The European Parliament’s Gender Equality Week, held for the first time this year, could not have taken place at a more appropriate time. Centred around the presentation of the Gender Equality Index for the year 2020, the original idea of Gender Equality Week was to honour the Beijing Declaration adopted 25 years ago at the UN Conference on Women’s Rights.
Never before have women’s rights been summarised so comprehensively on the international stage. Women’s rights - at least on paper - have been human rights ever since. But what it is worth 25 years on, we can see today in the middle of Europe, and the verdict is sobering.
One in three women experiences physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. On average in the EU, women earn 16 percent less than men, and they are seldom seen in the boardrooms of listed companies. In several Eastern European countries, outdated images of women and families are on the increase once again as they position themselves against the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention which seeks to end violence against women.
“In many cases, women have had to deal with their workload, while looking after children and the elderly, as well as the household. And when the pressure on families and relationships increases, the situation becomes highly dangerous for women”
In Poland, the right to legal abortion has de facto been abolished and hate crimes against homosexual and transgender people are decreed by the State in the form of so-called LGBT-free zones. In Slovakia, women are forced to listen to the heartbeat of their child before an abortion, and in Hungary, family policy is made with stove and child bonuses. A new Christian fundamentalism is on the rise in Europe and it is trying to take control of women’s lives and bodies.
Meanwhile, the health, economic and social crisis in the form of the Coronavirus pandemic has hit women disproportionately. Home office, home-schooling and homecare was and remains female. In many cases, women have had to deal with their workload, while looking after children and the elderly, as well as the household. And when the pressure on families and relationships increases, the situation becomes highly dangerous for women.
During the COVID-19 crisis, the level of domestic violence cases reported across the EU has risen by a third, while new - medically necessary - lockdowns and restrictions will come into effect across Europe in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, women are also disproportionately affected by Coronavirus-related unemployment and precarious employment. Coming back to the Gender Equality Index, for 2020 the EU scores 67.9 points out of 100.
Looking at the progress made in comparison to previous years, at this snail’s pace, it would take at least 60 years to get to 100 points in all fields. And while 2080 is certainly too late to wait to achieve our goals, with COVID-19 we even have to be cautious about these mini-improvements; it is quite clear that COVID-19 will exacerbate inequalities and put the achievements of previous decades at risk.
Therefore, all of our recovery efforts have to be gender mainstreamed, so as not to push the heroes of the pandemic - women - into a long-lasting crisis afterwards. The burden of unpaid care work, the segregation of work sectors, the alarming numbers of violent acts against women, and the lack of women in leadership roles will not solve themselves; we need action by all European Union countries, and we need binding measures. Quotas for company boards have had the biggest impact on advancing gender equality. Building bridges over the care, pay and pension gaps is the way forward.
The lack of action on achieving equality in the last recent decades is now proving detrimental to women. We must use this pandemic and create chances; instead of going back to the 1950s, we need to make this the century of women. This will take radical and transformative measures to work on the stereotypes that influence our lives and to rethink our economy. We need to put care at its heart, to give it the value it deserves instead of pushing women into the roles of housewives and submissive mothers.
“The burden of unpaid care work, the segregation of work sectors, the alarming numbers of violent acts against women, and the lack of women in leadership roles will not solve themselves; we need action by all EU countries, and we need binding measures”
Our policies need to make women more independent, more self-confident, freer and stronger. The European Union has always been an important engine for equality and women’s rights. Many of the basic measures in the Member States can be traced back to EU initiatives; the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex - especially when it comes to gender - is enshrined in the Union’s treaties.
And the EU is working in a variety of ways to tackle gender inequalities. The European Parliament must stand against a threatening backlash, be it ideological or due to the Coronavirus crisis, as a protective shield for women’s rights. We must ensure that we bring documents such as the Beijing Declaration back to life and no longer accept when women are given less value than men. Let’s make the 21st century a century for women.