Dark corners of student life for young women

20 Apr 2019 Radio Helping Hand

The academic year is just gaining its momentum. For the many this is the first university semester and the first real opportunity to live independently from own family, as many youngsters have moved away from home to continue with studies. And this is exactly why we decided to touch upon, often full of barriers, the reality, which female university students start facing along with the kick of their freshman year. Here we would like to point out the expensiveness and lack of quality of education, as well as the lack of financial literacy among the population. Parents start educating their children by trying to pay for a private school, while still hiring and paying for tutors. After these schools and tutors most of the children still are unable to obtain state scholarship (it is competitive and amount of the scholarships is very limited. Very few will be able to receive it) to study at the university, therefore parents are paying again. And after all of that still some vocational training turns out to be necessary. It, again, is not free of charge too often. In free colledges, as the author of this article has just found out from a woman with disabilities studying in one of those, some students still are presenting teachers parfumes and even fans for cooling down in order for the teachers to be more attentive towards them.

Now, back to the challenges student young women are facing. First of all many families living outside of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, quickly discover that their earnings, as well as prices and costs of living in their region are much lower than in Tbilisi. Therefore supporting a student living in the capital (paying for his/her rent, food and clothing, transportation, text-book expenses, utilities, tuition fees etc) covering them fully will turn into an impossible task. Here we would like to remember a case, one of many, when a girl from the country side lost her father just before starting her first semester. She had obtained a full scholarship to study math. Her father died from the stress due to his debt, which he could not cover, because the harvest was not successful due to the massive hail. There was no money left in the family to allow her to move to the capital and support her life there. Luckily a local NGO gathered a sum she could use to sattle, however after the first weeks of study she definitely would need to work through her university years. With regards to persons with disabilities often they have to move to their location of study together with their family member, as independent-living services (personal assistants, sighted guides, sign language interpreters are not sufficient and some of types of services are completely absent). Such students face additional expenses related to accessible transportation, however they almost are unable to get a job along with their studies, while their families face a need to support 2 persons outside of home, a student with disabilities and his/her assisting family member. Unfortunately, in Georgian reality a concept of student job is not well understood. Whatever the employers refere to as “a student job” turns out to be either fulltime or almost fulltime (30-40 hours per week). Even declaratively part-time (20 hours per week) jobs in practice are not part-time. The employee is overloaded with work that cannot be done in 20 hours a week. Employers ask employees to stay after working hours to finish things up, give them additional tasks and duties not mentioned during the recruiting. It is considered that working during night hours is better for the students. That way they can still attend lectures and seminaars during the daytime. However what would be the quality of their participation, how will they be able to focus on study, read materials and write essays/papers/exams after a sleepless night of working in a store or at the reception of the hotel, you decide. The only thing indicating “studentness” of these jobs is the possibility to negotiate time for exams. Also at the discretion and mersi of the employer. (of course working hours skipped for an exam must be filled in by the employee. It is just that the working schedule is rearranged). Another feature suggesting that a job is a student one is its low salary. It’s considered that, as students must be lacking qualification and experience, therefore, they shall be low paid workers. Average salary at such student job almost never is over 300-400 GEL per month.

Some might argue that working during student years gives a student a valuable work experience and skills useful and helpful for future career. However paid positions that are giving professional experience, such as lawyer, business-consultant and research fallow require pre-existing professional experience (for instance unpaid internships, volunteering, participation in conferences, competitions, modelings related to the field). Therefore a student, who needs a job for money to support oneself and, therefore, cannot afford to spend time on unpaid work, cannot get those positions demanding qualification and has to work in service, so called “low skilled jobs”, which will not count on her CV, if and when she will try to apply for a job in, say, her field of study. These kind of jobs provide only minimal sums of money to support yourself- not valid points on CV. On contrary, they take student’s time that she could have used for self-development, attend her own scheduled lectures and seminars, do academic reading, learn, participating in trainings, exchange programs, conferences and other formal and non-formal educational activities valuable for her professional and career development, from engaging in activism and gaining valuable professional connections/contacts.

An Author of this blog herself has many times witnessed dialogues between professors and students, when the later would ask a professor not to deduct his/her grade for skipping seminars, as she/he is working at that time and cannot attend due to the legitimate reason. The author has also witnessed a talk between 2 student girls. One of them was offering another a job, where she would not have to work over night and then spend some time on getting home being sleepless. The second girl asked: “but if I work during the day, I won’t be able to attend any classes” to which the first girl replied that the employer will let her leave for exams, otherwise that is the life of a regular student- a bitter reality. A current musician and member of Georgia’s national Orchestra tells the author of this blog, who was hired for the orchestra while still in university. “It was good that I could earn money for living and work in a field of my study, however it really ruined my career as of individual musician”- she says. “I did not have time to prepare for competitions, to play diverse pieces, which is so important for self-development”- she explains. Her financial situation turned to be a glass ceiling for her artistic growth.

Even receiving earned money often becomes an issue. The jobs in service field that students are taking are perceived as low skilled. So taking on them does not require a lot of preparation or training expenditure from the employer. It is also very easy to recruit such employees. Therefore the employer does not mind large flows of employees from his store, hotel or a café. That’s why not only salaries on these positions are low, but they are often even not paid properly. Employers are late paying. Sometimes they pay only a half of the first salary saying: “will give you second half, if you decide to leave”. Often money is deducted from youngster’s salary for various, even small misconduct. In order to avoid paying a compensation worth of 1 month salary, when getting rid of an employee the management tries not to fire her/him openly and formally. Rather they either tell the employee to write and sign a document requesting dismissal telling that it is better for her/his record and professional reputation than being formally fired, or create such an environment, where an employee is not capable of coping and working anymore will decide to quit on his/her own. There are many other labor rights violations massively taking place. Students have neither resources/money/time, nor information on how to complain or file a law suit, how to access free legal aide therefore this labor exploitation remains unriviewed and unpunished/unaddressed.

Now let’s discuss, what are the barriers specific to young women. Most of job announcements seeking employees for low skilled low paid service sector jobs are of discriminatory and sexist nature. They are requiring young female candidates to be “good looking”. Therefore if a woman does not fit into the strict and objectivizing criteria and expectations of “prettiness” imposed by the society and the employer, she will have trouble finding even that type of job. Or if she, despite the odds, still is hired, most likely she will turn into a victim of constant judgment and bullying from the employer due to her appearance. If a woman satisfies the “beauty” criteria set up, she runs the risk of sexual harassment, teasing, humiliation or asults, be it from the employer or the costumers. “When he attacked me and words were not helping, I had to physically defend myself. I saw a knife sitting on top of the fridge and I, to my horror, caught myself thinking of using it”- tells one former hostel receptionist girl about one of the hostel’s costumers. Young women working in hotels, cafes and on night shifts in the stores are often stigmatized. They are perceived and expected “to be agreeing on anything”, as they chose to work in such places.

Of course, there are success stories too. Just recently a law student of Tbilisi State University was hired as a lawyer by the Constitutional Court of Georgia, while still studying. Now she has to commute between Tbilisi and Batumi and study at the same time. However this is costing her sleepless nights and, anyway these precedents are rather exceptions than rules.

We are writing about all of that not to discourage the youth. Rather because open discussion and admitting that the barriers exist is a good start for the existing challenges to be addressed, overcome. It is in these discussions that solutions are being generated and society becomes more open, aware and caring about various previously hidden barriers. We believe that the more taboos are there in the society, the less issues are being openly discussed, the more terrible things do actually happen, as they are taken out from public judgment and scrutiny all together.