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.
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?
Not so much. We still have a lot to do on equal opportunity for equal work.
I consider our activities and my work a good example of leadership in society. But I am not politically involved. I prefer to be independent. But this independence has cost me a lot. For example, one of the structures of government gives offices and building to organizations they like. I asked for a nice office for the National Women’s Association. They gave me two small rooms in a very bad building, and it cost a lot of money. I accepted it because there was no other solution. During this time, I didn’t have any projects and no possibility to pay rent. They took me to court. And I lost. I, as president, had to pay a lot of money to the government as a result.
When was this?
I’ve been paying until the end of last year — 5,000 euro from my salary. The association doesn’t have the money to cover this amount. That is the kind of respect that the government has for me and my activities. The government, regardless of the color, has not been interested in cooperating on women’s activities. Perhaps they are afraid of women’s power! There are some women in different government organizations. But these women belong to the parties. They are not representatives of the women’s movement. I proposed changing the electoral law to give organizations the possibility to propose candidates. For the moment, it’s on the table in the Chamber of Deputies. If it’s approved, it will be included in the new constitution.
At the moment I believe I have to push the government more. We can’t wait. We have to push step by step. It’s not a very comfortable way because they don’t respond well to my pushing. But I am tenacious.
Do you have allies in parliament?
Yes. They ask me to support them. But I don’t ask them in turn to help me with financial support.
For this big strategy project for women, we have to have money in our pockets to do the project. Only later can we ask the European Union for reimbursement. That is very difficult. For a country with a strong economic situation like Germany, it’s not a problem. For a clever country like Poland, it’s not a problem. They both found ways to help organizations do this kind of strategic project. But for Romania it’s difficult. For example, for this project, I was not able to pay my employees since December. They’ve been working without salary. Finally, they will receive some money. But it’s no solution.
I intend to consolidate solidarity among women by building a new organization together: the Women’s Association for Romania Together. A small group from Romanian Women in England asked me to help establish a new organization. I give them my status. Now we also have a partnership with Romanian Women from Greece. In one hour, a nice lady will come from Israel to do the same with the Romanian Association in Israel. In the ministry of diaspora, the minister wants to develop this kind of activity in more countries. Romanian women outside the country need more help from our association.
I’m interested in hearing about your experience in 1989, in December.
I was in the office of the Communist Party on December 21 along with other revolutionary people. We wanted to establish some connection with the people in the front of the building, to say to them, “Yes, it’s another day for you. You are together here with us to change things. Hello, women, it’s time for us to get involved!” That was my appeal from the balcony of the office.
A lot of representatives of the embassies come to join us and to ask if we need help. The embassy of Russia said, “Why are you here without our help?”
“Because we are here as the representatives of the people,” we said.
I remember when Iliescu and others joined us, and he asked us to excuse him because he had to speak to his wife. I understand Russian very well. He was not talking with his wife. He was talking directly with Moscow, telling him that he was there in the middle of things and everything was under control.
I stayed inside the building for the whole day. My emotional state was not so good. During the night, I stayed on the street with different groups of people. The next day, I went to the National Council of Women, the Communist structure, to destroy it. We did this together with other women from around the country, who came to Bucharest with enthusiasm to do something new.
It was not easy to change Romania. As usual, we used extreme methods to change the country. Nobody knows if this was all prepared beforehand. Nobody knows if leaders were all chosen beforehand. Perhaps. Or perhaps not. All of Europe changed in those days. And Romania is part of the same family. But the impression of ordinary people is that things are not going in our favor. They’re in the favor of powerful forces, including the top politicians.
You’ve talked about the challenges for women, for instance that there are only two battered women shelters in Bucharest. When you think about the last 23 years, what have been the greatest achievements for women in general?
It’s good to have a law on equality of opportunity. It’s good that we have a strong Romanian women’s movement. We are active nationally as well as regionally (for instance, there’s an organization to promote women in Moldovia region in the north). Of course, to act regionally is easier. But we gradually developed various partnerships after 2005. In 2005, small organizations noticed that they could not act because they didn’t have offices or money or projects. I asked them to join together with my organization and we established a network of women’s organizations.
Another good result is that young people are more interested in getting involved in civil society and in women’s movement. We received a lot of students from university as interns in our organization. They work together with us on projects such as one called Multicultural Experience Make a United Europe. Our association brought 20 young girls and boys together with partners from Italy, Spain, and Germany to exchange experiences and make a project together. That gave me hope that we could develop Romania in a more democratic, transparent, and open way. Another result of our efforts was to make women more open-minded and clever and confident through empowerment.
I’m also curious also about average women. Is there more equality in the household with men sharing chores like child-raising. You mentioned Romania being a very patriarchal society. Has that changed in 20 years?
I notice that for young people the change is just starting. 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.
Economically, women at this moment have the possibility to find jobs. But sometimes they are the only person in the family making money. Or sometimes, they are unemployed. And they ask me, “I have no possibility to put food on the table. What solution can you give me?” It was my idea to develop entrepreneurship because then they can develop economic activities through our training and open a small commercial boutique or housecleaning service. That’s better than staying unemployed and having to ask the husband for money. It’s not the situation that we had dreamed of in 1990. But during this crisis situation in Europe, and maybe in the United States as well, we have to join forces to find a solution. Unfortunately, there’s still a big gap between our efforts and the efforts of government. But we are a very tolerant and passionate people. We don’t easily lose our optimism.
When you think back to 1990, have you had major changes in your thinking?
That is a difficult question for me. I’m a diplomat. I consider united Europe to be okay, but it’s more difficult for Europe to be united than for the United States — because of the different interests of the countries. We speak of active citizenship and European citizenship. But who knows about European citizenship when even Romanian citizenship is not very clear at the moment. I am not a nationalist. I am for a Europe where all countries are respected and there’s no gap between west and east. It would be nice if all countries helped each other out, with the stronger countries helping the weaker ones. That is a dream, but also perhaps something that can be put into practice, maybe by my granddaughter!
The last three questions are quantitative. When you look from 1989 until today, how would you evaluate all that has changed or not changed in Romania on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most dissatisfied?
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
Looking into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for Romania, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
I would like to give Romania a more positive number. But I’ll say 7. It’s positive but it’s not great progress.
Bucharest, May 23, 2013