Organizing a women's conference in Hungary
In 1990, the first Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Eastern Europe. Among them was Nancy Picard, an English major who had worked in public relations and was being assigned to Sopron, Hungary, to serve as a TEFL teacher. Having written a report on local government in Hungary for the International City Management Association, Picard was more knowledgeable about the country than were most Volunteers, yet still was suprised by some of the conditions she found there.
Picard began teaching in a high school, one of two in a town of 60,000 located on the border with Austria. She soon picked up other assignments: teaching an evening class for adults and an afternoon class for children; teaching a group of railroad station employees; and tutoring fellow teachers. She also assisted the local forestry university as a judge during the state examinations. Because the demand for English teachers was so great, she often returned home to find people waiting outside her door, hoping to learn the language from a native English-speaker.
Apart from these various teaching assignments, as a member of the first group of PCVs in Hungary, Picard, like her fellow Volunteers, spent her first year gathering information about the school system and Hungarian society in general. The Peace Corps staff in Budapest had told the Volunteers to be flexible, to develop their own questions, and to find out the answers.
From the outset, she became concerned about one issue she had not considered a serious problem before: the role of women in Hungary. On one particular day four or five months after she arrived at her site, she was teaching a class of high school seniors using Dear Abby columns to discuss with them how to give advice. One of the articles was about a 16-year-old girl who was being beaten by her boyfriend. After discussing the article, the girls in the class gave this advice: "No, she should not go to the police; the police do nothing... She should find out why her boyfriend wanted to hit her and try to work things out...No, we don't have this problem in Hungary."
These responses shocked Picard, but at the same time reinforced the impressions she already had of Hungarian women's opinion of themselves. Her female friends had told her their stories of loneliness and isolation, attempted suicides, and low salaries not keeping pace with inflation. In involving herself more deeply in her community's activities, learning the language, and interacting with many different people, she saw how much women were being excluded from playing a major role in Hungarian society.
Several international and aid-based organizations visiting Sopron offered instructional and informational aid but were clearly directed towards men only. A few of Picard's friends who were women had attended some of these meetings and had felt excluded.
Peace Corps' Women in Development (WID) newsletter, The Exchange, showed Picard that similar problems existed worldwide for women, and that Volunteers had initiated and supported many activities to assist women in taking part in their community life. One article in particular affected her. It told of a woman in Thailand who had turned around her feelings of powerlessness and depression by organizing a women's conference where women's issues could be aired. Picard thought that if a women's organization existed in Sopron, then there would be a structure for women to communicate with each other. It might also serve as a channel for women to receive some direct economic assistance from international donors.
First and most important, she had to determine if the women of her town were interested. She spoke with close friends, both men and women, about a women's organization and its benefits for the community. A teacher colleague whom Picard was tutoring in English was enthusiastic about the idea. At the advice of another colleague, a Hungarian English teacher, Picard wrote a letter to the local government, which this teacher translated, requesting space for a women's organization to meet. The letter was given to the mayor. Two weeks later it was returned: The local government had no space and no money.
Picard's translator was quite happy to give up the effort to start a group. After many discussions, it became clear that she was concerned that she might be persecuted for initiating any self-assistance efforts. She was worried that her name would be put on a list and given to local police and other authorities, and that she would be harassed.
Picard began to realize the difficulties and sensitivities of what at first had seemed to be a simple task: coming together and speaking and sharing. The legacy of the former political system had made Hungarians fearful, jealous, and suspicious of each other and mistrustful of themselves and their ability to move forward.
In late September, Picard with the help of her translator wrote another letter, this one more personal and directed to individuals, detailing the benefits of a women's club and including a reply questionnaire to be filled out if the individual was interested. Picard and the other teacher who was enthusiastic about a women's organization spent several hours, two or three times a week, handing out the letters door to door in the town. As they did so, the teacher explained the idea of the club, generating a lot of discussion in the process.
One of the women who received a letter offered a place in a downtown language school for the group to meet. With an approximate 15 percent return on the questionnaires, the PCV and her fellow organizer chose a date to hold the first meeting, and together with the other teacher wrote letters to the women who had responded. The local newspaper heard of the event and published an article on the front page about Picard and the meeting. On Friday, December 13,1991, billed as a "Lucky meeting on an unlucky day," 40 women gathered together.
The first meeting was spent answering questions about the purpose and possibilities of a women's club. One woman suggested that all of the women present mention why they had come. Some were looking for English lessons; others, for company; still others, for business and personal advice. The group decided to meet again after Christmas vacation.
Armed with information from The Exchange and correspondence with women's organizations in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, Picard facilitated the first meeting; volunteers from the group facilitated each meeting afterwards. Using procedures and exercises described in Women Working Together, a manual distributed to Volunteers by Peace Corps' ICE and originally produced by OEF International, the women adapted the sessions to Central European situations in order to gather information about Hungarian women and their lives. The women also worked to obtain the necessary approval to officially register the organization.
The Sopron Women's Club, as it came to be known, met once every two weeks. Picard met with the facilitators in advance to prepare them for their role. The meetings were announced in the local newspaper, and several times, curious husbands and boyfriends came along to observe the activities. The Hungarian English teacher helped out as a translator whenever Picard had a problem making herself understood.
After awhile, it became clear that the women had many questions that could be more easily answered in a conference-type setting, with Hungarian speakers who could discuss topics the women had identified as of great importance to them: legal issues, environmental concerns, family psychology, business skills, body image, and others. The perception of Hungarians giving Hungarians advice might help to promote self-sufficiency.
The women agreed to arrange a WID conference, entitled "Coming Together," to be held in Sopron in May. One of the Education APCDs, Kathy Rulon, suggested that Picard apply to Peace Corps' Small Project Assistance (SPA) program to fund the conference. Picard applied, but in the meantime went ahead with helping to organize the conference.
Picard and her group sent letters of invitation to women all over Hungary. They used the registry from the American-Hungarian Chamber of Commerce plus additional names suggested by Peace Corps staff to prepare the list of invitations. Included were representatives from the Green Women of Hungary, the Hungarian Association of Entrepreneurial Women, the Budapest University of Economics, and an international peace organization based in Berlin. The women were ambivalent about inviting members of the Feminist Network because of their distrust of the term "feminist," but eventually invited them after being convinced by Picard of the need to have different facets of women's lives represented. (A member of the organization spoke at the conference about the history of feminism and was well received.)
In planning the conference, the women organized themselves into various committees, which met weekly. The teacher who had worked with Picard from the very beginning agreed to be the conference chairperson, and several women from the community were willing to facilitate sessions. The Hungarian English teacher translated all the background documents for the conference brochure.
Attendance at the Women's Club meetings fluctuated during the several months before the conference. The women were anxious and concerned that the conference would not take place, yet when they invited speakers, such as a child psychologist, to their meetings, attendance rose, so they had some reason to believe the conference would draw an audience.
Peace Corps' WID Coordinator sent a consultant in March to help with a needs assessment, and Zsuzsana Rawlinson, the other APCD for Education, provided the main link for Picard with the Peace Corps office in Budapest. In the meantime, before they knew they would receive SPA funding, the women began asking local businesses to support the conference. One local computer center donated $150 worth of photocopying and typing of the conference packet. A local hotel and conference center rented the group rooms at a 50 percent discount.
Once the SPA funds arrived, another woman used some of the budget to produce posters and flyers, which were distributed around the town. Articles and newspaper interviews with Picard and her Hungarian partner began circulating as well. The two women were also interviewed on a local radio station. Members of Picard's adult evening class participated, too, helping as photographers and with other small jobs. Eleven PCVs who attended the conference helped with the last-minute details of making signs and buying supplies.
Peace Corps' WID Coordinator arrived in town a few days before the conference to conduct several training sessions with the local facilitators and PCV counterparts. She also provided needed advice and kept things calm during a generally hectic three days.
When the conference day arrived, the wife of the U.S. Ambassador gave the opening address. More than 100 people attended the conference, which lasted two days. With such high-level participants as a member of the Hungarian Parliament, the acting mayor of Sopron, and the U.S. Ambassador, the conference generated considerable publicity and was reported in all the country's newspapers.
A highpoint of the conference was a panel discussion by entrepreneurial women, which demonstrated what Hungarian women were able to do. The conference also served as a marketplace for local business women, providing these entrepreneurs with needed income and reinforcing the message that local women could succeed on their own.
Overall, the conference was evaluated a success by those who attended. In reviewing it, the women of the Club thought that more time should have been allotted to informal discussion, and more diverse women's groups should have been invited.
After the conference, the women took a summer recess. The Club revived somewhat when the International Executive Service Corps, a volunteer organization based in Stamford, Connecticut, sponsored a week-long business course in Sopron for Club members, but it was difficult for the group to reorganize on a regular basis. With funding for office supplies, but having lost their meeting room, the members had difficulty arranging meetings.
With Rawlinson and Picard's assistance, the woman who had acted as the conference chairperson went on a U.S. Information Agency "Foreign Visitor's Program" to the United States the following summer in order to meet and talk with various women's organizations. She returned to Sopron and began organizing the Women's Club again.
The conference was repeated the following year on a larger scale by the Foundation for the Women of Hungary, and the Sopron representatives were able to network in Budapest for more contacts and information. They had become self-sufficient in working with other Hungarians.
To document her experience with the Women's Club, Picard prepared a report for her fellow Volunteers, including the materials she used and tips for anyone who wants to follow her example. After completing her Peace Corps service, Picard obtained a contract from a local organization to spend some additional months in Hungary, continuing with her writing and community development activities. She also worked to support the efforts of PCVs in Poland to promote a women's organization in Poland similar to the Sopron Women's Club.
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