Gendering ‘the Crisis’: Austerity Politics, Violence and Women’s Struggle in Greece

Amber Karanikolas on the role activist women are playing in response to the ongoing Greek ‘crisis’.

In Greece, women play a large part in the struggle and activism of the anti-austerity movement. The year 2008 saw Konstantina Kuneva, Bulgarian migrant laborer, unionist and active feminist, suffer the most severe assault on a trade unionist in Greece in the last 50 years. Kuneva survived a near fatal femicidal sulfuric acid attack at the hands of several unknown men on her way home from work as a cleaner in her Athens neighborhood, leaving her permanently disfigured and blind in one eye. The attack on Kuneva, along with the murder of a 15-year-old student by two police officers sparked the December 2008 riots. Spurred on by Kuneva’s legacy, her feminist and unionist organising, women cleaning staff continue to face off against the Greek government, demanding their rights as laborers, protesting their working conditions and pay, despite often being ignored by the main trade unions. In 2013, 600 women laid off from their jobs as cleaners after large scale cutbacks by the Greek Finance Ministry barricaded the ministry building, forcing EU and IMF officials to flee through the basement.

It is no wonder that women in Greece should play such an active role in anti-austerity, populist pro-democracy movements. Women are disproportionately targeted as some of the most precariously employed through changes to working conditions, falling wages, cutbacks in the public service, welfare provisions and health-sector cuts – all of which have resulted from targets imposed by the European Troika. Despite being the shock absorbers for the economic crisis, women are often absent from the public discourse on austerity, or what is simplistically referred to as ‘the crisis’. Although the crisis has received a great deal of media (as well as scholarly attention) what has not clearly been interrogated, argues academic Anna Carastathis, is the role that gendered (as well as racialised) violence directly plays in actually securing and constituting the politics of austerity. The battle against neo-liberal austerity programs and encroaching fascist movements requires a major shift in the mainstream discourse around the Greek recession, one where women have not been removed from the story.

In Greece, just as it is elsewhere, supposedly ‘gender-blind’ crisis-austerity politics are working to entrench deeply adverse conditions for women: data collected shows that women are experiencing poverty, homelessness and deteriorating health at disproportionate rates. Austerity measures continue to be implemented with no gendered (or social) assessment of their impacts. In the face of mass unemployment, many women are turning to sex work to make ends meet, where falling incomes mean clients can now only pay between €2 and €15. Soaring homelessness and unemployment rates have correlated with an upward trend in rates of depression and suicide. The effects of these policies combined with mounting conservative political authoritarianism from the Greek far right is leading to catastrophic effects: most alarmingly a surge in rates of violence against women. In public and political life there have been many reminders of women’s unequal position: in the lead up to the general election of 2012, two female politicians were attacked on live television by Ilias Kasidiaris, chief spokesman of neo-Nazi Party Golden Dawn (Chrysí Avgí), now a member of the Greek Parliament.

Prior to 2008 and the early onset of the economic crisis, gender equality was still an important concern for the EU, women’s organisations and the Greek feminist movement. Today, gender equality is now formally recognised as a fundamental principle and a human right through domestic legislation. There is a level of formal gender equality, as under the 1975 Constitution both men and women are equal under the law. However, when looking at areas such as equal access to education, equal opportunities in employment, distribution of work in the home and childcare, much is left to be desired. Not only does the ascent of far right movements mean a conservative backlash against women, it heralds new forms of authoritarianism: increased securitisation, tightening migration policies, aggressive over-policing (many police are suspected of being sympathetic to, or affiliated with, Golden Dawn), coupled with a growing global acceptance of the neo-liberal economic project. Combined, these forces present what seems to be an insurmountable task for feminists and all groups who aim to form collective left action around against austerity measures. The logic of neo-liberal and austerity politics are mutually reinforcing – perhaps it is even impossible or useless to think of one without the other. However, what is often elided by general of definitions of neo-liberalism is that it is a highly gendered configuration of power. According to social anthropologist, Athena Athanasiou, “both in terms of how it [neo-liberalism] enhances gender inequalities through the allocation of livelihood resources and in terms of entrenching conservative, sexist and heteronormative conceptions of the political.”

After major cuts across the board to social security in Greece, women have become the main providers of care (for the sick, the elderly, the young and the disabled). Mounting unemployment means households are increasingly unable to afford care services. The pressure on women to perform care work as part of their maternal duty, as a nikokira, a housewife, is strengthened. As women also constitute the majority of paid care workers, a decline in that demand means they face an even greater risk of unemployment and poverty, especially for migrant women, many of whom are employed in care work. Lower working conditions, greater exploitation, longer hours, increased sexual harassment and discrimination based on pregnancy has also been on the rise. Growing vulnerable employment leaves women with low wages and no job security – migrant women again are especially vulnerable, as many are employed irregularly or temporarily, usually as domestic workers. Child poverty is spectacularly high, but Greek girls have considerably higher poverty rates in all age groups: among adolescent girls (12 – 17) 35.5 percent were living in poverty in 2010.

Rates of violence against women, including domestic violence, rape, human trafficking and sexual harassment have all worsened. Sexual assault has risen by 53.9 percent in 2011 and 22.2 percent in 2012. Actual rates of violence are likely to be even higher, as official research often excludes non-citizens (immigrant and refugee women, who are also victims of the racist, xenophobic bile of Golden Dawn). While rates of domestic and sexual violence have skyrocketed, cuts to public spending have closed almost all women’s shelters and services. As of 2011 there were only eight shelters across all of Greece that accepted women and their children fleeing violence. Even prior to the onset of the crisis, Greece was only just developing crucial services such as shelters for women experiencing violence. In fact, Greece lacked a specific legal framework for the abuse of women up until as recently as 2006. This legal framework, Law 3005/2006, which criminalised domestic violence and marital rape for the first time, was hard fought for by Greek feminists. However, even after its enactment, it has been criticised for failing to refer specifically to violence against women, but rather to violence “against family members.”

As austerity cuts women off from a sources of income and to essential public services, this increased precariousness and loss of socio-economic security means that women are more vulnerable to abusive behaviour, leaving women with few options but to return to, or remain with their abusive partners or family members. However, at the end of 2012, the Greek government implemented an absolutely necessary, but insufficient, national emergency line, which received more than 6,000 calls in its first year. Feminist organisations and groups remain fighting, but they are particularly likely to suffer from cuts in funding: the same applies for victim support services and  shelters. Lois Woestman, a Greek-American feminist academic, argues that because both men and women who are losing their jobs and experiencing declining living standards, feminist concerns are being further sidelined.

Women do not just represent a disproportionate base of the world’s (working) poor on accident. The intersecting forces of authoritarian capitalism, patriarchy and racialisation under the current neo-liberal crisis reveals the ways that women’s labor power has always been exploited. Downsizing the welfare state has always been the cue for women to step up into more unpaid work. Women were, and are, disposable workers; the reserve army of (privatised) labor. This story is not unique to Greece. Although austerity politics undermine women’s rights, austerity measures work to exacerbate and further entrench pre-existing disadvantages: women’s lives were always precarious and disposable, even before the recession hit. Women’s position here is not some strange side effect, the very logic of austerity relies on the notion that harsh cuts to public expenditure should occur. The areas of public spending deemed inessential or negligible operates consistently across gendered lines: the public services women are more likely to rely on. It is no accident.

Feminist accounts in times of austerity are often viewed as kind of luxury or distraction from the real economic problems: however, a gendered analysis does not pertain to a special or even peripheral category here; a feminist account is essential in formulating a powerful anti-austerity movement. Collective anti-austerity struggle against the politics of austerity, neo-liberal economic practices and the neo-fascism of Fortress Europe must be in solidarity with feminist resistance. Mounting a successful, meaningful challenge to neo-liberal logistics demands a feminist lens; it demands the participation and presence of those who are most subjugated, most vulnerable. Today, Kuneva is now a member of the European Parliament, elected with SYRIZA in 2014. The attack on Kuneva for not remaining silent meant she was hospitalised for a whole year, undergoing more than thirty operations. To this day the perpetrators of her attack remain unknown, the Greek police failing to track them down. In the revolts of December 2008, thousands of demonstrators in Athens demanded justice for Kuneva, for the working class and for women: their banners read “Konstandinka, we are with you”, “We are not intimidated – We are outraged” and “Women, migrants, unionists. We will not be silenced.”

Amber Karanikolas is a Greek-Australian law graduate and writer based in Melbourne. She writes on the intersections between politics, law and feminism, with a special interest in Greek-Turkish relations.

Cover photo: Konstantina Kuneva. Credit: wikicommons.


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