THE BLOG
10/05/2014 11:40 am ET Updated Dec 05, 2014

Empowering Women in Romania

The Women's Association of Romania (AFR) began as a mass movement constructed out of the ruins of the previous Communist-era women's organization. When I visited the offices in 1993, AFR was possibly the largest NGO in the country, with 240,000 members. Its activities were all over the map, from providing services to singles through a Club of Lonely Hearts to maintaining a job referral agency.

Since its beginning, AFR has been led by former opera singer Liliana Pagu. When I see her again after 20 years, she is undiminished in her energy and enthusiasm. But it's not so easy to run an NGO in Romania. The membership of AFR has dwindled. It's been difficult to secure funding. The organization has had to move offices several times.

The status of women in Romanian society has seen both improvements and setbacks over the last two decades. For instance, accession to the European Union initially brought advances, as the country had to meet European standards on equality. But some of those advances were short-lived.

"In 2002, when the European Commission gave the money to the ministry of labor, we finally had a national agency devoted to achieving equality of opportunity between men and women," Pagu told me in an interview in her office in May 2013. "But in 2009, this agency closed because the prime minister at that time was no longer interested in having such an initiative. Now, three people in the ministry of labor established a very small effort to create a big national strategy related to gender equality. Of course, because of the EU's recommendation, we have a good law on this. But it's only on paper, not in practice. In the rural areas, who knows anything about this law? We, as an organization, don't have the financial resources to educate, to communicate, or to do concrete services according to the law, like running a shelter against violence."

Without government support, many of the services for women that are commonplace elsewhere in the EU - such as shelters for women who have experienced domestic violence - are scarce in Romania. "In Bucharest, which is a big capital, we have only two shelters, and they are supported and staffed by private donations not by the government," Pagu continued. "Concerning this situation, I've worked to create a coalition against such violence and to educate the population. Because we have a patriarchal society, it is very difficult to change the mentality of the people."

But change is coming even to Romania, and it's the next generation that is leading the charge. "I notice that for young people the change is just starting," Pagu observed. "They have the possibility to go abroad and learn from the experiences of other people and bring them back to this country. Women learn that it's not good to have a husband who does nothing at home. Women learn to respect themselves and ask respect from husbands. The husbands learn to respect women by sharing responsibility at home. Of course that's at the level of intellectual people, not the average people in the countryside. Rurally, the mentality hasn't changed much. They are older there and respect old traditions in the family that put the man up front and women 10 steps behind."

We talked about her experiences in the 1989 revolution, the challenge of remaining independent of politics, and her new initiatives on entrepreneurship and Romanian women in the diaspora.

The Interview

First tell me about your career as an opera singer.

Here is a present for you: a CD that contains all my vocal activities inside and outside Romania. I was a good lyrical artist, recognized in my country and in Austria where I was a prima donna in folk operas. I was invited to do a performance tour in neighboring countries. I have two long-playing CDs. This CD is the lyrical journey of Liliana Pagu, produced by a big recording studio.

Before the revolution I appeared on the stage in different personalities. That situation sheltered me from the life of the Communist period. It was a bad period. I had an opportunity to entertain people through my voice and dance and my performance on the stage, to do something for people to make them happy. That was before the revolution. During the revolution, I received from God a command to change my life and those of others. I was to go inside society rather than be above society, one meter higher on the stage.

I was involved in the revolutionary days. I called on women to make something of their lives, to empower them, to give them more confidence and more involvement in the changes in their lives and their society. I called on them through television, together with two other people from the newspaper Femei, (Women). After that, I destroyed the Communist women's organization. Before the revolution, there was the National Council of Women, which belonged to the Communist Party. I destroyed this structure and established the foundation for a very new democratic organization.

It was a very strange idea for me. As an artist, I'd not been involved with these kinds of activities. All my activity until 1988 was volunteer work. In time, I received much knowledge from experts in the United States and Germany. I was in Israel, in Haifa, at the Golda Meir International Training Center, and acquired new knowledge of how to develop this kind of organization. A lot of women joined together with me to do this work, to put into practice various ideas, to become involved and get other women involved.

It was a very optimistic period. Romania after the revolution was a happy country for five years, full of confidence. Step by step, things didn't happen as we had wished. People like me, leaders in society, lost confidence in the political forces, which have no interest in doing more for the ordinary people.

In 1995, a critical moment for my activity was participating in the fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing together with thousands of activists working on women's issues. We heard a lot of good proposals and ideas, and we signed an action platform. When I returned to Bucharest, I signed the protocols to put this platform into effect. There were 12 important issues related to women's lives: women and education, women and health, the empowerment of women and young girls, against sexual violence, and so on. The platform also contained an item about the necessity of mechanisms -- juridical, official, governmental -- in connection with the women's movement. This was my first step to push the government to do something legally.

In 2002, when the European Commission gave the money to the ministry of labor, we finally had a national agency devoted to achieving equality of opportunity between men and women. But in 2009, this agency closed because the prime minister at that time was no longer interested in having such an initiative. Now, three people in the ministry of labor established a very small effort to create a big national strategy related to gender equality. Of course, because of the EU's recommendation, we have a good law on this. But it's only on paper, not in practice. In the rural areas, who knows anything about this law? We, as an organization, don't have the financial resources to educate, to communicate, or to do concrete services according to the law, like running a shelter against violence.

There are no shelters?

In Bucharest, which is a big capital, we have only two shelters, and they are supported and staffed by private donations not by the government. Concerning this situation, I've worked to create a coalition against such violence and to educate the population. Because we have a patriarchal society, it is very difficult to change the mentality of the people.

At this moment, after 23 years of activities, I can say to you sincerely that we step by step established the credibility of our organization in society. We are the primary organization working on women's issues. I've brought together other organizations working on many different projects. We have developed a project to implement different actions from the Beijing platform -- through my own capacities and efforts, with a minimum of financial support from the European Commission and no funding from the Romanian government. The Romanian government even uses my image outside the country to show how good a relationship it has with women's organizations.

In 2006, I was invited to the UN CEDAW (Commission on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) conference to do a shadow report of the government report. As a diplomatic person - I'm an artist so I have to be a diplomat -- I presented the situation of Romania in the case of violence against women. I discussed discrimination in such a way as to suggest that Romania could do something on this in the future.

But the experts in CEDAW asked directly, "How has the government helped you?"

I had to say the truth: "Not much at the moment, but I hope we can do something together in the future."

I've had the possibility to continue my activity with a small project in the area of adult education supported by European Commission Socrates Grundtvig training program for school and adult educators. This was a good way to make change based on the best practices and experiences of other countries. We were able to develop a project organizing rural women with European help and to educate women about European concepts, I received financial support the Susan G. Komen Foundation to do education on how to prevent breast cancer.

At the moment, our activities have been focused on mobbing, which is psychological harassment in the workplace. It's not sexual harassment but psychological. Both negatively affect women, but in this case it's the colleagues who turn against the woman. And the victim has to be very strong to continue working and not avoid the workplace. We established a center for the victims. But there is only one in Romania. It's like a drop in the sea. But it's a start.

We are doing another strategic project related to the development of entrepreneurship of women, for small and middle businesswomen to be more confident about their ability to change their lives. We have four centers, in Bucharest, Iasi, Brasov, and Craiova. Next week I will go with my team to Brasov to do a roundtable and conference to promote this project. We finished the project in December and have to continue on our own for three years. But we were able to provide consulting to 1,500 women in four centers and trainings for 320 in these four places. We encouraged the women not to stay and wait, but to get involved and find a solution to their problems.

The life of women in a transition period is not so good. They face a lot of difficulties. The economic power of women has changed in comparison with men. The salaries are no longer the same.

What is the difference in salaries?

For women it's 30 percent less.

Has that changed in the last 23 years?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.