Indigenous women in a new social reality

Translated from "Indigenous Peoples' World" ("Мир коренных народов") No. 3, 2000

Nina Zaporotskaya
(teacher, native village of Kovran)

The life conditions of Russia are harsh as never before. It is hard for everyone, even those working, because the hardships of life are increasing. In Kamchatka life conditions are aggravated by severe climate, remoteness from the centre and some specific problems. Prices of food, dwelling and public utilities rise. What is the position and role of the woman in these conditions? Let us take a look at the situation in a single village, Kovran, of the Koryak Okrug of the Kamchatka Oblast.

The residents of the village are mostly indigenous Koryaks and Itelmen. Some time ago that was a well-to-do village with a developed collective farm. The residents were engaged in fishery, building, and cultivation. The village had a poultry plant and a commercial dairy plant. But things have changed. The people are having a rough time. Electric energy is supplied intermittently (currently it is not supplied at all), and there is no fuel or staple foods. Thus, the situation is gloomy.

The entire able population of the village have a good educational level, but only a few of them are in a position to take advantage of it. 9% of all the able women have received higher education, 40% finished technical colleges and 40%, high schools. The picture can change in the near future, since the majority of parents cannot afford the travel and living expenses of their children, even if the education itself is free.

The village women have a higher educational level, and, hence, they fill all the vacancies in the village administration, school, kindergarten and hospital: 52% the village women are employed here. 3% of women are employed in non-state-owned organisations and 24% are unemployed. Unemployment is the plight of all the Okrug villages. 90% of all the men are unemployed. Thus, in the majority of families the woman is the only bread-winner.

There are 22 pension-age women officially registered and receiving pension, which is their livelihood. While 22% of married women with children are unemployed, 48% of single mothers are not working. What do these single women — women with weak social support — and their children live on? Anyone in the village would say: children’s welfare and pensions. The situation is aggravated by wage arrears. Working women live on occasional advance payment money. To cut a long story short, the villages are suffering from poverty and starvation. Some people are underfed, others starve. What is the health of the children born by those women? How does a mother feel who does not know how to feed her child or support its future? Poverty is not only shabby clothes and meager food, but also the constant feeling of inferiority. The village intellectuals have many times addressed the regional administration. But it is hard to say who can change the situation. If the economic situation is to be considered as violence, failure to pay the salary is also a case of economic pressure on the part of the state, that is, violence on the national level. Who is to blame? It is useless to accuse history.

Under what conditions do our women have to work? The children in kindergartens and schools are starving. The children and workers are cold. The temperature in the classrooms is below healthy standards. Because of the low temperature regime, classes are reduced or called off. And how about the medical service? There is a hospital in the village, but what can it do without the necessary medicine and equipment? Currently the flu is raging throughout the village. This is the death of exhausted people devoid of any vitamins. Children, old people, and women are ill and there is no medicine available. What does a woman feel if her child is ill and she cannot help him?

While in 1988 – 1989 the average lifespan of indigenous women was 64 years, in recent years it has declined to 51 years. But this is not the limit. Each year, the situation in the village deteriorates. In addition to cardiovascular diseases, cancer and accidents, the higher death rate is accounted for by alcoholic poisoning. A third of Kovran women abuse alcohol.

The new reality calls for a new mechanism of social protection fo the woman, primarily, the mother. The issues associated with the socio-economic status of the woman in the village are currently so acute as to become the most urgent. Their solution is the health and welfare of the entire people.