Russian women fear later-life hardship from pension reform

Women walk along the Volga river in Samara, Russia
AFP

Moscow (AFP) – Russian government plans to raise the pension age have sparked a rare outpouring of anger, not least among women who say it will cause hardship at a stage of life when they already struggle to work.

On the day the first football fans descended on Russia for the World Cup, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced plans to increase the age by eight years to 63 for women and five years to 65 for men.

Critics immediately complained that with men’s life expectancy at 66, many may not live long enough to get their pensions.

But Russian women are angry for another reason: once in middle age, they will struggle to find work to tide them over for the extra years without a pension.

“It’s very hard to find a job as a woman over a certain age. Women are scared of being left without a pension or a job,” said Muscovite Tatiana Volochkova, 57.

She receives a state pension of 17,000 rubles ($269) but continues to work as an accountant.

Many women say the eight-year rise in their retirement age is disproportionate.

“A gradual reform is probably necessary but not with such a big difference (in the rise) between men and women,” Volochkova said.

– Removing the safety net –

Valentina Zholkina, 44, has been unsuccessfully looking for a job in Moscow for two years.

The company she used to work for shut down while she was on maternity leave. Now she says employers are put off by her age.

“In private, they say that after a certain age, it’s not right for women to sit behind a banking counter,” she said.

Zholkina said that older men can take temporary physical work if they are short of money.

But older women struggle to get employed even in low-paid jobs. Receiving a pension at 55, she said, at least gave them a safety net.

– All yours, Babushka –

Anna Nesterova, a 50 year-old Moscow-based designer, said the pension reform could also affect young families as Russian grandmothers play a larger role in bringing up children than in the West.

“People have a choice either to send their child to nursery or leave them with the grandmother. Many still choose the family option,” she told AFP.

Others say grandmothers sitting at home with children is a thing of the past.

“Babushkas (grandmas) are modern now. We don’t want to sacrifice all our time looking after children,” said 67-year-old pensioner Antonina, who refused to give her last name.

But she agreed that an eight-year increase is too much.

“In Russian families, everything depends on women. You need to balance work and family,” she said. “Sixty-three is very high.”

– ‘Huge’ problem –

Alyona Popova, a women’s rights activist who runs an organisation to support women professionally, said attitudes to older women in Russia are “very different” from those in the West.

“We have quite a sexist society. People often think female pensioners should be sitting at home with grandchildren” — a legacy of the Soviet system, she said. 

Some women meanwhile are scared of being replaced by younger ones, she said.

“Many women, often former teachers, come to us saying they can’t find a job and have no money because they spent it on their children or grandchildren.”

She said the reform will hit women and the poor hardest.

Paris-based Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said Russians see an early pension as a “kind of compensation for social injustice”.

“People are ready to put up with a lot during their life, including the limitation of political rights, and see this as a kind of well-earned social victory.”

– Petition to Putin –

President Vladimir Putin’s sky-high approval rating dropped after the pension proposal.

In a rare show of public anger, over 2.5 million Russians signed an online petition asking him to drop the reform.

“Protests in Russia are starting,” said Boris Kravchenko, the chairman of the trade union that launched the petition.

He said his organisation has applied for protest permits in 70 cities from this weekend, despite its loyalty to the Kremlin.

No protests have been called in cities hosting World Cup football matches, where they are banned. 

The analyst Stanovaya agreed Russia needs a pension reform but said authorities underestimated this and have a “communication problem”.

“They only think about how to sell it to the people in order to avoid protests.”

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