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Heeding call of the west

In Germany, exodus of young women is shifting demographics.

WITTSTOCK, Germany - Silke Gawenda's hometown has its charms - ramparts and timbered houses from the Middle Ages, and quiet streets lined with linden trees.

A little too quiet for the bright 18-year-old, who is counting the days until high school graduation so she can leave Wittstock for college in the more prosperous west - joining an unprecedented exodus of young women from what used to be communist East Germany.

"Wittstock is so dull, I just want to get out of here," said Gawenda, who wants to study graphic design. "There's no future here for me - no jobs, no night life and no way to get a good education."

More than 60 towns in the east with populations of more than 5,000 have fewer than 80 women per 100 men, according to a study released over the summer by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. That compares with a ratio of 51.1 percent women to 48.9 percent men for all of Germany.

Why women? That's a topic of intense discussion. Steffen Kroehnert, the sociologist who did the report, points to female-headed households and a lack of male role models in education.

"Young men in eastern Germany don't have any male role models and are not encouraged to strive for a better education," Kroehnert said. "Much more than in the west, most kindergarten and schoolteachers are female, and more often families are raised by single moms."

Helga Berger, who works for the town's youth-services office, said she found Wittstock's young men to be passive. "The guys in rural East Germany are real mama's boys," she said. "If they don't have a strong alpha animal to tell them what to do, they won't do anything - the girls here are just so much more flexible and open-minded."

While the explanations are open to question - single mothers and female teachers are hardly just a German phenomenon - the shortage of women is palpable.

The mayor of the small eastern town of Freital, near Dresden, is offering $2,800 and help finding a job and an apartment for any woman aged 18 to 39 who moves there. And the town of Strehla had only one contestant this year for the title of Strehla Nixe, or Mermaid - the town's tourism ambassador.

More than 1.5 million people have left eastern Germany since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, most of them to the former West Germany. In the early days more men left, but that changed quickly after German unification. Since then, two-thirds of those leaving were female, according to Kroehnert.

The government recently promised a $5.5 million emergency program, including improved libraries, public transport and medical treatment, to stem the flow, but critics say what's needed is long-term investment to create jobs.

In Wittstock, population 16,000, about 3,500 people have left since Germany was reunified in 1990, and unemployment remains around 20 percent. Government statistics show that 1,745 men but only 1,418 women in the 18-34 demographic live there.

Many old buildings have been fixed up, but dozens are vacant and crumbling. Shop windows of former grocery and clothing stores stand empty. On the market square, pedestrians are mostly senior citizens, while groups of young men sit drinking beer at an outdoor coffee shop.

Under communism, everyone had a job, motivated or not. In Wittstock, more than 2,000 workers - 95 percent of them female - lost their jobs after the shutdown of a formerly state-owned clothing factory in the early 1990s. Yet even the women seemed to cope better.

Dirk Scharfenort, 36, was jobless for several years before opening Scharfe Ecke, or Sharp Corner, a bar where unemployed Wittstock men hang out. "A lot of people who come here are without work, angry and right-wing," Scharfenort said. They also tend to have a primal attachment to Wittstock, he said. "We just don't want to leave our hometown."