International Women’s Day on 8 March serves as a stark reminder of persisting gender inequalities: violence against women and femicides remain a daily grim reality and economic independence for women is still a distant aspiration.
This is due to the strong segregation of the labour market, unequal pay and the fact that the burden of unpaid care work mainly falls on the shoulders of women.
In addition, women remain largely excluded from decision-making positions in politics and the economy, which would present the possibility to change these structural inequalities.
The EU was once an engine for gender equality policies, giving new impetus to Member States, harmonising their efforts and thus making them more powerful in the process.
However, in recent years, our common efforts have been reduced to a mere battle against backlashes. Instead of working to introduce measures to reduce discrimination and inequalities, we found ourselves having to justify the need for gender equality policies.
In 2015, our strong demand for a common European framework, the EU Gender Equality Strategy, was ignored.
“Instead of working on the introduction of measures to reduce discrimination and inequalities, we found ourselves having to justify the need for gender equality policies”
Many Member States tried to introduce laws attacking and regressing women’s rights and EU directives stayed stuck in the Council (for example, the women on boards directive), while others were only adopted after being watered down (such as the work-life balance directive).
Thanks to the strong movements of citizens in some Member States, the potential regressions in a number of countries, for example on sexual and reproductive health and rights, could not be adopted.
Demands for total equality and additional measures to attain this could not be silenced. Nor could be the political will.
The new European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, earlier this month proposed her ambitious plan for the next five years on how to tackle the inequalities and discrimination that persist between women and men.
The fact that the proposal came during the first 100 days of office can be seen as a clear political signal to back the fight for gender equality, particularly in these difficult times.
The plan, including common goals and necessary measures in the area of women’s rights and gender equality in the EU, defines the steps to end gender-based violence and stereotypes, to ensure equal participation and opportunities in the labour market.
This will include pay transparency, in order to make equal pay for equal work a reality and to finally achieve gender balance in decision-making positions.
Furthermore, it champions the idea of equal carers and equal earners, proposing measures that make it possible for women and men to equitably share paid and unpaid work.
“The fact that the proposal came during the first 100 days of office can be seen as a clear political signal to back the fight for gender equality, particularly in these difficult times”
The principle of gender mainstreaming in all EU policies will be implemented through the newly created Task Force for Equality, and the Commission is planning to closely observe Member States’ policies and their impacts on gender equality, for example in areas such as taxation.
I particularly welcome the commitment to fight gender bias and stereotypes - one of the main reasons for discrimination. The intersectional approach, concentrating efforts on women and men in all their diversity, is a much-needed approach in order to make a real difference.
In addition, the strategy is designed to be continuously expandable, with space for additional measures and targets that may emerge in the coming years.
This makes it a flexible instrument, open to new developments and the necessary reactions and measures.
This is also a clear call to the European Parliament and Member States as well as to women’s rights organisations: the strategy is not set in stone and contributions during the years to come will be welcome. At the European Parliament, we are seizing this opportunity immediately.
As a member of the committee for women’s rights and gender equality, I have recently started working on an initiative report on the EU Gender Equality Strategy, which will take a closer look at its measures to identify other possible actions.
One thing is clear: the proposed strategy itself can only be a beginning, considering the backlash against women’s rights and gender equality policies that we are witnessing across Europe.
Thus, the implementation of the strategy needs to be as efficient and comprehensive as the text itself. We cannot afford to lose any more time in the fight for equality; our citizens are counting on us.
The Istanbul Convention must urgently be ratified, or - if it remains blocked - other legal measures to eliminate violence against women must be set in motion as soon as possible.
Pay transparency measures need to get underway, in order to finally deliver on the promise of equal pay that was already made last century.
The gender equality strategy can only be the beginning of a new chapter in EU gender equality policy - let’s fill it with life.