VILNIUS - Ten years ago, activists began efforts to institute a procedure to help get women back into a workforce that was undergoing rapid change itself.
One of the many such nongovernmental start-ups at the time, the Social Innovation Fund was established in 1994 with support from the Dutch government. The country provided training and funding for the organization, subsequently helping to open the Kaunas-based Women's Training Center in 1995.
The involvement of the Dutch, however, was no coincidence. Three years earlier, shortly after the Baltic states regained their independence, EU countries developed a plan to help former Soviet countries. The Netherlands opted to lend support to the largest Baltic state through a program titled "Assistance in Social Welfare in Lithuania."
Since its founding, the Women's Training Center has played an important role in bringing the problem of women's unemployment to the forefront in Lithuania.
Liudmila Mecajeva, who has headed the Social Innovation Fund for 10 years, remembers the situation the country faced when Lithuania first regained its independence.
She describes the doubt that prevailed as former Soviet structures were being swept away and the future of social services remained uncertain. Though concepts such as community centers and volunteer work were unfamiliar at the time, the fledging nongovernmental sector made considerable strides in increasing its reach.
Starting with only a single room and 10 computers in 1994, the SIF decided to focus on cultivating those skills that were most likely to give women an employment advantage. They surveyed their options and decided upon using computer training to further their cause.
Mecajeva says that in comparision with other regions of Europe, women in the Baltics are more willing to work with new technology than their counterparts in countries such as Portugal. This, she explains, gives Lithuanians an edge when re-entering the workforce. But lack of skills is not necessarily what prevents women from finding a job.
Unlike in Western Europe, she points out, educated women represent a high percentage of those unemployed in Lithuania, with 35 percent of educated women unable to find a job as compared with 27 percent of educated men.
That said, certain unfortunate similarities do prevail: Working women in Lithuania earn on average only 75 percent of what their male coworkers make, a disparity common in other parts of Europe and the United States.
Mecajeva expresses concern that women living outside urban areas encounter unique job-hunting challenges. Because they are many times less likely to have attained higher education, women in rural areas usually encounter more difficulty in finding a job than those living in cities. According to the Lithuanian Statistical Department, 14 percent of women above the age of 19 living in rural areas have completed high school, compared with 86 percent of those in the cities. The gap in terms of college degrees is similar: In the countryside 2 percent of women hold these degrees whereas nearly 14 percent of women in urban areas do.
Another concern is that an aging population often lacks the means of traveling to training centers in bigger cities such as Kaunas, where the SIF is located.
One solution to help women in rural areas could involve a mobile organization that travels from town to town to train women on computers and educate them about other technical office skills. Another option Mecajeva suggests is the promotion of rural tourism, which Mecajeva says could be an impetus for future economic development.
All these concerns raised the importance of involvement through lobbying, and for this reason the Social Innovation Fund has now begun focusing on this strategy.
The SIF is part of a 49-group coalition trying to raise awareness about the issues of women in Lithuania. "Working in a coalition can help to influence policy," Mecajeva added.
The organization was invited by the United Nations to make an alternative report issued every four years on the situation of women in Lithuania.
Mecajeva stresses that this assessment is not meant to compete with the government's own reports. "One of the goals of the center is to have contact with social partners, including the government," she says.