Department:Women’s Rights Team
Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary. Source: © Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images, 2018.
The situation of women’s rights in contemporary Hungary is an area that requires further examination, due to the lack of extensive research on the subject. This paper aims to provide an overview of the state of women’s rights in Hungary within the broader political context from 2010 and the re-emergence of Fidesz, to the present day. To understand the causes and consequences of the deterioration of women’s rights in today’s Hungary, it is important to understand the political context of the country, the intentions behind the relevant legal and policy changes as well as developments and their impact on women’s rights. Chapter 1 serves this goal. Chapter 2 focuses on the main areas of concern such as gender equality, economic empowerment of women, sexual and reproductive health rights, education and violence against women. Lastly, Chapter 3 provides a brief overview of the challenges of human rights advocacy as a result of the shrinking place for civil society in Hungary. By exploring these issues, this paper aims to contribute to a better understanding of the current state of women’s rights in Hungary.
1. Political Context
Hungary’s current governing party, Fidesz, has undergone many changes in the 35 years following its foundation, transforming from a liberal party into a right-wing populist, Eurosceptic and national conservative coalition (Vokskabin, n.d.). Fidesz was founded in 1988 by young, intellectual students, fighting for democratic regime change under the Kádár era (1956–1989): the period of communist consolidation following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 against the Soviet occupation. As shown by the party’s name, an acronym for Alliance of Young Democrats (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége), Fidesz was initially a liberal political initiative – a significant player in the liberal camp of the democratic opposition – demanding national freedom and political independence for Hungary. In June 1989 Viktor Orbán, already a leading figure in the party, openly demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungarian soil and free elections at the reburial of Imre Nagy, Hungary’s prime minister in 1956. This was an iconic moment in the country’s democratic transformation (Batory, 2016).
Fidesz has enjoyed multiple periods in power in Hungary, with a gradual political shift to the right, mostly due to the political failings of the left-wing party whose tenure coincided with the global financial crisis of 2008, severely impacting Hungary’s economy. Consequently, in Eastern Europe, in the aftermath of the crisis, the belief in the illusion of catching up with Western development, which would create economic prosperity, was shaken, and it was mainly the right-wing forces which were able to gain political capital by radicalising conservative rhetoric and questioning the moral superiority of Western democratic models (Csányi, 2019).
In 2010, the Fidesz victory was so overwhelming that it secured a two-thirds majority in the parliament, allowing the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to amend constitutional laws without the support of the opposition. Therefore, in 2011, Fidesz created a new constitution entitled the new Fundamental Law of Hungary, which came into force in 2012 (Batory, 2016). Moreover, in 2014, Viktor Orbán delivered his famous speech in Tusnádfürdő, Transylvania, in which he said that the era of the transnational hegemony of liberal democracy was over, and that Hungary was building an “illiberal democracy” instead (Grzebalska & Pető, 2017). His argument for this statement was that, in his view, the political systems necessary for nations to become internationally competitive are no longer liberal democracies, perhaps not even democracies. He cited China, Russia, and Turkey as positive examples to follow (Orbán, 2014).
Illiberal democracy is usually defined as a regime which combines certain democratic procedures such as a multi-party system and general elections with a disregard for constitutional limits to power, and a lack of protection of citizens’ individual rights. In the Hungarian illiberal system, those who oppose the national will are seen as illegitimate at best and traitors to foreign interests at worst (Grzebalska & Pető, 2017). Later, in his 2019 speech , Orbán defined illiberal democracy as a democracy based on national values and the defence of Christian freedom (Orbán, 2019). In light of this, it is not surprising that human rights, and women’s rights in particular, are not a priority on Fidesz’s political agenda.
1.1. Legal and Policy Framework Concerning Women’s Rights
Since 2010, there have been significant changes, amendments and new legislation affecting women’s rights in Hungary. As a common characteristic of illiberal regimes, the appropriation of democratic procedures, such as referendums or procedures for passing laws, has accelerated in Hungary either lacking consultation with civil society actors or only involving pro-government non-government organisations (NGOs). This rush has affected the quality of laws and caused serious consequences for the situation of women and emancipatory politics (Grzebalska & Pető, 2017). For example, the ninth amendment to the Fundamental Law of Hungary was a government-sponsored amendment passed by the parliament on December 15th, 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdown, and it entered into force in only one week. The amendment covered the area of family and marriage, including sexual orientation, gender identity and the raising of children. It reinforced the government’s gender-normative rhetoric by stating that “mother shall be a woman, the father shall be a man”, as well as asserted family mainstreaming policies by defining family as “the basis of the survival of the nation” (Ministry of Justice, 2021; Venice Commission, 2021). The amendment also subjugates individual reproductive and self-determination rights to the normative demand of the reproduction of the nation (Grzebalska & Pető, 2017).
Furthermore, the Family Protection Act, which came into force in 2012, also favours “familialism”, a form of biopolitics which views the traditional family as a foundation of the nation and strengthens deep-rooted discriminatory stereotypes about the roles and responsibilities of women and men in the family and society (Grzebalska & Pető, 2017). In addition, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), in its latest Concluding Observations, raised several concerns on the measures of the Act, such as the credits for joint property purchases, tax exemptions for women with four or more children, and the preferential credits for women under 40 on the first marriage. These measures overemphasise women’s responsibilities as mothers and wives, thereby undermining women’s social status, autonomy, educational opportunities and professional careers, as well as possibly forcing women to stay in abusive relationships. The Committee also expressed concern about the fact that since 2022, the Ministry of Culture and Innovation has been in charge of women’s issues, which can reinforce a focus shift from gender equality to women’s traditional stereotypical roles in the family. Along with the fragmented national machinery, this change reduces the country’s capacity to ensure that gender equality policies are effectively implemented and that gender is mainstreamed across all government departments (CEDAW, 2023).
Another backlash on women’s rights is the abolition of the Equal Treatment Authority (ETAuth), Hungary’s most important equality body, which was established in 2005 and functioned until December 1st, 2020. Considering that the intersecting forms of discrimination are an unknown concept in the Hungarian legislation (Kádár, 2021), the abolishment of ETAuth seriously threatens the rights of LBTQI women in Hungary, as its tasks and competencies have been transferred to the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (CFR). The latter has not only been downgraded to B status by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions for the lack of effective enforcement of the rights of vulnerable groups, but it is also less likely to pay sufficient attention to non-discrimination – no longer a single focus of the Authority, but one part of its large multi-mandate organisation. Although the Equal Treatment Act (ETA) does explicitly ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, problems arise with the enforcement of ETA as the Authority cannot investigate discrimination prescribed by statutory law (Háttér Society et al, 2023; Kádár, 2021).
Lastly, by rejecting the ratification of the Istanbul Convention in May 2020, Hungary has also taken a step backwards in the protection of women on the European level. The Council of Europe’s Convention on Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, sets out a golden rule of inclusion, recognising the right of all to live free from violence, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, or other characteristics. State Parties are bound by their obligation to protect, prevent and prosecute violence against women (Margolis, 2020). Despite Hungary signing the Convention in March 2014 without significant controversy, indicating a relatively inconspicuous discourse on gender equality at that time, the subsequent ratification process in 2017 coincided with the nation grappling with the refugee crisis. Hungary was the first EU Member State to refuse to accept refugees, and to witness the consolidation of national and Christian values. Consequently, Hungarian officials progressively distanced themselves from the principle of gender equality, replacing gender mainstreaming with family mainstreaming (Grzebalska & Pető, 2017).
The Hungarian government opposed the Convention for two main reasons. First, the concept of gender used in the Convention “denies that there are only two biological genders, male and female” and thus, contradicts Hungary’s constitutional definition of marriage, the matrimony of one man and one woman (Kovács, 2020). Second, according to the government, it imposes new flows of migration on Hungary by obligating state parties to recognise gender-based violence against women as a form of persecution and “such an extension of the legal category of persecution could clearly lead to a dramatic increase in the number of migrants” (Kovács, 2020), forcing Hungary to grant entry to illegal migrants (Krizsán & Roggeband, 2021).
2. Main Areas of Concern
2.1. Gender Equality and Economic Empowerment
According to the latest report by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), Hungary has failed to significantly improve its gender equality index. Despite a marginal improvement in its ranking compared to previous statistics, Hungary’s placement as the 25th out of the 27 European Union Member State positioning it among the countries with the most significant gender inequality gaps. In the EU, only Romania and Greece have higher levels of gender inequality than Hungary. Gender equality is mostly undermined by the under-representation of women in political power. Since 2015, Hungary has consistently been the country in the EU where women have enjoyed the least political power (Balázs, 2022).
In May 2022, the first-ever female head of state in Hungary, Katalin Novák, took office. She is an anomaly in the Hungarian political environment, surrounded by few women in Hungarian politics. For instance, in the Hungarian National Assembly, women occupy only 13 percent of the seats in the parliament, compared to the EU average of 33 percent (Rutai, 2023). Moreover, in Orbán’s 14-person cabinet, there is only one female minister, the Justice Minister, who has recently submitted her resignation to stand in the 2024 European Parliament elections (Bereznay, 2023). Nevertheless, Hungary’s first female president is hardly a win for women, as she is a member of Fidesz and has served as minister for family affairs, actively propagating views and introducing policies that have hindered equality for women, such as the provisions of the Family Protection Act, which have created financial incentives for women to be full-time housewives (Bakó, 2022).
Regarding gender employment and gender pay gaps, while Hungary has made an overall improvement in terms of employment rates since the global financial crisis, it has made less progress in closing the gender employment gap. Hungary’s gender employment gap fluctuates sharply across age groups: it starts small but grows considerably as men and women start family formation in their 20s and early 30s, and then narrows as men and women move into their 40s and early 50s, only to widen again once men and women approach retirement. This fluctuation can be explained by looking at government policies. For example, in Hungary, the employment rate for mothers with young children is remarkably low among OECD countries, which could be explained by the exceptionally long paid parental leave, limited childcare services, scarce part-time and flexible working opportunities, or the personal income tax exemption for mothers with four or more children over their entire career, which was introduced in 2020 by the government. These factors and policies encourage young women to have children rather than to pursue a career. However, the wide gender employment gap may also simply be due to family preferences as gender role attitudes concerning the division of unpaid work and childcare within the household appear to be quite traditional in Hungary (OECD, 2022). Eurobarometer data from 2017 show that in Hungary, 78 percent of people agreed with the statement that “the most important role of a woman is to take care of her home and family”: the second highest rate in the EU after Bulgaria (European Commission, 2017).
The gender pay gap in terms of median pay is relatively small in Hungary, but the gap between men and women at the top end of the pay distribution is significant. This may be due to the relatively high level of sectoral segregation (female overrepresentation in low-paid sectors such as education and social work) and the extended periods women often spend out of work following childbirth which may lead to a reluctance among employers to invest in the careers of young women (OECD, 2022).
2.2. Reproductive Rights and Health
It is not surprising that Fidesz, which leverages nationalist and conservative ideas to protect the family, actively attacks women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). In 2012, the government amended the Fundamental Law by including a sentence on the protection of the foetus from the time of conception, saying: “the life of the foetus shall be protected from the moment of conception” (Ministry of Justice, 2021). In 2012, the new Family Protection Act addressed, again, the protection of the foetus from conception, reinforced the heteronormative notion of marriage and suggested that the school curriculum prepare children for later family life. Moreover, in 2011, the government initiated a nationwide poster campaign against abortion, depicting women who had undergone or were considering abortions as murderers. This campaign also portrayed the European Union as an adversary by highlighting its regulations that promote women’s SRHR (Vida, 2019).
Although termination of pregnancy is legal in Hungary, the government has gradually cracked down on access to abortion services. In 2012 it banned the medical abortion pill which is backed by the EU and is a widely used method of abortion in Europe- thereby making access to surgical abortion more difficult. It also introduced two compulsory rounds of counselling and a three-day waiting period before abortion. In 2018, the government launched a national consultation on the protection of the family and children to boost the birth rate and to promote conservative ideas on the family by regarding women as reproductive citizens of the nation against the demographic deficit of the country or in favour of Christian family values. The consultation was accompanied by a major media campaign, including forums, TV and radio appearances, online and paper advertising, and billboards (HVG, 2018; Vida, 2019). More recently, in September 2022, the parliament passed a decree requiring pregnant women to present a report from a gynaecologist confirming they had heard their baby’s heartbeat before deciding to terminate the pregnancy (Holló, 2022).
Now, in Hungary, abortion is only possible for specific reasons such as the pregnancy is the result of a crime (sexual violence), the pregnancy is dangerous to the health of the pregnant woman, the foetus is likely to suffer from a serious disability or impairment, and the pregnant woman is in a serious crisis situation (Holló, 2022).
The quality of public education is constantly deteriorating in Hungary mostly due to the strong influence of governmental propaganda on the new national curriculum Nemzeti Alaptanterv (NAT), effective from September 2020. It has allegedly been crafted behind closed doors, without consulting any teachers’ boards or professional fora. Its content is politically and ideologically motivated and serves the government’s family mainstreaming and gender-normative rhetoric, anti-sexual and reproductive rights political agenda (Czina, 2020). The new national curriculum lacks coverage of LGBTQI topics that could contribute to fostering an inclusive school environment, and it emphasises the heteronormative nuclear family model and traditional gender roles. In addition, since the state-monopolised textbook publishing in 2013, all textbooks follow NAT’s ideology (Háttér Society et al, 2023; Czina, 2020).
In higher education, the government banned the two available master’s degree programmes in Gender Studies at Eötvös Loránd University, one of the most prominent Hungarian public universities, and the international Central European University. In 2018, the Gender Studies program was replaced with an “Economics of Family Policy and Public Policies for Human Development” program without prior consultation with the universities. The government saw the topic as an ideological challenge to its authority, deeming it incompatible with its neo-conservative ideals regarding family and nation (Vida, 2019).
Furthermore, in its concluding observation, the CEDAW noted with concern the so-called “Pink education” analysis produced by the State Audit Office in 2022, which contains sexist language and reinforces gender stereotypes (CEDAW, 2023). The analysis states that the over-representation of women in higher education can cause demographic problems for the country. It also frowns upon the fact that between 2010-2021, more women than men have been admitted to higher education yearly, and men are much more likely to drop out of school than women. Based on a representative questionnaire with 700 parents and teachers conducted in spring 2022, the majority of respondents believe that “girls’” qualities such as emotional and social maturity, diligence, listening skills, tolerance of monotony, good oral and written expression are more important in schools than the mathematical, technical and skills needed for subjects, typically favoured by boys. The analysis concludes that women are interested in men doing well and succeeding at school, since “where the development of masculine qualities is disadvantaged, economic damage is done” (Spirk, 2022).
2.4. Violence Against Women
CEDAW noted the launch of a new mobile application in Hungary in 2019, named Kapcsolj egyből! (Switch immediately), meant for victims of gender-based violence (GBV). Its success in the absence of a comprehensive national approach to prevention, protection, prosecution and integrated policies to all forms of violence against women (VAW) is highly questionable. Hungary does not have a policy foundation on preventing and combating VAW (with the exception of trafficking). Even the Recovery and Resiliency Plan to mitigate the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic failed to address violence against women. The Committee was also alarmed by the inadequate protection from GBV for women and girls facing intersecting forms of discrimination, including women and girls belonging to religious and ethnic minorities, those with disabilities and LBTQI+ women. Furthermore, it asked for the repeal of mandatory mediation in cases of child custody or visitation disputes before the family courts and recommended prioritising criminal proceedings over mediation and reconciliation in cases involving GBV against women and girls (CEDAW, 2023; NANE et al, 2023).
Another legal concern is that the Criminal Procedure Act provides only 30 days for the victim to file a complaint, and it requires the victim to play an active role in the criminal proceedings, either by making a specific statement that she wishes to punish the offender (private motion) or by engaging in private prosecution. Additionally, in Hungary, there are neither rape crisis nor sexual violence referral centres, let alone adequate training, competence and protocols for properly handling VAW cases (NANE et al, 2023). Despite the precarious situation of prevention, protection, and prosecution of GBV in Hungary, the government has declared the year 2020 as “the year of victim assistance”, which makes a mockery of this declaration in light of the government’s rejection of the Istanbul Convention in the same year (Nagy, 2020).
The lack of provision for hate speech against women is yet another major concern. The Fundamental Law and the Civil Code only address hate speech on national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups, leaving women and LGBTQI people without any effective tools against sexist and transphobic speech (Háttér Society et al, 2023). The #ShePersisted analysis of online abuse against women in politics in Hungary gives a detailed overview of the prevalence of gendered disinformation campaigns and the defamation of female politicians to dismiss their arguments. The most common disinformation narratives against female politicians in Hungary involve the frame of being untrustworthy, often by falsely accusing them being foreign agents, particularly linked to George Soros, or alleging misuse of public funds for personal benefit. Additionally, these narratives attempt to downplay their qualifications, portraying them as unintelligent, superficial, or mere puppets manipulated by influential male leaders on the left (Di Meco & Hesterman, 2023).
3. Shrinking Place for Civil Society and Women’s Rights Advocacy
The shrinking place for civil society and human rights NGOs is inherent to an illiberal regime, as a result of majoritarian nationalism a key pillar of illiberal governance. These types of political systems conceptualise the state as an apparatus of majority rule. Illiberal parties exploit the notion of national will to provide their supporters with a means to impose their views on the broader society. Anyone who goes against the national will or interest, is seen as illegitimate and as a traitor to national interests (Grzebalska & Pető, 2017). Orbán summarised the illiberal thinking in one of his speeches:
“The definition of a right relationship between two people is not that each is free to do everything that does not infringe on the freedom of the other, but the correct definition is that what you don’t want to be done to you, you don’t do to the other. ” (Orbán, 2019)
In light of this, in 2013, the Hungarian government started an attack on human rights NGOs, criticising EEA and Norway Grants for allegedly promoting foreign interests as well as accusing George Soros, a Hungarian-born American businessman and civil society philanthropist, of strengthening civil opposition through the funds of its organisation, Open Society Foundations (Grzebalska & Pető, 2017). A law enacted in 2017 mandated that any foundation or association receiving foreign funding exceeding €24,000 (or $26,000) must register as a “foreign-supported organisation” (Dempsey, 2017). In addition, in June 2018, the parliament passed a legislative package called “Stop Soros”, by which NGOs involved in illegal migration are required to provide data to the Court of Justice to “build a transparent database”, and NGOs which receive more money from abroad than they do from Hungarian citizens, must pay a 25 percent levy of on their foreign funding (24.hu, 2018).
Consequently, the activities of human rights NGOs and civil society actors in Hungary are severely restricted and they are discouraged from speaking out against government policies. For instance, in April 2022, more than a dozen Hungarian civil society organisations were fined by the National Election Commission (NEC) for illegally interfering in the referendum held on election day. Several human rights NGOs ran a month-long campaign urging voters to cast their invalid votes in response to the government’s referendum question on protecting children from LGBTQI influence, which was evidently instrumental for government propaganda. The campaign appeared to be successful and convinced some 1.7M voters to cast invalid ballots, leading the referendum to fail. However, the NGOs involved in the campaign were fined a total of €24,000, while the campaign’s leaders, the Background Society for LGBTQI Rights and Amnesty International Hungary, were each fined around €8,000 (Uitz, 2022). These cases clearly demonstrate how far the Hungarian government is willing to go in its fight against civil society in its fourth consecutive term of building an illiberal Christian democracy.
Under the leadership of prime minister Viktor Orbán, Hungary has witnessed the consolidation of an illiberal democracy, characterised by the appropriation of democratic procedures, the emphasis on national, conservative values in opposition to gender equality and open civil society portrayed as an existential threat to the survival of the nation. Women’s issues have been gradually substituted with family issues and institutions tasked with promoting gender equality have been replaced by those focusing on family and demographic issues.
Women’s rights have been particularly affected by the legal and policy changes implemented by the Hungarian government. Government-sponsored amendments to the Fundamental Law, the introduction of the Family Protection Act, the abolishment of Equal Treatment Authority, the rejection of the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, the new national curriculum in public education steeped in government propaganda and the laws restricting the activities of human rights NGO are among the main factors undermining the protection of women’s rights in Hungary. Moreover, the lack of a national strategy for preventing and combating VAW, the lack of provision on hate speech against women and the lack of consultation with human rights NGOs in policy-making processes further aggravate the situation.
Despite some marginal progress in terms of the gender equality index and some positive developments toward the protection of women’s rights noted by the CEDAW, such as the extension of the parental leave for both parents in 2023 or amendments to the Criminal Code to define rape on the basis of the lack of voluntary consent of the victim (CEDAW, 2023), the journey towards achieving true gender equality in Hungary remains a significant challenge in the face of the current political climate. The future of Hungarian democracy and women’s rights will depend on the interplay between domestic and international forces, and the determination and resilience of civil society to fight for change.
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