Suffer the Little Children and Their Mothers

Suffer the Little Children and Their Mothers

by Michael Myerson

With the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, our mass media waxed triumphant. We “won” the Cold War, we were told. But what about the “vanquished?” A heavy cost is being exacted from those people – particularly from the ones that the United Nations calls the “most vulnerable,” the children and women – in those countries against which we waged Cold War.

Unquestionably, Communist rule was oppressive, bureaucratic and undemocratic. Yet, even allowing for the regimes’ fudged statistics and overstated claims of achievement, the Devil must be given his due: They had made free, public education at all levels universal, and cradle-to-grave healthcare and a network of social security measures were assumed as birthrights. Communist rule also brought to each of these countries – with the exceptions of Czechoslovakia and the former German Democratic Republic – industrialization, albeit at a cost of enormous pain and inhumanity.

A heavy cost is being
exacted from the children
and women in those
countries against which we
waged Cold War

In the years before the death of the USSR, Elvira Novikova, a Ph.D. in women’s studies in the former Soviet Union, says working women were presented in Russian media as “a public enemy: She was to blame for the breakup of families, divorce, the falling birthrate, juvenile delinquency, even homosexuality.” The purpose of this characterization, in the opinion of Novikova, a regular contributor to Russian journals and newspapers, as well as a lecturer at universities and collectives throughout the country, perceived that “the problems might be solved at the expense of women.” With massive unemployment looming in a country that had, at least formally, a full employment economy for three generations, one solution was “to return women to the home and at the same time cut funding for kindergartens and other social infrastructures” that traditionally support working women.

Today, 80 percent of Moscow’s unemployed are women, a figure fairly representative of the situation throughout the entire former “Eastern bloc.” (These and other statistics cited here without sources come from country reports of various United Nations agencies. All are based on data supplied by the governments.) In industrialized Czechoslovakia, for example, unemployment has soared from 20,000 in 1990 to one million this year. In rural and underdeveloped Albania (in the same league as, say,’ the underdeveloped African nations, Lesotho and Mauritania) unemployment is estimated at 35 percent. Overall unemployment in the former USSR is presently 15 million, with a real possibility of reaching 30 million by the end of 1992. In each country, the bulk of the newly unemployed are women. With new significant pockets of unemployed mothers, the elites in charge of government budgetary matters have a ready excuse to slash funds for daycare and kindergartens .Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to reduce social spending as a requirement for receiving loans, the budgets are cut deepest from precisely the economic sector that has funded education, culture and medicine. Obviously, the entire societies will suffer the consequences, but the cuts hit women first and hardest. As Elvira Novikova told journalist Fred Weir of the Canadian Press Service, “People’s hopes and aspirations have been replaced by despair and desperation. If before one used to say, ‘I live,’ now one says, in a passive voice, ‘Life for me goes on.’ There seems no human sense in what is happening to us today.”

The egalitarianism of the former regimes, as it turns out, was largely a fable. Like elites everywhere, the Communist leaders enjoyed privileges and perquisites beyond the reach or imagination of their peoples. But the market economy, while bringing wealth and luxuries to new sets of rulers, is bringing poverty and deprivation to tens of millions of citizens previously protected against such ravages. One shouldn’t expect the market to behave differently in these countries than it has in nations that have had a couple of centuries to perfect the mechanism. Maya Krasnovskaya, a 60-year-old Moscow widow, stood in a commercial shop in the city’s center a few days after Boris Yeltsin’s government removed price controls on food. Staring at a 700-ruble package containing one pound of ground coffee, she told Weir that it would take her three months to pay for it. Barbara Passini, director of the Children’s Friendship Agency, the state-run adoption agency in Warsaw, says, “We live in a country where poverty and misery climb out of every window.” She speaks of the booming adoption market in Polish babies, which she estimates brokers as many as “tens of thousands” of infants through Church-operated sales to Western parents. The asking price: As much as $25,000 for boys; $15,000 for girls. What kind of countries give up their babies, their futures, for adoption? Passini asks rhetorically. “Only poor ones.”

Caught in the nether world of transition from authoritarian socialism to an uncharted “free” market, Dr. Boris Shapiro, deputy health minister of Kyrgyzstan in what was formerly Soviet Central Asia, told a UNICEF/WHO mission, “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Today, we are eating yesterday’s bread. Today we are drinking yesterday’s milk. Everything we have today is from yesterday. Now we have to provide for the future before it is too late.” While Shapiro was addressing the problem of food shortages, the same conclusion could be drawn about the entire range of basic necessities for health and social welfare.

For example, take this recent scene, reported by an observer for the United Nations Childrens’ Fund: Karolina Xhaka comforts her 16-month-old daughter, Dorintina, in a fly-blown ward of a district hospital in northern Albania. The child is malnourished and has been in this ward for four months. Ms. Xhaka is unemployed, half of her laborer husband’s meager wage goes to a former wife, and there was simply too little food for the baby. Dorintina’s growth began to falter. The baby had a thriving three-year-old sister, Roberta, who was raised on their grandmother’s rural collective. The collective has now been privatized, resulting in a food shortage, so Roberta has joined Dorintina in the malnutrition ward. But the hospital is also running short of food, because farmers cultivating newly de-collectivized land refuse to sell their produce below market prices to state run institutions.

The disintegration of traditional police controls, and the emergence of the crudest “market” forms, have combined to introduce to Russians (and Ukrainians and Uzbeks and Czechs and Bulgarians) some of the most sexist excesses of our fabled “Western values.” One is the commercialization of women’s physical appearance: Bathing-beauty contests, and making how a woman looks in a mini-skirt a job qualification. These have joined pornography, prostitution (even among young, educated women), and rising rates of rape and battery of women in every newly “democratic” country of Eastern Europe and the former USSR.

Perhaps the most alarming development is the deterioration of the health status of children. The Institute of Social Economics in Warsaw, for example, found in a 1990-91 study that over half of all families with three or more children live in poverty. With privatization of pharmacies, the cost of medications has spiraled beyond reach for these families. Hospitals are threatened with closure because of inadequate funding. Key indicators of child health – prenatal mortality rates, infant mortality rates and low birth weight rates – have failed to improve for the past two years. Poland’s 1990 prenatal mortality rate of 19.5 percent is higher than any Western European country.

The health status of women is also in decline. The primary means of birth control in each of these countries is abortion, which is readily available. (In Poland, Hungary, Croatia and Slovakia, under pressure from the Catholic church, the governments are now considering the possibility of outlawing, or severely restricting, abortion.) The scarcity and poor quality of domestically-produced intrauterine devices, prophylactic foams and condoms have helped create a circumstance in which abortions outnumber live births. According to Novikova and a number of international aid specialists I have spoken to, it is common for women to have eight to 10 abortions during their childbearing years.

This situation is inherited from the old regimes, of course, but is exacerbated by the new fiscal pressures and resultant scarcities.

Similarly, the extreme degradation of the environment – of which Chernobyl is merely symbolic and the best-known example – that occurred as a result of rapid industrialization, bureaucratic pressures to meet government plans without ecological precautions, and Cold War fears of falling behind Western development, is part of the legacy of the earlier authoritarian system. For instance, according to Murray Feshbach, Research Professor of Demography at Georgetown University and an advisor to Yeltsin’s government, the use of pesticides, fertilizers and defoliants in the Central Asian republics – Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tadjikistan and Turkmenistan – has been excessive and indiscriminate. In Chimkent, air pollutants are discharged annually on the order of 375 kg. per capita (as compared with an average of 100 New York City). Cancers and leukemia rates among children and women are far above normal, as are birth anomalies and respiratory diseases. But with international pressures to slash social spending, a rush to privatize without reference to social cost, and escalating inflation, environmental protection isn’t even on the “back burner.”

The hospital is
running short of
food, because
farmers cultivating
newly de-collectivized
land refuse to sell their
produce below market
prices to state-run

The severe drop in government funding, and the absence of any significant private source to replace public spending, has left the healthcare sectors in each of these countries with outmoded equipment (much of it dysfunctional for lack of replacement parts), and overcrowded and under-equipped facilities. The crisis ranges from the merely serious in Russia or Poland, to the catastrophic in Albania and Romania. In areas torn apart by civil war – for example, Yugoslavia, where the United Nations and the International Red Cross says its 800,000 internal refugees constitute the largest displacement in Europe since the end of World War II – the situation defies categorization.

Similarly in education, cuts in public expenditures range from 10 to 30 percent among these 22 countries (counting the 15 former Soviet republics and excluding Eastern Germany). But the budget cuts for health, education and culture are only part of the story. With IMF-encouraged “shock therapy,” hyper-inflation has made earlier cost estimates irrelevant. In Russia, for example, wages or pensions may have tripled in rubles, but the price of most food (and soon, energy supplies) have multiplied 10-or even 100-fold. Even in comparatively stable Hungary, inflation veers between 40 and 50 percent.

In most of the former “Eastern bloc” countries, the structures of the social safety net remain in place, although under intense strains. After many decades, the peoples assume that health care, education and paid holidays are their natural rights. They have shown no readiness to relinquish them, whatever the dictates of the market. But the international lending agencies and Western governments and banks have paid scant attention to the potential human wreckage on the side of the road leading to the “free market” economy. This may come as little surprise in view of the growing impoverishment that has accompanied the increased concentration of wealth at the top of societies presided over by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and their successors.

Seemingly alone, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and other specialized United Nations agencies are hard at work studying the effects of the transition to a market economy on the children and women of the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. But they are operating under severe strains on their own, relatively meager budgets. In the Third World, the traditional object of their attention, 14 million children under the age of five die every year from preventable diseases and malnutrition. The international aid community cannot be asked to choose to which pain it will administer balm.

John Le Carre has made a brilliant career depicting how human beings were manipulated and discarded as mere disposable those who waged the Cold War. With the fall of Communist governments and the demise of enemy images of whole populations, one would hope that all of us – Americans, above all – could rediscover our humanity. Having spent $5 quadrillion on military budgets to win the Cold War, is it now beyond reason to consider a peace dividend the health and welfare of the most vulnerable among us – children and mothers – here and abroad?

Michael Myerson is the author of six books on international political topics, and a consultant to several specialized international agencies.