The BBC World Service launches a global project for women, to coincide with this week's UN conference in Beijing, writes Reva Klein. In Romania, certain habits die hard. The Ceausescus may be nothing more than a bad memory, but the so-called democratised state bureaucracy upholds many unsavoury traditions of the bad old days including a parliamentary system that is the most male-dominated in the whole of Europe.
Which makes Oana Lungescu's radio programmes on women's issues, aptly titled The Silent Majority, something of a milestone for Romanian listeners. Lungescu is one of 28 producers, most of them women, who have been commissioned by the BBC World Service's education department to make programmes that will coincide with and reflect issues raised at United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing this week.
All the World Service producers for the Women in the World series are native speakers of the countries which are the focus of their programmes. Jenny Stevens, education co-ordinator for the World Service, commissioned the series from programme makers who, in her words, "are very committed and know what they're talking about".
Some have demonstrated that commitment in potentially dangerous situations. A Muslim woman producer in the Pashto service (an Afghan language) needed an armed escort to cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The programmes made in Mandarin compare the position of women in China with that of women in Finland and India, a subject that required tact alongside professional integrity. Other programmes delve into social issues that are ordinarily shrouded in silence because of oppressive regimes, religious and cultural taboos, or all of these combined.
The Hindi series looks at the ineffectuality of many of the Indian laws relating to women, because of the failure to implement them. For Latin America, the five 30-minute programmes in Spanish similarly look at how the law works against women and, moreover, what can be done to change the legal status quo. As well as considering equal opportunities and the women's movement, the Russian programmes take a rare look at the widespread problem of domestic violence. "Many producers say that the issues they have covered have never been aired in their countries," says Stevens.
The producers' brief was to concentrate on issues relevant to their particular locality. So for Russian language listeners in central Asia there is a series comprising 12 programmes giving information and advice on pregnancy and childbirth. Russia's maternal and post-natal mortality rates, as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, are uncommonly high. In a state in which health education is scarce and social and living conditions for all but the elite are very low, the producer has taken on the task of public service broadcasting at its most straightforward level.
Others have taken a similar tack. The 25 Arabic programmes cover women and the home, education, work, health and the law in an attempt to inform and raise understanding of women's role and rights in society. Many other programmes, including those in Indonesian, Vietnamese, Thai, Nepalese, Bengali, Persian and Swahili look at the changing role of women in each of those societies.
These programmes constitute the most ambitious project that the World Service's education department has undertaken so far. Integral to the project is the recycling of the programmes to other broadcasters and institutions, free of charge.
"They will be available as a resource for other educa'tional oppportunities, " says Stevens. "Wherever they are used, they should provoke discussion and debate, particularly in those areas where these kinds of issues aren't discussed in the local media either because of political sensitivities or because of male domination of the media."