well, and what has been done is embodied in the National Action Strategy for the Interests of Women for the Period from 2017 to 2022, a document that has been proposed by the Federation Council and co-drafted by it. What mainly needs to be done is to strengthen Civil Code guarantees of women’s labor and family rights.
The World Economic Forum publishes an annual report on gender inequality that is entitled Global Gender Gap Report. The report for 2017 put the average progress on closing the global gender gap at 68%. The five states that had made the best progress had closed a little more than 70% of their average gap. To sum up, not a single country has achieved complete gender equality. I agree with experts and politicians who believe that the main cause of this state of affairs, at least in developed countries, are not legislative gaps or inadequate laws, – although, let me repeat, this is a fact, – but violations of laws. This means that the state, women’s organizations, and society in general should focus on the enforcement of laws that defend women against discrimination. And action should be taken to ensure that the state, local government, businesses, and other employers comply with such laws.
This is an imperative because women are discriminated against right and left. Labor rights are where gender discrimination takes its worst forms. In Russia and other countries, including Western, there are instances where women are discriminated against in seeking employment, find it harder than men to receive promotion in their jobs and to make career progress, and are paid lower wages than men. In our country, the average wage for women accounts for 74% of that for men. It may be a comforting thought, of course, that this marks a rise from the 2005 level of 60%. So, there has been some progress. But there still exists a gap, and a fairly big one as well. Worst of all, it’s an unfair gap. The fact that fewer women than men are hired for high-paid jobs is not the only reason. There is evidence that quite often women are paid less than men for the same kind of work.
We should keep working to reduce this gap. The Federation Council is willing to support initiatives to that effect. I’m convinced that today control by the state and civil society of the enforcement of laws on women’s rights should be the main task in seeking gender equality, an end to all discrimination against women.
I also believe that trade unions should do a lot more. They are vested with serious powers in advancing the interests of working people, including women, and they should make full use of those powers. We parliamentarians will support them if they take action and will consider bringing out legislation to give them more powers if they decide that this is what they need.
IA: Digital technologies, robots, artificial intelligence, smart homes, and smart cities are increasingly a feature of the economy, government, and, in fact, our daily life. What role do women play in this process? What opportunities does this process offer women, and what risks does it pose for them?
V.M.: The intensive technological development is having powerful impacts on employment, on the nature of work, and on entrepreneurship. It’s important that women should be aware what these processes mean and that they shouldn’t, as a result of these developments, have poorer opportunities than men for education, professional training, employment, and career growth.
There is a serious threat of such inequality because of the woman’s mission as a mother and wife and because the systems for professional and vocational retraining and advanced training remain chiefly man-centered and so do criteria for career promotion. Those who make decisions normally give preference to men. This is a historical stereotype, which is not easy to break. But it’s essential to break it because otherwise women would end up on the periphery of the emergent new economy and new system of entrepreneurship. Which, of course, would have a negative impact on the entire world economy because women make up one third of all entrepreneurs worldwide.
This inevitably prompts the conclusion that digital economies cannot be built without the participation of women entrepreneurs. Digitization can and must be the job of women as much as that of men. This means revising the systems of secondary and higher education, vocational training, retraining, and advanced training, and criteria for career growth. There is need for special programs to enable girls and women to develop digital skills. Such programs already exist in some countries. It’s one of the main subjects to be raised at the forum. Undoubtedly, there will be a fruitful discussion about it because rich practical experience has been accumulated.
Russia, by the way, has some achievements to that effect. In our country, 32% of enterprises, for example in manufacturing industries, have been organized by women. Women are also successful in information technology sectors. Russian women entrepreneurs normally have high-class professional training, with 85% of them having higher education qualifications.
The Federation Council takes measures to stimulate women entrepreneurship. There are some concrete results, including special educational and loan programs for women entrepreneurs and recommendations for a bigger role to be played by women in the social and economic development of the country, for revising the system of state support for small enterprises, including by special taxation or reducing entrepreneurs’ administrative burden. Some of these recommendations are already being realized.
Russian women are typically creative, it’s part of their character to take initiative but to pursue it in a sober-minded and cautious way, and that is a key condition for successful business. Our women entrepreneurs are getting established in foreign markets and using cooperation opportunities offered by APEC, BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), UNIDO, and other organizations.
Rewording the famous aphorism, I’d say that the woman shall not live by work alone. Surely, a clear majority of women prioritize self-fulfillment in a profession, business, science, art, or even politics. Neither the state nor society can ignore this, and it is reflected in the education systems of nearly all countries and in nearly all cultures. But though women have liberated themselves a great deal and have gone a long way outside the tight limits of homemaking and family duties, it is a fact that combining education, interesting work, professional achievements and public success with homemaking remains no less important for many women.
I know from personal experience how difficult it is. But it’s achievable, especially nowadays when you don’t have to choose between career and family. You can combine the two, and this is easier to do today than ever before. The state and society provide increasing opportunities for this. Our country is a good example. Today there are in general no waiting lists for places in day care centers in any of Russia’s regions. There still are shortages of places for infants and toddlers, but that problem will also be solved.
Russia is enlarging and improving its maternal and child health system, and digital technologies provide convenient employment opportunities for mothers such as part-time jobs, flexible working hours, reduced working weeks, and working from home. All this is practiced in our country too but so far on a smaller scale than in other countries. Apparently, we need new legislation to introduce it on a much larger scale.
IA: Are you not afraid that the agenda for the forum will make it a purely utilitarian meeting? There also are other issues facing women, aren’t there? For instance, a lot is being said and written to the effect that the family and marriage as institutions are in crisis and should be replaced by new forms of relationships.
V.M.:There are limits to how much you can do. You can’t squeeze all the issues relating to the status and role of women into the boundaries of one forum. We have chosen what we see as key long-term issues. And nobody would forbid attendees to speak on other issues either. I’m sure that family and marriage issues will be raised at the forum one way or another anyway. They surely are burning issues.
Let me once again say something that I’ve said repeatedly: the family as an institution changes but does not disappear. Neither does the woman’s mission of being a wife, mother, and homemaker, a mission that underlies our civilization and is reflected in its best characteristics.
It is true that today these values are criticized and even attacked in the name of complete liberation of women and the acquisition by them of an absolute right to free self-fulfillment. Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said in a recent interview that the world is going mad. The belittlement, and sometimes complete rejection, of traditional marriage is an illustration of what the patriarch was speaking about. Unquestionably, humankind is experiencing deep-going changes. But new threats and challenges don’t justify a disdainful or arrogant attitude to the experience that has been accumulated. Civilization is not only technology or industry. It also includes a moral and spiritual wealth and social institutions that are based on it and have been tested out by the entire human history. We have no guidelines that are more reliable than these. And these guidelines provide incontrovertible proof that no values are higher than maternity, building a loving family and bringing up children. Nothing else than the family with its values can make this possible.
IA: Although the current state of international relations as such is not on the forum agenda, you can’t avoid talking about it. The great Russian historian and writer Nikolay Karamzin said, “If you push Nature out of the door, it will fly back in through the window.” How would you assess the current situation in the world?
V.M.:I believe it is an indisputable fact that the system of international relations has become fragmented. I mean the emergence of new economic and financial power centers such as China, India and Brazil. There also are other countries in Asia and Africa that are close to becoming power centers. They are coming closer together and coordinating their actions. Now that India and Pakistan have joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), its member countries take up more than half the Earth’s territory and are home to more than half the world population and more than half of the world economy. Is there a state or coalition of states that can stop this objective process, that can ignore the interests of those countries and their economic, financial and substantial military power? Of course not. These new power centers are a new and indisputable global reality, a reality that erodes, undermines the domination of the West.
I’d like to mention one more fact, one that is not always noticed and understood – the obvious collapse of the so-called liberal world order project. The form of liberalism that has evolved in the United States, in many of the European Union countries and in other Western states is unattractive to a large part of humankind. More than that, it frightens and puts off that part of the international community. The reason is that liberalism has lost what for centuries was its basis and attracted people – its basic principles such as humanism, freedom of speech, opinion and information, and tolerance. Traditional values are trampled on. There is so-called fake news instead of truthful information. Dissent is not tolerated, least of all in politics. We’ve all seen the attacks that U.S. President Donald Trump came under after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There are destructive processes within the West as well. There are increasing controversies within the EU. A recent meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) ended up in what was practically a scandal. The G7 has effectively become a “six plus one” association. In effect, the West has become the main generator of turbulence, chaos and unpredictability in international relations. As Vladimir Putin said, “today increasingly often the principle of competition and openness in world trade is replaced by protectionism, and short-term ideological ends and political pressures are put before considerations of economic benefit and economic sensibility. Economic ties and free enterprise are politicized.”
Nevertheless, our balanced foreign policy and the increasingly obvious futility of attempts to put pressure on Russia have borne fruit. The EU remains one of our main economic partners. There are indications that new points of contact are emerging. We hope that this will give a boost to rebuilding confidence between the EU and Russia and to cooperation between them.
The meeting between Putin and Trump in Helsinki was indisputably an important event. The stage has been set for positive changes, and such changes are possible if they are not blocked by certain powers in the United States. But that’s what those powers are trying to do, very aggressively as well.
There is a reason for cautious optimism – the construction of a new world order, a process that has just begun and is led by Russia, China, the SCO, BRICS, and the Eurasian Economic Union.
IA: What role does interparliamentary diplomacy play in the advancement of new positive changes in world politics?
V.M.: An important, even very important, role. Parliaments do collaborate, and this collaboration is fruitful where ordinary foreign policy mechanisms misfire. We Russian parliamentarians are fully aware of this and do our utmost. There are a lot of opportunities for this because attempts at the international isolation of Russia have failed. We take part in practically all interparliamentary forums. We are not only listened to but are heard and our position is reflected in documents that are passed at such events. I’m pleased to emphasize once again that the international parliamentary community takes a sensible and realistic attitude based on the understanding of Russia’s role in international relations, an important role because not a single serious problem in global politics can be solved without our participation. It is acceptance of the failure of the policy aimed at isolating our country and putting pressure on it that I see as the reason for a recent “exploring” visit of a U.S. Congress delegation to the Federation Council and State Duma. I believe that we should also make more use of people’s diplomacy. The latter can take a large variety of forms. The recent FIFA World Cup in Russia can be considered a paradigm for people’s diplomacy. In the sense of achieving a better image for Russia and destroying Western propaganda stereotypes, we won the cup. To use sports jargon, we shut them out.
*The Second Eurasian Women’s Forum will take place in St. Petersburg on September 19-21, 2018.