Frances Fitzgerald interview: Breaking down barriers

A staunch defender of women’s rights, Frances Fitzgerald believes we are entering a new era of equality. She tells Lorna Hutchinson that despite recent setbacks, fresh momentum for change is building.
Frances Fitzgerald | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

02 Mar 2021

In her decades-long career as a politician and vocal advocate for women’s rights, Irish EPP Group deputy Frances Fitzgerald has witnessed a shift in the fight for gender equality - from the inspiring Beijing Declaration 25 years ago to the shocking rollback in women’s rights in some EU Member States, particularly in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the current situation appears bleak, Fitzgerald is optimistic that real and lasting change is on its way.

She explains, “We have ‘unfinished democracies’ - democracies where women are not at the decision-making table, where women are still paid less than men (the gender pay gap in the EU currently stands at 14.1 percent) and where women are still subject to desperate violence in their own homes. If we are to really move towards equality, we must address these challenges, but also less obvious barriers to equality, such as inequitable budgetary allocations. If we are to really advance gender equality, to quote US President Joe Biden, ‘Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.’”

“I see cause for hope. Parliamentarians are standing up to authoritarian leaders, NGOs are shining a light on hidden places and women everywhere are taking to the streets and the ballot box and saying ‘this will not stand’”

Fitzgerald says that some of the more obvious and brutal attempts to target women and their rights can be seen in countries across the world today from ‘strong men’ politicians such as Donald Trump, Jarosław Kaczyński and Rodrigo Duterte. “This narrative is just the tip of the iceberg as everyday sexism can, over time, develop into very real attacks on women’s rights. However, I see cause for hope. Parliamentarians are standing up to authoritarian leaders, NGOs are shining a light on hidden places and women everywhere are taking to the streets and the ballot box and saying, ‘this will not stand’.”

“There is a strong worldwide movement showing a new determination to fight for equality, from the #MeToo movement, to the creative arts and politics, to male champions and brave women all over the world - there is a renewed momentum for change. We need to consistently call out inequality wherever we see it and we need targets, monitoring and consistent activism. We still live in a deeply sexist world despite all the progress we have already made. Our EU institutions are leading the way on equality in our global world.”

Fitzgerald’s report entitled “The gender perspective in the COVID-19 crisis and post-crisis period”, examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and proposing measures to protect women’s rights and enhance gender equality during and after the pandemic, was adopted in January by a large majority in Parliament. The overriding theme of the report is that women have been disproportionately hit by the COVID-19 crisis, and that this, in turn, will lead to even greater inequalities between men and women.

“The pandemic continues to have a differential effect on women and men … Women have been more vulnerable to domestic violence and the socioeconomic consequence of lockdowns. Women are more likely to be on the frontline as healthcare workers and are more likely when working from home to be combining their job, childcare and housework”

Fitzgerald offers insight into her report, explaining, “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and brought about new devastating impacts. The degree to which COVID-19 has affected people is differential depending on gender, socio-economic status, race and other factors. The pandemic continues to have a differential effect on women and men. Initial figures tell us that older men in particular are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and are more likely to die from it. However, women have been more vulnerable to domestic violence and to the socioeconomic consequence of lockdowns. Women are more likely to be on the frontline as healthcare workers (76 percent of healthcare workers in the EU are women) and are more likely when working from home to be combining their job, childcare and housework.”

She adds, “The report outlines specific actions and recommendations for the European Commission and Member States to take in their response to the COVID-19 crisis on the collection of gender disaggregated data, domestic violence, gender-sensitive budgeting, healthcare and the economy . If we are to build back better post-COVID we must support the needs of women and take account of all of the differentials. The report also urges that when we examine our healthcare systems post-COVID, we ensure that we are adequately prepared in the event of another pandemic. This includes ensuring that never again will essential therapies such as cancer treatment and access to sexual and reproductive health services be paused. We must also consider female workers and those who have brought us through the crisis: the 76 percent of healthcare workers who are women; the 93 percent of childcare workers that are women; the 95 percent of domestic cleaners who are women; the 86 percent of personal care workers who are women, and the 82 percent of cashiers who are women. The least we can do is ensure fair and just rates of pay. The publication of the Commission’s pay transparency proposal will help in this regard.”

“There is a strong worldwide movement showing a new determination to fight for equality, from the #metoo movement, to the creative arts and politics, to male champions and brave women all over the world - there is a renewed momentum for change”

Turning to the issue of gender-based violence, which she calls “a scourge on our society”, Fitzgerald points out that domestic violence reports have increased exponentially during the past year of pandemic-related lockdowns. She says, “With record numbers of victims reaching out for help and support, Member States must pivot services to help and support them, ensuring that law enforcement and the courts can take any necessary action, and empowering civil society to do their essential work of hosting phone lines and running shelters. The EU must also push ahead with our priorities in combatting violence against women, ratifying the Istanbul Convention, adding violence against women to the list of Eurocrimes and putting in place a strong legal framework to tackle all forms of gender-based violence. The excuses from countries not ratifying the Istanbul Convention are paper thin.”

Asked for her thoughts on the recent ruling of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, which has imposed a near-total ban on abortions in Poland, despite mass protests across the country, Fitzgerald calls it “just the latest in a series of moves by the Polish Government to suppress the rule of law and to challenge the liberal society that is the foundation of our European Union.” She goes on, “This decision to limit the rights of women was made by members of a court that were not appointed in line with the rule of law - therefore an illegitimate court. The EU should treat this as an attack on the rule of law, and act accordingly. The Commission has done its part, but the impetus to act now lies with Member States. The politics of compromise is integral in this business, but the EU cannot ever compromise on its values. The rule of law conditionality in the 2021-2027 MFF [Multiannual Financial Framework] is a very positive and concrete step, but it also has to be combined with actual movement on Article 7. The political message of Article 7 is just as important as the real-life consequences of the rule of law conditionality.”

Now that the EU finally has a mechanism that will make access to funds from the EU budget conditional on respecting the rule of law and EU fundamental values, Fitzgerald is hopeful that this will help to convince Member States such as Hungary and Poland to respect EU values. She says, “Money always talks, and when there is a threat of the tap being turned off, it can elicit some consequences. However as with most political decisions, the quality of the result is dependent on the implementation. The implementation of the agreement by the Commission and the Council will be essential. This time the Council cannot fail as they have with Article 7, otherwise we send a message that in Europe, those who violate the rule of law can operate with impunity.”

“The proposed triggering of article 16 was a mistake. I do appreciate that it was immediately corrected but it is extremely unfortunate and regrettable that the incident occurred. Article 16 has the ongoing potential to create political challenges north, south, east and west”

A veteran politician, first in her native Ireland, where she served as a parliamentarian for over 20 years for the Fine Gael party, Fitzgerald was elected to the European Parliament in 2019. She explains what brought her to politics in the first place, saying, “Having a background in social policy and social work, I have always been interested in equality, diversity and inclusion. As Chair of the National Women’s Council in Ireland (1988- 92) and as Vice-President of the European Women’s Lobby I had continuous engagement with government. I have enjoyed the privilege as a Member of Parliament and Minister of initiating and creating change. Politics at its best needs change to better the lives of citizens. As a mother of three sons, I have always understood the support we need to combine work and family life.” She says of the European Parliament, “I have always been a great believer in Europe, the power of the EU and the potential for impact and change of countries working together to solve common challenges. Since the EU struck down Ireland’s marriage bar (restricting the employment of married women) in 1973, I have been a great believer in the EU and what it can do for women.”

She adds, “I never cease to be amazed at the expertise, quality of research and the range of consultation in the European Parliament. The strength of 27 different countries working together cannot be underestimated. Despite having served in the Council of the EU, I must say I have enjoyed gaining a deeper understanding of the complexities of the approach to equality and other areas across Europe in respect to different cultures and national competences.”

Alongside her fellow Irish EPP Group MEPs, Fitzgerald recently signed a letter addressed to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, expressing serious concern at the recent incident in which the Commission proposed triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol and then quickly backtracked on the decision. In the letter the deputies insisted that the error could not be repeated and warned that the Northern Ireland Protocol was not up for renegotiation.

Fitzgerald says, “The proposed triggering of Article 16 was a mistake. I do appreciate that it was immediately corrected but it is extremely unfortunate and regrettable that the incident occurred. Article 16 has the ongoing potential to create political challenges North, South, East and West. The Protocol on Northern Ireland is the solution and not the problem and it must be implemented fully. We must ensure the least possible disruption to people’s lives in Northern Ireland whilst protecting the Good Friday Agreement. It is now about both the EU and UK working together to find practical solutions to any issues that have arisen in Northern Ireland due to Brexit, within the existing structures of the Protocol.”

Nevertheless, while acknowledging that the Commission made “a very serious mistake”, Fitzgerald emphasises that the solidarity shown by the EU to Ireland over recent years has been steadfast and that this will not change. “Ireland will never forget the support we received and continue to receive from Europe - Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the College of Commissioners, my colleagues in the European Parliament and of course Michel Barnier - and for their understanding of the consequences of Brexit and consistently doing everything to ensure the continued peace and stability on the island of Ireland. We will be forever grateful for this unwavering support.” 

Read the most recent articles written by Lorna Hutchinson - Von der Leyen: SofaGate happened ‘because I am a woman’

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