Regardless of the continent, country or region, the narrative around the phase-out of coal has always focused predominantly on male miners, while the impact on women and their role in the transition is put to the side.
Recognition of the problem is one thing, but active willingness to analyse it and come up with conclusions and recommendations is another thing altogether. To take a closer look at the impacts on women and identify existing inequalities, Bankwatch Romania prepared a report highlighting the issues faced by women in the Jiu Valley region, located in southwestern Transylvania, Romania.
Coal mining has a long-standing tradition in the region and can be traced back to the 19th century. However, since 1997, sudden changes have aimed to restructure the mining industry, resulting in the region’s population falling from approximately 170,000 inhabitants in 1997 to around 133,000 in 2019. More than 20 years of poorly planned transition has led to rising poverty, unemployment, crime and other social problems affecting people living in the region.
However, financial support from the Just Transition Mechanism has created a unique opportunity to reverse unsuccessful practices and finally conduct a sustainable and inclusive transition in a region dealing with systemic issues such as gender inequality and sectoral and occupational segregation between women and men.
The report focuses on six cities in the Jiu Valley: Petroșani, Petrila, Vulcan, Lupeni, Aninoasa and Uricani. It is mainly based on interviews conducted with 21 women in the Jiu Valley. The report reveals some worrying phenomena regarding paid work, education, health, social services and housing.
Winters were black, one could not go for a walk
Every single story hidden in the words of these 21 women shows the different issues they have had to face. The authors of the report have identified five main categories of experience through their interviews with the women living in the Jiu Valley.
Most women who worked both during and immediately after the communist era and are now retired focused mainly on domestic work. Those who were not managing their households typically worked in the coal preparation process or in administrative and technical positions at the mine. The closure of the mines is perceived as a positive decision, as the coal power stations created extra unpaid work for women, who had to wash and clean the coal dust left on the windows of their houses and the clothes they were drying.
With the fall of the socialist regime, deindustrialisation resulted in the closure of many factories and industries and led to intensified migration as people searched for security and stability in their everyday lives. Many women at that time went to Italy and Austria, primarily for employment in care work, leaving their kids behind in Romania.
Women who could get access to higher education or a job in the field were the most satisfied with the working conditions and their own status. It was also possible for them to choose to remain in the country.
On the other hand, many women who did not have access to education or paid work during the transition period decided to take advantage of social assistance programs and undertake seasonal work.
The last group of women identified in the report were those searching for employment, even though they had access to education. Working abroad seems to be one of their best options, but a career in medicine also has potential given that there is a large hospital in the area.
Every time they talk, she starts crying for him to ‘come home!’
Economically-driven migration is one of the predominant issues in the region. The regional job market offers very few poorly paid jobs in harsh conditions, forcing people to seek employment opportunities elsewhere, while often leaving families behind in the region. For this reason, a lot of people decide to undertake seasonal work in industries such as agriculture, allowing them to earn more money and come back to their families for a few months. When they return home, they have no other sources of income and the migration-return cycle repeats.
This kind of lifestyle strongly affects relationships within families, creating tensions both in marriages and between parents and kids.
One of the direct impacts of migration on the area has been demographic decline in all six cities observed in this study. For example, in Uricani, the population dropped dramatically from 11,700 in 1992 to 9,100 in 2020.
In 90 per cent of cases in kindergartens, we only talked to mothers
The strong feminisation of education, social reproduction and care work in the region, combined with the challenges caused by the transition to capitalism, has worsened living standards and made it more difficult to fulfil the responsibilities of entrenched gender roles.
This new reality puts extra pressure on women to contribute to the economic stability of their families, which often forces them to look for work abroad.
On a positive note, some of the women we interviewed acknowledged that even though combining paid work with domestic labour can be very demanding, it also leads to a feeling of empowerment, self-appreciation and independence.
I tried to get a job this summer, but there wasn’t anyone who could take care of my girls
Another serious obstacle that holds women back from paid work is limited access to kindergartens and nurseries. Women in towns in the Jiu Valley say that the authorities have promised to open new nurseries on several occasions, but not much has actually happened. Only private nurseries have been built in the past few years, and these are of course limited to families that can afford to pay the fees. A 25-year-old housewife from Petrila told us: ‘Whatever you want to do as a woman is hard. I wanted to get a job here, but… you can’t find a job where you can take care of children and still work. Nobody understands that you have to do the second or third shift’.
Things are not as they should be in some schools, and kids are noticing
The Jiu Valley region also suffers from a lower quality of education than schools in other regions and more broadly at the national level. Children’s success at school often depends on their family’s financial resources. It creates worrying socioeconomic segregation, contributing to the vicious cycle of poverty. Inequality in access to education is also one of the reasons for the declining school population and the growing phenomenon of underage mothers. In one of the interviews, a school counsellor in Petrosani said: ‘There are a lot of old, unrenovated schools and many unsuitable classrooms that are too small for the given number of pupils. Or the furniture is very, very old and the labs lack equipment, including chemistry, physics and other such labs. It feels as if you open a door and suddenly you are in 1982. You were teleported in time and space’, adding that it has a serious impact on children’s interest and curiosity.
I am unable to go for check-ups. They cost too much. Everything is about money
According to the report, the Jiu Valley has only one family doctor per 2,829 inhabitants, while the doctor-patient ratio should be 1:1,000 according to the World Health Organization. On top of this, there is a lack of specialist doctors in the region. Many have already retired, and there has been little success in attracting the younger generation to this field. To deal with the situation, people either use private medical services, which not everyone can afford, or migrate to cities. This is very often the case when giving birth, as there is not even a single neonatologist at the hospital in Petrosani. ‘The doctors started to leave. Just today I found out that we don’t have an ophthalmologist at the hospital. We have to go to Petroșani if we have a problem. We don’t have a neurologist, we don’t have a neurosurgeon, now we don’t have an ophthalmologist’, a social care employee in Lupeni said.
There are many older people who have been left alone because their children are abroad
The unattractiveness of the local job market for young people and the mono-industrial character of the area has created a severe problem, leading to an ageing population in the region. Lack of access to social services is one of the reasons for the issues they are facing, such as poor finances (58 per cent), health problems (46 per cent), dependence on others (36 per cent), feeling useless (33 per cent) and loneliness (30 per cent), which eventually lead to alienation from society and depression. A psychologist from Petrila summarised this worrying phenomenon by saying that ‘older people are alone and some of them aren’t managing to get by. Maybe they can’t even walk to go shopping. So, they live alone in their houses, isolated, and it’s bad. It’s hard’.
I try not to think about the future. I cannot be an optimist
Lack of confidence and pessimism about the region’s future was a common theme in the interviews. Understandably, the past 30 years of socioeconomic instability has led to huge distrust of any talk of positive changes among people living in the Jiu Valley region. This high level of scepticism is even more visible towards public authorities, who are blamed for ‘the brutal and unplanned’ closure of the mines without any strategy or respect for local needs. After experiencing so many disappointments, people are still unable to believe that national institutions can successfully manage the further transformation of the region.
The picture is not as gloomy as it seems
Luckily, new initiatives promoting inspirational ideas are emerging, bringing hope that there is always room for positive changes. The most noteworthy are the coalition called the Jiu Valley Involved (Valea Jiului Implicată) and Planet Petrila. The aim of these initiatives is to encourage civic involvement, exchange best practices, and improve collaboration between members through various activities, events and initiatives.
At the planning level, the Jiu Valley has reaped benefits from the Ministry of Investment and European Projects, which commissioned the strategy for the development of the Jiu Valley. This document outlines the transition paths and was prepared after significant consultations with local stakeholders. At the same time, the six municipalities received technical assistance from the EU Commission through the START programme, which was designed to help local stakeholders develop 10 integrated projects. In addition, the region will also benefit from the Integrated Territorial Investment mechanism, which should help streamline EU funds in the region and make them more accessible.
How can gender equality be ensured in just transition measures?
The stories of the women in the Jiu Valley region paint a worrying picture regarding the region’s just transition. This is a beautiful area with enormous potential for further socioeconomic development. Still, the transition process, conducted mainly by national authorities, has not taken into account local needs.
Although many mistakes have been made throughout the past 30 years, the marginalisation of women – around 50 per cent of society – remains one of the main issues. Women are just as much a part of the transition process in the region as men are, and without recognition of the challenges they face, it will never be a truly just and equal process. Gender cannot be treated as only one dimension of transition, but should be at the core of any strategy and measures proposed for sustainable social development.
In order to ensure full gender equality in just transition measures, the report underlines eight main recommendations:
- Gender mainstreaming in all development programmes, strategies, plans and actions;
- Women’s participation in decision-making processes;
- Raising awareness among decision-makers on women’s rights and gender equality;
- Sustainable local female entrepreneurship;
- Employment opportunities for women;
- Development of social and care services infrastructure (nurseries, kindergartens, after-school care, centres for elderly people, domestic violence services, programmes for young mothers);
- Ensuring access to healthcare services;
- Promoting equal opportunities and the empowerment of women in the nongovernmental sector.