Women and feminist struggles in Romania over the last decades

Maria Luisa Guevara

The current situation in Romania from a feminist perspective is that of a country trapped between modernity and obscurantism. On the one hand, some layers of the population still enjoy the benefits from the positive remnants of the stalinist regime in terms of women’s rights, and on the other hand, the women in many vulnerable sections of the population (Roma, LGBTQI+, urban poor and rural poor) face almost insurmountable challenges.  

Historic perspective

Romania’s track record of feminist struggles and victories has been a mixed bag, mainly due to the paternalistic and patronising approach to women’s rights in the country, even during the stalinist period, as well as the bourgeois feminist approach during the capitalist periods (pre-1947 and post-1989). 

Main dates

Monarchy/capitalism

  • 1923: Liberal bourgeois constitution acknowledged the full equality of both sexes
  • 1929: right to vote in local elections
  • 1938: right to vote in all elections for both women and men over 30s (but monarchist dictatorship, so the right was null)

Republic/communism

  • 1947: Ana Pauker, a major communist leader, became the world’s first female foreign minister 
  • 1948: Communist constitution granted the right to vote to both women and men over 18 years of age
  • 1957: decree legalising abortion
  • Encouragement of STEM careers for women throughout the stalinist period
  • 1966: drastic U-turn, decree 770 forbidding abortion, unique in the Soviet space and in direct contradiction with communist and socialist ideologies

Republic/capitalism 

  • 1989/90: re-legalisation of abortion, free contraception, and introduction of sex education in schools
  • 2010s-now: regression of access to abortion, contraception no longer free, sex education taken out of schools

Main issues in Romania in 2023

A. Teenage pregnancies is the top issue facing Romanian girls: the country holds the record for the highest percentage of minor moms in Europe with consistently over 16,000 teenage moms (under 19) per year, of which over 650 are under 15 y.o. 

  • 1 in 10 minor mothers or pregnant minors has never been to school and 75% of pregnant women and underage mothers dropped out of secondary school. 
  • 80% of pregnant women or mothers under 18 did not use any contraceptive method because they did not have information about their use. 

The lack of sex education (SexEd) in schools is the biggest cause, followed by the lack of access to healthcare services in the poorest areas of the country, where most of these pregnancies happen. It is thus an issue of intergenerational poverty (most teenage moms have teenage moms themselves), and without lifting the millions of vulnerable people out of poverty, there will be no improvement to the issue of teenage pregnancies.

B. Lack of access to SexEd, birth control, and abortion is another major issue. SexEd is no longer taught in schools but religion is. Most opponents to SexEd come from a religious background, and claim that SexEd will “pervert their children” and “turn them gay”. Contraceptives are no longer subsidised since 2011. Access to abortion is becoming harder and harder, with doctors refusing to perform it due to religious concerns, even in public or private hospitals; the Covid crisis was used as a pretext not to perform abortions in many public and private hospitals and healthcare centres. 

The most recent figures are very telling: in 2022, 6,728 abortions were performed on demand, of which 4,131 were performed in the private sector, almost twice as many abortions compared to the public sector.

A major cause for this is the influx of funds from US Evangelical ultra-conservative groups into Romania, either directly to churches (both protestant and orthodox) or via NGOs that promote abstinence and non-abortion as well as social media influencers. 

In this context, it is important that we keep the memory of the 1966 decree alive, by collecting the stories of the thousands of women who have had to have illegal abortions during 1966-89 and the relatives of those who have died. 

C. Domestic violence is rife, particularly in rural areas. In the latest study on this issue, out of 27,000-40,000 cases of violence in 2020, 54% of them happened in rural areas. The causes are multiple and interestingly the Police has a good analysis of why it is happening: they are mentioning traditional gender roles in which men dominate women, societal acceptance of violence as conflict resolution, and poverty; in other words capitalism and patriarchy except the authorities don’t use these key terms. 

The main problem is that the state (and, of course, the Police) does not help the victims of domestic violence, rather it relies on NGOs which have little funds to address the issue. There is a lack of shelters for victims of domestic violence, and those that exist do not allow for long-term stays. Some NGOs are attempting to have a long-term approach to helping victims (providing shelter, psychological support as well as help to find a job and become financially independent), however more funding is needed for this. This lack of support leads women to seek ad-hoc support on Facebook groups about rental offers, where they ask for renting options at a lower price. The responses in these cases vary from supportive if the victim is seen as deserving (non-Roma, “hard working”, in her 30s), to dismissive if the victim is of Roma origin or very young, to outright offensive (men proposing to shelter victims in exchange of sexual services). 

Sex work sold as empowering by neoliberalism

Following the 1989 capitalist Restoration, Romania became a country where women were mere objects of consumption, with a significant number of poor and vulnerable women ending up trafficked by international organised crime networks. Human trafficking remains a major challenge in Romania, however its importance has decreased compared to the 1990s and early 2000s thanks to improvements in living standards and the fact that sex work is channeled more towards video chat which makes it somewhat safer for people to practice sex work. The studios employ models on a freelance basis (somewhat like Uber and the gig economy) and brand themselves as empowering women and encouraging female entrepreneurship, thus surfing on the wave of neoliberal language and propaganda. The reality for these women of course is very different than the image painted by the media: psychological problems, abuse, drugs are the norm.

The gender pay gap: less of an issue in Romania

In 2020, Romania ranked 2nd in the EU in terms of the difference between the average or earned income of a woman compared to a man (2.4%), just behind Luxembourg (0.7%) and much less than the EU average (13%). This is a clear heritage of the planned economy period, where salaries were strictly regulated, with gender discriminations being inexistent in practice. Of course, today’s minimum wage of approx. 350 euros/month is way below workers’ (of all genders) needs.

Mass movements and protests, or the lack thereof

There is a clear lack of mass movements in Romania in support of women’s rights and other vulnerable minorities rights; however some marches and events do exist. In addition to the 8th March, minor demonstrations organised by various feminist NGOs and public authorities (policemen stop women in traffic to offer them flowers not fines!), there has been an interesting campaign led by a network of feminist NGOs, the Romanian Network for Prevention and Combating Violence against Women (VIF). The latest March for Safety of Women took place on 23 October 2022 under the slogan “We’re fed up with empty words, we want social services!“. The NGOs were asking for more public funding of social assistance services for victims of gender-based violence and for education, training and awareness programs. More punctual protests, such as the “Cadem Una, Cadem Toate” (One falls, We all fall) protest organised by various feminist organisations in response to the murders of two teenage girls in 2019, also took place. An online exhibition about a decade of feminist movements was put together by a collective of NGOs. However, more widespread mass movements need to see the light in Romania in order to draw attention to the issues facing women, and with a more socialist perspective.

Feminist organisations and figures in Romania and their approach 

There has been a flourishing of feminist NGOs in Romania in the past decade, mostly thanks to funding from EU funds and Nordic grants. While the majority of these NGOs are quite bourgeois and academic in their approach, their activities in practice are sometimes positive and significant, if compared to the lack of action from the public authorities. The major NGOs are:

However, the danger of “replacing” the state and its obligation to apply social policies is constantly there. We of course need to act when women of our class are in danger, but at the same time we need to extend our demands for the state to assume its role. 

Recent prominent figures of feminism in Romania come from the academic world mainly, both on the political right or centre such as Mihaela Miroiu, or more on the socialist left such as Oana Uiorean, Laura Sandu, or Nicoleta Moise from the feminist magazine Cutra (a reclaimed derogatory term of women).

However, most of the recent feminist approach in Romania is of bourgeois character, modelled on western academic templates, as well as closely linked to identity politics, thus stifling healthy debate on the more controversial areas of feminism. One area of improvement would be for us to launch public campaigns that would talk more about the socialist feminist figures from the soviet and pre-soviet era such Alexandra Kollontai, Rosa Luxembourg, Ana Pauker, and revive the memory of a different approach to feminism while remaining grounded in the realities of today’s struggles. On March 9th, however, an online debate is organised by prof. Enikő Vincze, prominent figure of the housing struggle, with Oana Uiorean and Laura Sandu, about a socialist perspective on feminism, a first in the leftist landscape in Romania, showing signs of hope. 

A discussion among activists, social movements, fighting trade unions, and every collective in the country must be opened around how to support feminist demands and struggles. Women have to discuss ways of organising themselves to fight for feminist demands. There is still a long way to go, but we are confident that as with countries all around the world, the feminist movement will establish itself and make gains in Romania also. At the same time, we will be engaged in the battle for it to take radical and socialist characteristics.


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