Radio WIBG: Sofia Tzitzikou: In Greece, despair is quietly settling in

Sofia Tzitzikou

Sofia Tzitzikou

Sofia Tzitzikou, the acting president of UNICEF Greece draws attention to the quiet suffering of women, children and vulnerable people in Greece caused by economic manipulations.

With the best wishes of 2016 that everyone exchanges comes the true reality that goes beyond the turning page of the calendar. In Greece, nothing has been resolved and the measures that were imposed upon the population following the third memorandum are, as anticipated, aggravating the conditions of life for all, and even more so for the already vulnerable. As Sofia regrets, no policies are oriented toward the population in its individual and human representation. Nothing positive seems attainable at the moment, and a sentiment of despair washes over young people.

Notwithstanding, the UN report: Effects of foreign debt and Other Related Financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights, that demonstrates and analyses the delirious effects of the system of debt, the harsh restructuring policies still go on.

Here is Sofia Tzitzikou who reminds us that the real danger is to become accustomed to such situations.


(Photo Credit: Brigitte Marti) (Interview conducted by Brigitte Marti)

A new beginning for Greece and for Europe starts today!


In Greece, the new government is bringing optimism to many. I talked with Sofia Tzitzikou the vice president of UNICEF Greece and a dedicated activist for health rights. As a pharmacist she became one of the key volunteers to run a community clinic in Athens that has served the population made destitute after the scandal of the speculative coup on Greece. The Troika was sent with no legitimacy to implement neoliberal structural adjustment program renamed austerity measures.

Sofia first said that the election of Syriza gave her a sentiment of optimism, although she was aware of external and internal powerful pressures from Capital, represented by investors and speculators of all sorts who participated to the destruction of Greece.

She described the reaction in Athens after the election as full of emotion rather than pure joy. “They could not believe what happened,” she said. The evening of the election some in the streets asked, “Is it a dream?” The crowd was not jubilant as for a soccer game. Instead of honking, there was a great lucidity that there will be no magic to recovery. Sofia senses that a new solidarity has been formed through the suffering of the past years. Actually today, 70% of Greeks are convinced that the new prime minister and his team will succeed.

Certainly the women cleaners of the finance minister were aware of this new solidarity. They resisted the pressure of the establishment and challenged the previous government of Antonis Samaras that envisioned privatization and complete removal of labor protection as the future for Greece. The Supreme Court was supposed to decide their case. Instead the new government of Alexis Tsipras re-employed them immediately. It also reestablished electricity to the 300 000 households who could not afford it and raised the minimum wage to the level it was before.

People have been unified in the darkness of unemployment and attacks against unions. In this context the health care system erased about 40 % of the population from the system, immediately depriving them of medical care. Women were not guaranteed any sexual or reproductive health. To the scandal of some, women not able to deliver their babies in a safe manner.

According to Sofia, the country is in ruins and needs to rebuild.

The new government’s first symbolic action was to remove the anti riot barricades that were placed in front of the parliament to block the anti austerity demonstrators. Another immediate measure was to stop the privatization of the public domains such as the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki and the electricity services. They also eliminated the co-pay in public hospitals. Then, the new government declared the end of “Xenia Zeus” a program reported by Human Rights Watch as an abusive crack down on migrants. These symbolic and people-oriented decisions brought confidence needed in order to continue the necessary changes.

Sofia’s only regret is that women don’t hold any of the key ministries of new government: “That is a handicap, I don’t want to be against but it would have been more positive.” Still, Tasia Christodoulopoulou, the new Migration Minister, wants to grant Greek citizenship to all children born in Greece to end this state of no rights for migrants’ children born in Greece.

Sofia recognized that to see Zoé Konstantopoulou becoming the youngest president of the parliament elected with the greatest number of votes in the history of Greece compensated a little for the minimal women’s representation in the government. Zoé Konstantopoulou has been active on every front since her first election at the parliament. She testified in the documentary “Canaries in the Coal Mine.”

As the president of the parliament she pledged to combat corruption. She wants to reopen judicial affairs that have been unlawfully forgotten. This would end the privileges that have degraded parliament over the past years. One example of this degradation is the armaments scandal, involving German companies, occurring while pension and salaries were being amputated. Konstantopoulou is calling for transparency and participation of the social actors and the removal of the formal elite that hold no parliamentary positions. She also will reconstitute the commission on the Nazi war reparations and German debt to Greece. Her program is ambitious but she has proven in the past that she pursues what she believes to be the best for the country.

Sofia expressed confidence but warned, “The feminist movement has even more responsibility now that it can organize. It is the right time to present propositions based on solidarity.” She recognized that solidarity in Europe is crucial against neoliberal powers. Greece is showing the rest of Europe that civil society is still alive and democratic and there is an alternative to the austerity measures and the rule of the market and its oligarchs.

Sofia explained that the urgency is the questions of women’s rights and protection as they have been the first victims of the austerity measures. This is why they are joining the European Caravan of the World March of Women that is “working to build a feminist, solidarity-based economy, one that alters existing patterns of production and reproduction, distribution and consumption”. Sofia Tzitzikou concluded, “Ca commence maintenant” (“It starts today!”)


(Photo Credit: Lefteris Piatarakis/AP)

Deprivation in Greece … just an emotional issue???

“It has become impossible to give birth in public hospitals,” Sofia Tzitzikou told me in a recent phone interview. She has been organizing and running community clinics in Athens since the 2010 financial coup against the Greece. She also recently appeared in the documentary, The Canaries in the Coal Mine.

Until recently in Greece, women in labor did not have to worry about safe deliveries, thanks to an efficient public health care system. Since 2010 the steamroller of structural reforms directed by the Troika of financiers – the European Central Bank (ECB) the European Union, and the IMF – has dismantled that public system. The financial attack on Greece has produced a deadly correlation of high unemployment rate and elimination of the social safety net.  Women, children and elderly people have been hit this hardest. The Troika demanded cuts and then more cuts of public services in exchange for loans supposed to restore the solvency of the country. Consequently, Sofia explains, the cost of health care represents now only 1.5% of the national budget, and the `hope’ is that it will go as low as 1% while the military budget has been increased.

Recently, Jeroen Disselbloem, President of the Eurogroup, said he hopes to have completed the current examination of the economic adjustment program of the country very soon. In the 1980s, structural adjustments programs became the only formula for development. Now, it’s `economic adjustment.’ Whatever the name, these plans have destabilized emerging countries, and crushed unions and public health care systems with dire consequences for women and reproductive and health rights.

The Eurogroup, in its pursuit of `economic growth’, is blind to the suffering of the Greek population. As Sofia noted, “This means violently taking over the right to health, to life, as children are not vaccinated because their parents have lost their jobs;” the unemployment rate is currently close to 40%.

According to Sofia, the State now covers the fees for home delivery but not for maternity hospital care. Strong protests have forced public hospitals to reopen their doors to women in labor.  The bill will be sent to the tax system. Thus, women who are already extremely vulnerable incur a new level of debt just for giving birth. For Maurizzio Lazzarato,  “Debt constitutes the most deterritorialized and the most general power relation through which the neoliberal power bloc institutes its class struggle…” I would add gender struggle as well.

Since the ransack of Greek society by globalized financial power, the wages of those still employed has dropped 40%. Sofia tells me women are paid in kind in places such as supermarkets. Giving birth without health care coverage costs 600 Euros for a regular delivery and 1300 Euros for a C-section. In addition, explains Sofia, “Abortion rates have increased. Do women really choose?  Now we count three abortions for one birth … Childbirth is not a business, every one has the right to have or not have children.”

As we were talking on the phone, Sofia was interrupted several times to answer demands for medications no longer available in public hospitals: “Can you imagine, we as community clinics are asked to supply medications for public hospitals.” She has seen people abandon treatments because they cannot afford them. The suicide rate has been multiplied by four in three years.

Inequality is visibly on the rise, and for the first time, she says, we have deaths that were totally preventable. Women, again, are the most vulnerable. Sofia comments, “The State does not exist anymore. We are a country in regressive development.” The Troika is pushing for the privatization of education and health care. These privatizations produce more inequality. Additionally, there is little accountability in privately run services based on market logic. Sofia strongly opposes this dismantling of the State. She demands the government to be accountable for its decisions.

As vice president of UNICEF for Greece, Sofia was invited to the recent annual convention of the European Platform Against Poverty and Social Exclusion.  Although Sofia recognized that the convention broached important issues, she also noticed the presence of George Soros, one of the architects of the attack against Greece. He was the keynote speaker on “Roma and marginalized populations.” We both commented on his philanthropist high profile that allows him to be both arsonist and firefighter simultaneously.

Conference panels expressed the obligation of member States not to allow austerity over health services, and that the protection of children was central to this year’s platform.

In a workshop entitled “Ensuring adequate access to health care in times of austerity,” a Greek consultant to the Minister of Health in Greece gave the State line. On the panel, Sofia responded that his presentation in no way reflected the reality neither on the ground nor in the data. She explained the realities of poverty in Greece. She introduced the UNICEF and Athens’ University report “The State of Children in Greece 2013” released in May 2013. In Greece, 600 000 children live below the poverty line; 322 000 suffer nutritional deficiency. She pointed out the statistical data on social community clinics. She emphasized that it’s not enough to talk about generalities and that the State was absent.

The panelist angrily tried to belittle her, saying that she approached this question from an emotional perspective.

Sofia retorted: “I take that as a compliment when we persistently fight for the rights of people.”