Committee guide: FEMM fighting the global backlash against women

In these increasingly challenging and unstable times, Parliament's women's rights and gender equality committee is ready to lead the fight for equality, says Mary Honeyball.

Mary Honeyball | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Mary Honeyball

18 Apr 2017

Gender equality is one of the founding principles of the European Union, having been included in the 1957 treaty of Rome. The women's rights and gender equality committee plays an important role in the European Parliament and the EU promoting gender equality and working to make the European institutions fairer and more diverse.

The refugee crisis poses special issues for women fleeing war and persecution. I was honoured to draft a report on women refugees and asylum seekers, which then became a European Parliament resolution on International Women's Day on 8 March last year.

Women and children now make up the majority of those refugees reaching Europe by sea. Gender-based violence is often the reason behind a woman's initial decision to leave. 

Violence is also a common experience for women refugees in transit, while trafficking for sexual or labour exploitation is rife. Criminal networks are taking advantage of the lack of safe passage for asylum seekers and refugees into the EU; 96 per cent of trafficking victims are women and girls.

The resolution calls for gender-specific training for staff, including comprehensive training on sexual violence, trafficking and female genital mutilation (FGM); gender-segregated sleeping and sanitation facilities and the right to request female interviewers and interpreters; access to gender-sensitive health services including prenatal and postnatal care; childcare provisions during screening and asylum interviews; and informing women of their right to make an independent application for asylum. 

It also seeks to end the detention of children, pregnant women seeking asylum and survivors of rape and sexual violence and trafficking as well as focusing on integration in the labour market.

One key priority will be the EU ratification of the Istanbul convention on violence against women. 45 per cent of all women in Europe have been subject to and suffered from gender based violence. It is estimated that the total cost of domestic violence within the 28 member states could be as high as €16bn. 

Violence against women has a huge impact on victims and also imposes a significant cost on society. According to a study by the European Added Value Assessment, the annual cost of gender-based violence is estimated at €228bn in 2011, 1.8 per cent of EU GDP.

The Istanbul convention on preventing and combatting violence against women is the first legally binding instrument in Europe on violence against women and is the most far reaching international treaty to tackle violence against women as a serious violation of human rights. All EU member states have signed the convention, but only 14 have ratified it.

Looking to the future, there are two immediate challenges. Both concern the global backlash against women which is of great concern to our committee.

The Polish government has recently tried to restrict access to the morning-after pill. This has been available over the counter since 2015, in accordance with EU law. If the bill is approved by the Parliament, it will become 'prescription only'. However, this would render it utterly ineffective as it has to be taken with minimum delay.

The measure comes after a failed effort to widen the ban on abortion to include cases where a woman has been the victim of rape or incest, despite the existing laws already being some of the most restrictive in Europe. Not satisfied with this, the Polish government is also trying to limit access to oral contraception.

A resolution from committee members Maria Arena and Constance Le Grip for this March's 61st UN Commission on the Status of Women, calls on European governments to assume their responsibilities at the international level and demonstrate leadership following US President Donald Trump's ban on funding for NGOs providing family-planning services and information on abortion.

The committee is always looking to communicate with European citizens. This is becoming increasingly important, given the global backlash against women's rights and nationalist movements including the Front National in France and events such as Brexit. The Front National is extremely unlikely to do anything for women.

Meanwhile, in the UK there are virtually no current national government initiatives on gender equality. The only progress comes from the EU and once this has gone, it will be difficult to generate any at all. Women in Britain will therefore lag further and further behind their sisters in Europe.

Communicating positively about the work of the women's rights and gender equality committee has not been made any easier by the Commission's Refit exercise. Not only has the quantity of legislation declined, but some important items, such as maternity leave and pay, have been deleted and will not be pursued. Given the importance of adequate maternity provision, the committee strongly disagreed with the Commission's action.

The committee has many items on its immediate agenda - equal pay between women and men, work-life balance reconciling work and family life and women in rural areas to name only a few. 

We will also continue to take a keen interest in international developments such as Russia's decriminalisation of domestic violence. In an increasingly unstable world, it is more and more important for the women's rights and gender equality committee to stand up for the rights of women.


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