On my way to Greece in September 2013, I expected to see boarded-up shops and people sleeping on sidewalks. Greece was the first country to fall victim to vicious austerity actions when the global recession hit in 2008.
But I was frankly stunned at how grievously government budget cuts have pummeled Greek society, especially its women. As Sofia Tzitzikou, an Athens feminist and pharmacist, explained to me and my traveling cohort, poet Nellie Wong, “In Greece, there is a war on human rights, on women’s rights, even on the right to live, now that homeless people are dying on the streets.”
“Greece is a social laboratory,” she warned, for harsh new economic policies being imposed in other countries, including the United States.
A reproductive rights activist, Sofia described the devastation of healthcare in Greece. Abortion is legal and was once easily accessible in public hospitals, but many hospitals have closed. Now medical appointments cost €25 ($35) in advance, so abortion is no longer affordable for the vast majority.
Pregnant women have been denied services at maternity hospitals for lack of payment. Greek feminists organized protests and contacted women journalists and activists across Europe who helped raise visibility about this practice. They won a little — payment can be postponed until annual taxes are due. But, if the family still can’t pay, then the authorities garnish their wages or seize their homes.
Migrant women without papers must pay double for abortions. “It’s nothing but racism,” Sofia exclaimed. Nellie replied that in the U.S., discrimination against immigrants of color is also rampant. In 1987, family planning centers were established in every village, but now they too are closed. AIDS is on the rise due to cuts in education and treatment. Schools are closing as well, putting impossible burdens of childcare and education on mothers’ shoulders.
Sofia and other health service workers have established free clinics that provide the only care available to poor people. Her clinic is in a tiny apartment where a dentist might work next to an internist in a cramped bedroom. Her healthcare group pays the rent and provides free services.
Unemployment among women, which is 50 percent, makes life especially grim. And for those with jobs, many work only two hours per day! Youth unemployment is at 70 percent. Sofia’s mother’s pension has been cut 50 percent. Pensioners support extended families, in a country with an average salary now of only €500 ($685) per month.
Under these severe conditions, domestic violence has inevitably skyrocketed.
Healthcare is not the only casualty. Supermarkets not able to afford salaries pay their workers in food. Sofia’s pharmacy, like others, was not reimbursed by the government for prescriptions they filled for two whole years. Repayments remain months behind. Many small businesses have closed. Suicides have risen dramatically.
Sofia aptly characterized Greece as an economically occupied territory, not a democracy. All major fiscal changes must be approved by the infamous, imperialist Troika — the trio of banks dictating exorbitant loan terms to Greece, composed of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank. Last year, many homes couldn’t afford heat, and the government wanted to lower fuel costs. The Troika, dominated by the U.S.A., wouldn’t hear of it.
Most laws protecting workers have been struck down. Sofia indignantly told us that the social democrats (PASOK), and the Communist Party only fought weakly to stop this. Union-busting is also in the works. Frequent strikes and protests have yielded few victories. Greek workers have staged an astounding 28 general strikes in two years, and almost daily rallies.
Like everyone we met, Sofia has no faith in the government. “They lie and have no political will. They also cover up the truth about the country’s dire conditions so others won’t know how bad it is. Today,” she pressed, “Greeks work like slaves just to survive.”
Nellie and I left Greece with a deep respect for the tenacity and rebelliousness of its people, and with an acute awareness that their today is capitalism’s plan for our future. International solidarity and revolutionary feminism have to be top of the agenda if we are going to stop this nightmare.
Luma Nichol is the incoming organizer of Bay Area Freedom Socialist Party. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also see: Greece: a gutted economy fuels fascist threat by Luma Nichol, December 2013